In the early twentieth century, motion pictures were the object of excitement and curiosity. They were the smartphones of the day. Cinema introduced an innovative way of presenting stories beyond the limitations of a stage performance.
Cinema emerged from a bizarre, yet fascinating invention by the Lyon-based Lumiere Brothers to a groundbreaking industry. After a strenuous week of hard labor, workers frequented the nickelodeons to catch a show. It wasn’t long before a new caste of artists would garner undying veneration from the masses.
Lillian Gish was one of the first movie stars in her day. During the 1910’s and 1920’s, she was the most sought-after actress in Hollywood and her elegance and class was admired by millions. There was also Mae Marsh, Ralph Lewis, and Richard Barthelmess.
Of course, one could never forget Charlie Chaplin, whose signature mustache and comical movements propelled him as a British icon.
In India, the cinematic portrayals of numerous Hindu mythological tales enticed religious devotees, searching for a new way to attract potential followers. Dadasaheb Phalke, credited for producing the first Indian feature film, Raja Harishchandra, was hailed as a celebrity in the streets of pre-independence Bombay.
In the southern Indian kingdom of Travancore, a martial arts-enthusiast, inspired by the feats of Dadasaheb Phalke, embarked on a quest to earn his fame in his own country. He established his own film production company in the capitol city of Trivandrum in 1926 and christened it, Travancore National Pictures. There, he began a project in producing the first feature film from Travancore. His name was J.C. Daniel.
J.C Daniel decided to take a different direction from the films produced in Bombay. He was a Christian living in a religiously-pluralist region. Therefore, he thought it was more suitable to direct a social-themed story called Vigathakumaran (The Lost Child), involving a man’s journey towards reconciliation with his family after being kidnapped as a child.
A female performing artist was necessary to portray the role of the protagonist’s sister. Daniel initially opted for a Bombay-based Anglo-Indian actress named Lana. Unfortunately, due to unresolvable disagreements, Lana was dismissed from the project, leaving Daniel with the task of searching for a new actress.
Meanwhile, within the villages of the Trivandrum region, there was a young woman who performed alongside men in Kakkarashi Nadakam performances, despite her family’s disapproval. Her acting and facial expression were marveled by audience members. Before she knew it, this young woman was approached by Daniel himself, who requested her to be a member of his cast.
This young woman’s name was Rosamma. She was from an untouchable community yet was treated with equal dignity by Daniel, who himself was from a low-caste community (not untouchable). She was renamed by Daniel as ‘Rosy’ and given the role of a Nair woman named Sarojini.
On the 23rd of October, 1930, the film was set to debut at the Travancore Capitol Theatre. The screening as attended by the city’s elite, including Western-educated barristers and Namboothiri Brahmins. Unfortunately, the audacity of a untouchable girl acting the role of a Nair was completely repulsive, causing the Brahmins to ignite a riot.
Rosamma’s family hut was set on fire, forcing the aspiring actress and her family to flee their only home. For many decades, the whereabouts of the family were unknown.
However, according to a journalist named Kunnukuzhi Mani, Rossamma was rescued by a Nagercoil-based Nair lorry driver named Kesava Pillai while escaping her attackers. Kesava Pillai took her to a police station where the incident was reported. The two were married and settled in Nagercoil. In her new home, living her new life, Rosamma, ironically adopting the role of a Nair woman in real-life, had now identified herself as ‘Rajammal’.
The couple had five children. Rosamma intentionally discarded any memories of her past. The children, three of whom are now deceased, are practically ignorant of their mother’s acting career.
This pioneering cinema heroine passed away some time in the late 1980’s without a single mention from a newspaper obituary. Compare her fate to Lillian Gish. Hailed as the First Lady of American Cinema, with a career spanning 75 years in acting, producing and directing, Gish left behind an estate valued at several million dollars when she passed away in 1993.
Rossama had a distinct relative named Jannama David. Jannama is known as the playback singer for “Ellarum Chollanum”, a timeless musical number for an equally timeless film, Neelakuyil, a story revolving around castist social trends. I wonder if Rossama ever saw this movie and if she did, what were her thoughts concerning the theme and her cousin’s new-found fame. Perhaps she would have been forced to reflect on her own missed opportunity, usurped from her by the regressive cultural standards of that era.
Rosamma lived a simple life in Nagercoil, through the second World War, the advent of Indian independence, and The Emergency of the 1970’s. While she raised her children, cinematic productions, in Kerala, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta etc., became cultural hallmarks. Her cousin, Janamma, achieved notable fame yet Rosamma, herself, was deprived of any recognition until the release of Kamal’s Celluloid, over twenty years after her death.
Rosamma, it is extremely unfortunate that you were barred from the elite caste of actors. It is unjust that your name was never included alongside the likes of Sathyan, Prem Nazir, Sheela, Miss Kumar, Zubeida, Prithviraj Kapoor, Nargis etc etc.
But here’s to you, Rosamma. You will always be the Rose of Malayalam Cinema