Vigathakumaran: The Lost History of the First Malayalam Movie 

Each year, Mollywood releases more than 150 movies. But how many of us know about the first Malayalam movie ever made? Released in 1928, Vigathakumaran is a silent social drama film. It was written, produced, and directed by J.C Daniel, who is also attributed as the father of the Malayalam Cinema Industry. He has also donned the role of the hero in the movie. Unfortunately, the film has no viable copy which has survived. 

Plot of the movie 

The movie’s plot was modeled on the principles delineated by Aristotle in his work ‘Poetics’ which points to the plot as the soul of the tragedy. Concepts like Perpeteia (an unexpected change/rise in fortune), and anagnorisis (the moment of discovery that reveals the true identity of the character) were extensively used in the movie. The movie also incorporated the elements of Aristotle’s tragedy. Vigathakumaran would have been viewed today as a complex tragedy, thus comprised of peripeteia and anagnorisis. Famous Greek plays like Oedipus, written by Sophocles, are based on the principles of Aristotle. Vigathakumaran has also involved these principles, projecting it as a drama that comes to life as a movie. 

Vigathakumaran: The Lost History of the First Malayalam Movie

The movie’s plot involves Chandarakumar, a rich man kidnapped by the villain Bhoothanathan. Unable to find him, his parents are dejected while he is brought up as a laborer in Ceylon. He soon becomes the British estate owner’s favorite and rises to the superintendent post. During this time, his relative Jayachandan comes to Ceylon and is robbed by Bhoothanathan. Jayachandran and Chandrakumar become close friends. Upon coming to Travancore, Chandrakumar’s sister Sarojam falls in love with Jayachandran, and the two manage to save her from being kidnapped by Bhoothanathan. Post this, a scar on Chandarakumars back leads to the true revelation of his identity, and he is united with his family.

Cast and production 

J. C. Daniel played the character of Jayachandran, while P.K Rosy played the character of Sarojam. Johnson played Bhoothanathan, and Sunder Raj acted in the role of Chandrakumar. 

JC Daniel revolutionized and brought life to Malayalam cinema. His love for movies and martial arts inspired him to create a movie to popularize chelembattam using movies as a medium. Movies were just gaining traction, and the only studios in the country were in Madras and Bombay. He was 15 when he left for Madras to learn about the techniques of filmmaking and production. He was denied permission in Madras, but Daniel traveled to Bombay and learned all he could under the guise of being a teacher who wanted to teach the same to his students. After this, he returned to Travancore to set up the first film studio in Kerala named the Travancore National Pictures. He raised money by selling his land and working on his dream film. He wrote the script of Vigathakumaran, translated as a lost child. He was the film’s actor, producer, director, and editor. Further, a laborer he worked with became the heroine, and his close friends, the supporting cast. 


The silent movie was explained at theatres with the help of an announcement, but the movie soon invited the wrath of the orthodox Hindu groups due to the presence of a woman in the movie. Further, the fact that she was a Dalit playing the role of a Nair woman sparked outrage. She was denied entry into the theatre, and her house was burned down. She fled to Nagercoil, and since then, her whereabouts have been unknown.

Vigathakumaran: The Lost History of the First Malayalam Movie

After the movie was released in Travancore, it was screened in Alleppey, Quilon, and Thrissur. The movie was recieved with much vigor in Alleppey, with JC Daniels traveling to each theatre as he had only one copy of the movie. The film didn’t generate enough revenue pushing Daniel into debt. Unable to raise money, he had to sell the equipment and shut down the studio. Despite this setback, he made one more movie, a documentary titled Adithadi Muri. After this, he went bankrupt and left Trivandrum to seek a living. He spent the rest of his life as a dentist. 

The Kerala Government refused to acknowledge it and honor Daniel since he was born and later settled in Kanyakumari, which then became a part of Tamilnadu. Towards the end of his life, he gave an interview to R Kumaraswamy, the editor of the film magazine Nana,

“Malayalam cinema is a thriving industry now. But never have anyone bothered to recognize me as someone who made a film all by himself in those days. As for the new generation, they don’t know me. But it is not their fault; I soothe myself.

In 1975, after Daniel’s death, The Kerala government established the J.C Daniel Award as a part of the Kerala State Film Awards to honor the lifetime achievements in Malayalam Cinema. He was then instituted as the father of Malayalam cinema. Though many view Vigathakumaran as a failure, it was a grand success at its time, bound by financial failures but managed to pave the way for the Malayalam film industry. 

Vigathakumaran: The Lost History of the First Malayalam Movie

Modern Adaptations 

Vigathakumaran was remade in 2003 and was directed by Kowdiyar Das. The story of Daniel, the man who dedicated his life to Malayalam cinema, has been exemplified through movies like Celluloid starring Prithviraj and Mamta Mohandas, released in 2013, outlining the struggles of Daniel, who plunged into debts to create his movie. Parts of this movie are adapted from the novel Nashta Nayika, written by Vinu Abraham, which focussed on the lost life of P.K Rosy, the first Malayalam heroine and the heroine of Vigathakumaran. But the film faced much criticism due to its subtle references to Malayatoor Ramakrishna Iyer and K Karunakuran, who allegedly worked together to discredit Daniel’s contribution as he was a Nadar (Christian). These claims have been declared baseless, and the former Chief Secretary of Kerala pointed out factual inaccuracies depicted in the film.

While Celluloid was premiered in Kochi, Harris Daniel sat on the last row with his family, unable to contain his emotions and the 77-year-old man was moved to tears. He was J C Daniel’s last surviving son. He traveled from Salem to watch this movie on Kerala soil. Harris Daniel looked back to his childhood days when he would exchange the positive of Vigatahakumaran with his friends in return for Chinnappa stickers as he was a great fan of the Tamil actor P U Chinappa. Slowly he discovered the blue flames that emanated when he burned the positives, which fascinated him. He burnt more of it just to see those blue flames, a blunder as he perceives it now and described how the Malayalam film industry lost its most precious film. 

We may never be able to see Vigathakumaran now, but we can celebrate the life of J C Daniel and the sacrifices he endured to establish Malayalam cinema and do his bit to help it flourish as an entertainment industry for the masses.

Shivani Sarat
Content writer and creator. Author of 'Black Daises', a poetry anthology.

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