Raj Antony Bhaskar or AB Raj, the veteran filmmaker who made several super hit Malayalam films during the period from 1968 to early 1980s, and co-directed the first Sinhalese movie to be filmed entirely in the island country, died of cardiac arrest on Sunday night at his Chennai residence. He was 95.
Born in Madurai in 1929 to Malayali parents who hailed from Alappuzha, Raj started working in films in his early teenage, as an apprentice at Modern Theatres in Salem, the illustrious studio that produced the first Malayalam talkie, Balan.
Under multifaceted TR Sundaram, the founder of Modern Theatres, he learned sound designing, editing and other technical aspects of film-making. In the early 50s, he moved to Srilanka to co-direct Banda Nagarayata Pemineema (Banda Comes To Town, 1953) with Raj Wahab Kashmiri, an Indian-born actor-director who had worked in many Modern Theatres productions.
In the 40s and 50s, collaborative projects between filmmakers, producers and technicians in South India and Sri Lanka were common. The movie was produced by S.M.Nayagam, the founder of Sri Murugan Navakala studios, Sri Lanka’s first fully-developed film studio. The movie’s commercial success prompted Raj to stay back in Sri Lanka.
He directed over six Sinhalese films in the following decade, including Wanamohini which he co-directed with TR Sundaram. During this period, he also worked in the second-unit direction team of David Lean’s war movie, The Bridge Of The River Kwai. In an interview to Mathrubhumi, he said that his successful career in Sinhalese cinema was cut short when the Lankan government placed restrictions on foreigners working in the film field to encourage local talents.
Upon returning to India, he made a string of blockbusters such as Neethi (1971), Marunaattil Oru Malayali (1971) and Sambhavami Yuge Yuge (1972), becoming one of the most reliable commercial filmmakers in Malayalam. His debut Malayalam directorial Kaliyalla Kalyanam (1968), was written by P Balakrishnan and produced by TP Madhavan Nair.
Late filmmaker IV Sasi worked as an art director in this film and later, as an assistant to Raj in Kannur Deluxe (1969). Kannur Deluxe, starring Prem Nazir, is known as the first road movie in Malayalam. Many of his early films like Kannur Deluxe, Danger Biscuit and Lottery Ticket were written and produced by late TE Vasudevan, the winner of the first J.C. Daniel Award constituted by the Kerala government in 1993. One of their films, Ezhuthatha Kadha (1970), won the national award for the best feature film in Malayalam.
One of his notable works, Marunaattil Oru Malayali (1971), written by SL Puram Sadanandan, is a timeless comedy, about a Malayali young man who has to hide his Christian identity to work in a Brahmin restaurant in Chennai as a waiter. It is one of the earliest Malayalam films to talk about unemployed youngsters from the state migrating to big cities in search of work and a better life. Prem Nazir plays the protagonist, Mathew.
Raj was known for his highly efficient working style. He completed his films in minimum days, often in less than 30 days. Some of his films like Danger Biscuit, Irumbazhikal and Adima Changala have intense stunt sequences, highly modern for the time they were made.
Adima Changala (1981), starring Prem Nazir and Vishnuvardhan, was inspired by the Italian Western, Five Men Army (1969). The film is also known for being the debut project of Oscar-winning music composer AR Rahman who played keyboard for composer MK Arjunan master.
Irumbazhikal, an action drama starring Prem Nazir, Jayan and KP Ummer, was made at a time when Raj’s career was passing through a lull. Filmmaker-actor Madhupal Kannambath recalls an unusual poster of the film which had no mention of the director or the producer but a photograph of the three stars. Irumbazhikal went on to become a blockbuster, reviving Raj’s stature in the film industry.
Raj’s final film, Ormikkan Omanikkan (1985), has Mohanlal, Maniyan Pillai Raju and Menaka playing the lead roles. After retiring from film-making, he lived in Chennai with his family, away from the limelight. His daughter Saranya Ponvannan is a national award-winning actress.
Madhupal, who visited the ailing filmmaker in 2018 at his residence, says, “I was told that the director had always been keen to learn about new films and the latest devices in film-making. He would often say that he would never be able to adapt to the time and make a movie again.” Nevertheless, in the vast body of works he has left behind, there are several attestations to his incredible spirit of adventure and his sharp grasp of the common masses, which enriched the history of Malayalam cinema and will continue to enthral generations of cinephiles.