Sung by K.J. Yesudas and matched by a stellar on-screen performance by Mohanlal, ‘Ambalamillathe altharayil vazhum…’ is one of the best-remembered devotional songs from Malayalam movies. Three decades on, the song and the much-acclaimed movie ‘Padamudra’ are still applauded at every mention. But who penned the lines of this evergreen song? The question never seems to pop up in discussions. And if it does, no one knows for sure and some give the credit to ONV Kurup. There are still others who think it is from one of those immensely popular ‘bhakti ganam’ (devotional song) albums.
Hari Kudappanakkunnu, the man who wrote the song, has got used to the 'authorless' tag to the song, which is perhaps one of his best writings. He has donned the hats of a poet and and film director. Yet, it is for ‘ambalamillathe’ that he gives himself a pat on the back.
Hari recounts watching a TV show of late which brought together the crew of ‘Padamudra’ and its lead actor Mohanlal. Music director Vidyadharan sang ‘ambalamillathe’, the most popular one among the four songs featured in the movie. The group spent a while talking about the song that went on to become a hit in its own right and Mohanlal pointed out that it is one of his favourites. Yet, nobody mentioned the lyricist.
Another TV show featuring Ochira temple was picked up later by social media enthusiasts. The discussion about the temple and its possible Buddhist ancestry saw the song being mentioned more than once; without any reference to the writer, of course.
Hari debuted as a songwriter in the 1981 movie ‘Jalarekha’. He penned the lyrics for the song ‘naalukettin thirumuttathu ilaveyil ettu nilkkum krishna tulasi pole’ among others which were composed by the doyen of South Indian film music M B Sreenivasan. He worked with top music directors such as Dakshinamoorthy in the movie ‘Veendumoru Geetham’ and Raveendran in ‘Mahasar’. The song ‘etho kilinadam en karalil madhumaari peythu’ from ‘Mahasar’ was a hit in those days.
Yesudas was very much impressed by the young writer’s eloquent verse at the recording of ‘ambalamillathe’. Perhaps touched by the lyrics that prompted the soulful rendition, Yesudas announced right there that Hari would pen lyrics for the next album of devotional songs to be produced by his recording label Tharangini. The seventh volume of the famous Tharangini devotional albums had songs penned by Hari and composed by Vidyadharan. ‘Kaattil vannu njan kootu vilichu kootinu nee vannu’, ‘kalabhabhishekam charthiya ninnude kanaka vigraham kandu’ are among the popular songs from the album. Tharangini remade the album in four other South Indian languages.
When he landed a job with Doordarshan in Thiruvananthapuram, Hari took a break from movies. ‘Smirthi than chirakileri njan en shyama grama bhoovilanayunnu’, a song he penned for Doordarshan and sung by P Jayachandran continues to be a nostalgic track for those who belong to the Doordarshan age.
Of his most noteworthy song, ‘ambalamillathe’, Hari says it is no wonder that it spurred an identity crisis of sorts. He chose to write a song invoking ‘Parabhrahma’ – the formless supreme power worshipped at Ochira temple - as a metaphor for the movie’s central themes of self and identity. The protagonists – Mathu Pandaram and Soap Kuttappan, the double role which won Mohanlal both the Filmfare and State Special Jury Award for Best Actor – are bogged down by identity crisis. The lines about the dual faces of Siva – the destroyer and the lover – were meant to reflect this, says Hari.
The lines also brought about an unexpected turn of events when it rubbed some orthodox sections of the audience the wrong way and Doordarshan stopped airing the song. It was raked up again when the song was considered for national award. When the jury decided to steer clear of controversies, Hari lost not just the accolades, but the motivation to write. He knows the song will live on, with or without the author.