Thursday, June 16, 2011

homage to chidananda dasgupta

Upperstall profile by: Shoma A Chatterji

The film critic in India is marginalized within the world of journalists in general and critics in particular. The investigative journalist, the political commentator, the environmental reporter and the rural explorer lead the hierarchy of journalists with their 'hard-core' writing. Chidananda Dasgupta has changed the scenario forever. Film criticism is now as 'hard-core' as mainstream journalism, though it does not command the space and the platform in the print media the way it used to when Dasgupta was a practising critic. Rather, it is Film Studies that is now a much-in-demand discipline in several universities in India. In this sense, Dasgupta is a pioneer in the movement towards serious writing on cinema, stressing time and again, through his writings, that the distinction between art house cinema and mainstream cinema is a myth. He made history with the Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed on him for Best Writing at the Sixth Osian''s Cinefan Festival of Asian Cinema in July 2004. This is the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award to have been conferred on a film critic and scholar. "I am getting this award at a time when film criticism is almost dying out in India. We spent our lives teaching people the value and worth of cinema. When we first asked for government help to form the first film society, the official at the ministry said, "Film society, what's that?" Thankfully, lots of things have changed since then," he said in his response to the award.

To label Dasgupta only as 'film critic' however, is unfair because he pioneered the film society movement along with like-minded friends Satyajit Ray and Harisadhan Dasgupta in 1947. "A comment from Cyril Connelly, editor of Horizon, who said, "Calcutta is a city which has no film society" set off the trigger, more because Bombay had already laid the foundation for two film societies, one in 1937 and another in 1942. Neither of these evolved into a movement. Nor did they bring about changes in Indian cinema. We decided to change all this. With 50 members at a membership fee of Rs 5.00 per month and Prasanta Mahalanobis as our first President, the membership looked like a veritable Who's Who of the Calcutta intelligentsia." Dasgupta suggested the forming of a Film Federation and along-with six others. "We met Krishna Kripalani in 1959 and in 1960, the Federation began to function," reminisces Dasgupta.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

“It seems death never passed between us..”

A Conversation with T V Chandran on his new film Sankaranum Mohananum

C S Venkiteswaran

Your new film Sankaranum Mohananum seems to mark a fresh phase in your oeuvre. Compared to your other films, it seems to have a totally different take on life and death. If earlier films were about the all too real yearnings and desires of the here and now, this film is about them outliving death..

Yes. If you look at my earlier films closely, you can see that their narratives were always very much embedded in and sensitive to their historical and sociopolitical atmosphere. In Ponthanmada, Danny, Mankamma, Ormakalundayirikkanam etc you can see this. But in this film it is a sort of trip into the mindscape of a sensitive young man, Mohanakrishnan, whose life is loveless. The storyline goes like this: Sankaran, Mohanakrishnan’s elder brother, a school teacher in his 50’s, suddenly decides to marry his colleague’s young daughter, in order to help him. But once he gets to see Rajalakshmi, he blindly falls in love with her. Tragedy strikes when on the morning after the wedding night, he is bitten by a snake and dies. Though the official funeral is over and done with, Sankaran refuses to leave the world and appears before Mohanakrishnan in various guises, pleading with him to talk to his wife and inform her that he is still around. At first Mohanakrishnan is scared, but he slowly comes to terms with this strange situation. To add to the confusion, Sankaran is visible only to him and he has a tough time convincing others about his existence and his brother’s pleas. Their efforts to block Rajalakshmi’s re-marriage lead to various bizarre and hilarious situations in the film. Mohanakrishnan himself is a man living a lonely life, away and estranged from his wife and child. In the end, his brush with the undead brother and his travails lead Mohanakrishnan back to life and to look at it afresh..

What was the inspiration behind this theme about the dead haunting the living?

Actually, I wanted to do this film around 2000, after I finished Danny. At that time I even discussed the story with Mohanlal. But it didn’t work out, and I moved to other projects. Through years the film grew in me to take its present shape.

The film draws a lot from my personal experience, especially from the sudden and painful death of two persons who were very close to me, my elder brother Madhavettan, and friend and filmmaker John Abraham. Madhavettan, was my elder brother, but he was very much senior and like a father to me, also my guardian and guide. A lecturer by profession, he tried to ‘reform’ me in various ways, weaning me away from ‘bad influences’ and persuading me to pursue my studies. Later he went to Uganda and during a vacation time when his family was about to fly to meet him, he met with a car accident there and died instantly. We never got to see his body; he was cremated there. After that, Madhavettan began to visit me regularly in my dreams, telling me he is not dead, and also about a lot of other things. I could never come to terms with his absence and still can’t believe he is no more. Similarly, the sudden and accidental death of John Abraham was a shock to me. I just can’t imagine him as a dead man; he too appears before me from time to time trying to tell me something, and reminding me he is not dead. “People are lying I am dead” he says.

This film is my attempt to come to terms with the absence of these dear ones. In fact you can see the portrait of John in the film in Mohanakrishnan’s studio, when his wife asks him, “How did he die?” It is my question too: how did he die? Did he die at all? So, this film is also a homage to these two people.


The theme of absence and death is a universal one. Everyone around us will have someone dear who is no more, and about whose absence one has not been able to come to terms with. But the treatment of such a theme can be very bleak and brooding…


This is where this film differs from the usual style. Though this film deals with death and ghostly presences, the story is told in a humorous manner. Even though Mohanakrishnan’s various encounters with his dead brother are macabre in its essence, those scenes will evoke laughter in you. The film is structured around this dual presence - the visible and live Mohanakrishnan who only can see his brother and the invisible presence of Sankaran. There are a number of desperate attempts of Sankaran to make himself visible and present to the others, especially his young bride. But he fails in that and it leads to further and more desperate attempts. In fact, there is a long sequence where the duo plan and attempt to block the re-marriage of Sankaran’s bride that verge on the slapstick. That sequence ends with the image of Chaplin – from the famous poster of The Kid, where the face of Chaplin suddenly turns into that of Sankaran. Adding to the hilarious surface of the macabre undertones of the movie, is the presence of actors like Jagathy Sreekumar, Kalpana and V K Sreeraman.

Q The film also has a very interesting structure, it is like a letter to the undead..

Yes, the film is structured like a letter addressed to Madhavettan and John. It in fact begins my addressing them, and ends with the line from a poem, “it seems death never passed between us…” In between is the shifting and tumultuous mindscape of Mohanakrishnan. Jayasoorya has done a splendid job in the totally different roles of the brothers, with the dead one appearing in different guises and costumes. While one is real, the other is unreal and doesn’t leave any footsteps or traces behind. In one scene, we find them both trying to take a photograph. But the camera fails to capture Sankaran: he is just an absence in the picture. Jayasoorya lived up to the challenge playing these contrasting roles, that of the real Mohanakrishnan and the apparition of his brother.

Later in the film, he begins to see and hear the voices of several people who are dead and have many desires, needs, wants and yearnings, which they want to fulful through him. At the end, there is an indication of his return to the world of the living. We see the protagonist sitting below a peepul tree and gradually removing his make up. His image also gradually disappears from the mirror, and we are left with a make up box and a collection of spectacles – which Sankaran wore in his different guises throughout the film. So, there is a sense of exorcising the undead and a positive return to life and its affirmation at the end, all accomplished through a journey with the dead.

Q Like in your other films, this film also pays homage to your favourite authors, this time Saramago etc..

Later in the film, he begins to see and hear the voices of several people who are dead and have many desires, needs, wants and yearnings, which they want to fulful through him. At the end, there is an indication of his return to the world of the living. We see the protagonist sitting below a peepul tree and gradually removing his make up. The image of Sankarettan also gradually disappears from the background, and we are left with a make up box and a collection of spectacles – which Sankaran wore in his different guises throughout the film. So, there is a sense of exorcising the undead and a positive return to life and its affirmation at the end, all accomplished through a journey with the dead.

Q Like in your other films, this film also pays homage to your favourite authors, this time Saramago etc..

Yes, after I completed the script, I happened to stumble upon Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis where he quotes the lines of his poet: “it seems death never passed between us…” This line struck me, because it was exactly the feeling I had about the deaths I was also grappling with. I have used an adaptation of this line at the end of the film.

Monday, June 06, 2011

rain in malayalam cinema - a note

Only a drizzle, not a downpour

C S Venkiteswaran

Borges, the Argentinian writer, responding to the question why there are no camels in Quran says, “Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were particularly Arab; they were, for him, a part of reality, and he had no reason to single them out, while the first thing a forger, a tourist, or an Arab nationalist would do is bring on the camels, whole caravans of camels on every page; but Mohammed, as an Arab, was unconcerned; he knew he could be Arab without camels” I think one could say the same about rain in Malayalam cinema. How come we have a very few striking or memorable visual passages of rain in Malayalam cinema? Is it because of its overwhelming presence our lives? Does that limit its metaphorical charge?

Yet, whatever presence rain had in our cinema, it has undergone transformations through time. Till the late 60’s or during the claustrophobic studio-bound decades of early film production, picturisation of rain must have been a technical challenge. In most of the rainy occasions in the narratives of that period, it was mainly to drench the heroine and provide voyeuristic pleasure to the audience; many a time it was a narrative ruse to make the lovers scamper to a lonely shelter away from the eyes of social mores, where it is an all too divine intervention invariably benign to the male. But there were rains of other kinds too. Neelakuyil opens with a heavy rain that lashes outside Satyan’s house; in a way, it is nature’s fury that vainly knocks at the doors of that false messenger of culture and eventually drives the dalit woman Neeli into his hands. In that period rain either re-vealed women for men or accentuated human tragedy, as world’s tears.

It was since the 70’s, when outdoor production and location shooting became more popular that the visual and metaphorical potential of rain were explored. I think there is not a single Adoor film without a rain – it drizzles and pours over human foibles, agonies and angst. In Shaji N Karun’s Piravi, the looming clouds and relentless downpour provide the bleak setting to the protagonist’s vain search for his son. The rain that pours over Mankamma’s dead body in TV Chandran’s Mankamma, is also one that tragically interfaces human fate and the indifference of the world. In Kamal’s Perumazhakkalam too, it has tragic dimensions, while his Azhakiya Ravanan has a song sequence that literally romances with rain, and the final, much awaited downpour in Bharathan's Vaishali has mythic as well as orgasmic dimensions.

I think one of the most romantic and lyrical of rains in Malayalam cinema in Thoovanathumpikal by Padmarajan, where rain stands in as the metaphor for love, in all its unpredictability, physical charm, and yearning.

But one feels that there is a lot more layers and nuances, drizzles and downpours waiting to be explored by Malayalam cinema visually, aurally and thematically

Friday, June 03, 2011

On a Great Actor

A Thespian Leaves The Stage

The departure of the thespian Ammannur Madhava Chakyar (1917-2008) marks the end of a long, tumultuous yet glorious era in the classical art performance of Kerala. An all time great of Kudiyattam*, he was the one remaining vibrant link connecting the present generation of viewers and artists with the brilliance and also the rigours of a past that had endured many a moment of highs and lows. For, his life spanned the entire history of modern Keralam. Coincidentally, he was born in the year of the Russian Revolution, a historic event that was soon to have deep repercussions on his own society, community, life, and vocation. Spending his childhood during the last heydays of an economic system – the temple economy that sustained and sponsored art forms like Kudiyattam and temple-dependents like Chakyars – he had the fortune to get early training under the tutelage of his uncle the legendary Ammannur Chachu Chakyar, one of the all-time-greats of Kudiyattam. By the time he grew up into an able and noted performer, the temple economy that sustained his art was in shambles. Moreover, the social changes that were sweeping Kerala had other concerns and priorities, and naturally, classical arts like Kudiyattam were not at the top of the list. With the spread of secular art forms, the once elite and popular art forms - both classical and folk – entered the 'endangered' list. Even with the establishment of Kalamandalam, it was Kathakali that got more prominence and international visibility, and not a 'difficult' art like Kudiyattam. Ironically, many of these rich traditions of performance survived through sheer conservatism, and the total commitment and dedication of the practitioners who went on performing (most of the time ritually) despite the shrinking material support and an indifferent audience. No wonder, for Ammannur, performance was like prayer, while he performed, he never saw an audience in front of him, he instead played to the flame of the Nilavilakku lit in front of him. It is this intense and exuberant belief in oneself and one's art, and the understanding and realization of that art as a 'medium' (in the real sense) that must have sustained the likes of Ammannur through those difficult times.

From the early days, Ammannur was noted for his talent that was burnished through training under scholars like Kodungallur Kochunni Thampuran. By the 60's he was considered one among the trinity of Kudiyattam, along with Painkulam Rama Chakyar and Mani Madhava Chakyar. But unlike the other two, Ammannur's career spanned the very history of Kudiyattam across 20th century. For, he entered the scene in its glorious days, spent his youth while it began to be derided, even ridiculed and marginalized, then later, was witness to its gradual resurgence and ultimately, its growing international and local recognition when he reached old age. His life encapsulates the history of the art in many ways; it was a journey from the elite confines of the koothambalam into the open, secular spaces, from obscurity to worldwide renown, from the local to the universal, from the select or condemned few of performers to the secular-many.

Among the trio, though Ammannur was known more for his vacika, and for his mercurial vidusaka, he also shined in other departments, immortalizing characters like Ravana (Thoranayuddham), Bali (Balivadham), Arjuna (Subhadradananjayam) etc. Who can ever forget his performance of the extended death throes of Bali, and the dillydallying Siva, a Lord torn between his love for Parvati and Ganga?

Like his legendary ancestors, he too was vitriolic in his humour; and for him, humour was not just drawn from local scandals as in the case of many of his contemporaries, or mere buffoonery. He brought his deep knowledge of the puranas, mastery over language, and more importantly, understanding about current affairs, into his humorous discourses.

I still remember those dark days of Emergency, when during his performance at Irinjalakuda as Vidusaka, he deliberately wove the political context looming large into his performance, reminding and warning the viewers of its monstrosity, subtly yet very pungently. Thus he in fact re-claimed the essence of being a chakyar today, that of being a critic of the powers-that-be and of speaking truth to power. As he aged, his mastery over all departments blossomed, his angika-abhinaya was graceful and chiseled, and his command over vacika also attained a matured beauty. He was an artist for whom his art was the be-all and end-all of everything. He continued performing, totally engrossed with himself and that enigmatic flame in front.

Actually, the credit for taking Kudiyattam out of the confines of the koothambalam goes to the progressive and daring Painkulam. And it was later popularized by the charming presence of Mani Madhava Chakyar. In the case of Ammannur, it was the very same conservatism that sustained the rigours of the art through the ages that prevented him from coming out. He was the last to come out and perform outside the koothambalam, but once he came out, his brilliance was readily appreciated and recognized all over the world. He not only carried the art to the next century, he was also instrumental in rearing a new generation of Kudiyattam artists and honing the skills of some of the best talents in the art today like Kochukuttan Chakyar, Usha Nangiar and Margi Madhu. His brief but influential stint at Margi School inspired a generation of viewers and disciples.

Now the great thespian has left the stage leaving behind memorable performances and a great legacy.

* Koodiyattam[kutiyattam], meaning 'combined acting' signifies Sanskrit drama presented in the traditional style in temple theatres of Kerala and is the only surviving specimen of the ancient Sanskrit theatre. It has an attested history of a thousand years in Kerala, but its origin and evolution are shrouded in mystery. It seems that Kutiyattam is an amalgam of the classical Sanskrit theatre of ancient India and the regional theatre of Kerala. It is believed that Kulasekhara Varman Cheraman Perumal, an ancient king of Kerala, who ruled from Mahodayapuram [modern Kodungallur] reformed Koodiyattam, introducing the local language for Vidusaka and structuring presentation of the play to well defined units. He himself wrote two plays, Subhadraharana and Tapatisamvarana and made arrangements for their presentation on stage with the help of a Brahmin friend of him called Tolan. These plays are still presented on stage. Apart from these, the plays traditionally presented include Ascaryacudamani of Saktibhadra, Kalyanasaugandhika of Nilakantha, Bhagavadajjuka of Bodhayana, Nagananda of Harsa, and many plays ascribed to Bhasa including Abhiseka and Pratima. The Kutiyattam performance was confined to the temple precincts of Kerala in specially constructed theatres called Kutambalams.