Krishna Kurup, in his mid seventies, and Ammalukutty in her mid sixties have grown old together on their little farm. They are content with their simple life - seeds and fruit, the secrets of culinary art that she has perfected, satisfaction at having seen their children grow up and do well in life. The children settled outside however no longer understand or appreciate the lifestyle their parents love so much. They want to sell the property and move the couple to their own urban homes. But the parents resist this and through them we understand their life together - how she learned to love and understand him, how this has in turn taught her to be strong for herself and him for under his tough exterior he is dependent on her like a child. So when he is taken away from her, she has the strength to contain her grief and to assure her children she can go on living as she has always lived, secure in the knowledge that his spirit will continue to inhabit the piece of earth he loved so deeply, the garden he made for her…
Oru Cheru Punchiri (A Slender Smile…) is Jnanpith Award Winner Dr. M.T. Vasudevan Nair's Sixth Film as a Director. Born in Koodalloor in Kerala in 1933 and widely acclaimed for his substantial body of short stories, novels, travelogues, literary criticism and children's books, he is also extremely well known and respected in Malayalam Cinema having written over sixty screenplays for various filmmakers. His debut film Nirmalayam was awarded the President's Gold Medal for Best Indian Film in 1973. Kadavu, his last film, made in 1991, won a Special Jury Award at the Singapore Film Festival and the Grand Prix at Japan's Okoyama Festival. Oru Cheru Punchiri is a celebration of life, of old age says Dr. M.T. Vasudevan Nair. At a time when the institution of marriage and family life are in the process of total disintegration, this portrayal of an old down-to-earth couple's celebration is meaningful and poignant. In their world we see the child in the adult, the adult in the child, he adds.
For the first time in six films Dr. M.T. Vasudevan Nair has taken someone else's story. The film is based on Telegu Writer Sriramana's short story Mithunam. The theme appealed to him 'MT', as he is popularly known, explains. The central character is seventy-four and his wife is sixty-four and they have been married for 49 years and are still very much in love. This angle is what he liked about the story and since his own work is invariably darksome, he had to resort to Sriramana's story to evoke the humour he wanted in the film.
The film aims to keep everything simple - location, characters, relationships and perceptions on life. The characters thus breathe, speak and act with an uncontrived naturalness. MT admits he enjoyed himself filming this 'simple poignant, heartwarming' story sprinkled with pure, earthy humour. The first and only face that came to him for the central role was Oduvil Unnikrishnan. Since he wanted a fresh face opposite Oduvil and since MT knew Nirmala Sreenivasan, a dancer with some stage experience, she was selected. Both have lived their roles in the film.
The film has been made on an extremely tight budget. In fact the shoestring budget was an attraction for him MT discloses. You don't have that one crore rupees investment hanging around your neck while making the film. Small is beautiful he says of the film made at a budget of under 25 lakhs!
The film was shot on the banks of river Periyar at Parappuran, Puthiyedam, Chovvara, Sreemoolanagaram and Alwaye in Cochin and has been photographed by Sunny Joseph (of Piravi fame). An alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, Sunny was tremendously moved when he first read the script. The first impression he had on reading the script was that of an unhindered, natural flow of a river flowing in an unassumed, simple manner. And the river is an integral character of the film. Thus he has tried to make it the anchoring point of the film in its visual treatment. Also, normally films on old age are full of gloomy, melancholic atmosphere. But Oru Cheru Punchiri was full of effervescence of the celebration of life. Thus visually it needed to have a warm, sunny feel to it. But as luck would have it the shooting schedule of the film was in the thick of the Monsoon! Thus for all the sixteen days of shooting, there was torrential rain causing a loss of 2-4 hours daily. Thus Sunny needed to capture the tiny bits of sunlight breaking through the foliage for the long shots and hiding the rain for the other shots! To quote Sunny,
"It was actually tougher for me to make the rain invisible in this film than it was to make the rain visible in Piravi."
Another problem was the limitation of the location - the interior space was extremely tiny. Almost all the lights he used were placed outside the doors and windows. Hence necessitating a realistic and simple approach for lighting and mis-en-scene, which enhanced the story telling. This approach according to Sunny worked very well particularly in the death scene of the central protagonist - a scene he rates as one of the best death scenes in Indian Cinema.
Summing up his experience Sunny says that though he had to rush through the shooting because of many obstacles, it was after many years that he worked with a director with total understanding. Many a times, both would come up with a similar suggestion simultaneously, a very rare occurrence. To quote him,
"Enough to say that both MT sir and I had a slender smile on of our lips after the preview of Oru Cheru Punchiri!"
Oru Cheru Punchiri has been screened at the third International Film Festival, Mumbai in November 2000 and at the International Film Festival, Kerala in 2001. It has also been selected for the Munich International Film Festival. The film has also been premiered on the Asianet Satellite television channel during Onam 2000 and is currently awaiting a theatrical release.