Sunday, October 25, 2009

Peeling off falsehoods


Leaving a job in Doordarshan and meeting remarkable people like novelist O.V. Vijayan and architect Laurie Baker were the turning points in director Shyamaprasad’s life

By Shevlin Sebastian

In an air-conditioned room at the YMCA guest house at Thiruvananthapuram, film director Shyamaprasad is overseeing the editing of his short film, ‘Off Season’ starring the comedian Suraj Venjaramoodu. Watching him intently is his associate director, the Australia-based Bobby Mana.

A call comes on his mobile: Shyamaprasad is asked to appear for a programme for a television channel. He gives his assent after checking his I-Phone Organiser. Dressed in jeans and a white shirt, and frequently running his hands through his hair, it takes Shyamaprasad quite a while to delve into his memories. But, eventually, the stories come out.

One day in 1977, Shyamaprasad and his childhood friend Ananthakrishnan went with a group of friends for a picnic to a hill station called Dhoni in Palakkad. There was a big waterfall. All the boys jumped into the water.

However, there was a strong undercurrent. Soon, Shyamaprasad and Ananthakrishnan started to drown. Both did not know swimming.

“We were holding each other and struggling to stay afloat,” says Shyamaprasad. Somebody reached out with a towel. Shyamaprasad grabbed it and then lost consciousness. Later, he was saved. But, unfortunately, Ananthakrishnan drowned.

“We were close family friends,” says Shyamaprasad. “I was unable to look at his parents in the eye. From that day onwards I became aware of the pain of others.”

Because of this incident Shyamaprasad became a recluse for a while. He stayed at home, studied hard, and passed his pre-degree exams from Victoria College. He had an urgent desire to leave Palakkad. Luckily, at that time a school of drama was being started by Calicut University, at Thrissur, with a degree in Theatre Arts on offer. Shyamaprasad applied and was selected.

He spent the next three years studying under the playwright G. Shankara Pillai. “Today whatever choices I make, in terms of content, actors, style and d├ęcor, it goes back to what I learned from Pillai Sir,” he says.

Shyamaprasad joined Doordarshan and in 1985 won a two-year Commonwealth scholarship to do his Masters in Theatre and Media Production from Hull University.
But when he returned he discovered that Doordarshan had cut his seniority and professional benefits due to him.

“It was a demoralising experience,” he says. “My stay abroad was regarded as a break in service, when the information and broadcasting ministry had approved of my stint in the first place.”

At this time Shyamaprasad had made a film called ‘Uyirthezhunnelpu’, which was based on an Albert Camus play. It won the state award for best film on television, as well as best director, actress and cameraman. The station director of Doordarshan told Shyamaprasad that he should not accept the award because Doordarshan is a central government organisation, while the award was of the state.

Shyamaprasad found the directive illogical and went ahead and attended the award ceremony. Thereafter he was suspended. The inevitable happened: Shyamaprasad put in his papers.

“It was tough to leave a cushy central government job,” he says. “I had a wife and two children to support.” But his family stood steadfast behind his resolve to quit. “Looking back it was the right decision, otherwise I would have vegetated creatively,” he says.

Shyamaprasad immediately began making movies: ‘Kallu Kondoru Pennu’ (1998), ‘Agnisakshi’ (1999), ‘Bokshu the Myth’ (2002), ‘Akale’ (2004) and ‘Ore Kadal’ (2007).

‘Ore Kadal’, based on a novel by Bengali author Sunil Gangopadhyay, won over 50 state, national and international awards, including the prestigious Audience Prize at ‘Bollywood and Beyond,’ a festival of Indian cinema at Stuttgart, Germany, in 2008.

Shyamaprasad’s latest film, ‘Rithu’, with several fresh faces, was released a few months ago, to critical acclaim and has done well at the box office.

The man who has such an impact on audiences was himself impacted by two remarkable men. The first was novelist O.V. Vijayan, a friend of his father, the BJP leader O. Rajagopal.

“I read the ‘Legends of Khasak’ when I was 12,” he says. “I grew up in Palakkad where the novel was set. It was a slice of society that Vijayan captured perfectly and I realised this was a genius at work.”

However, when ‘Dharmapuram’ was published in 1985, Shyamaprasad was confused on how to read it. “There were a lot of scatological descriptions in the novel,” he says. When he accidentally met Vijayan at a medical shop he said, “The book has an offensive tone. Is this art?”

Vijayan looked at Shyamaprasad silently and understood the boyish reaction. “He tried to tell me that each work needs its own idiom,” he says. “It was a lifelong lesson for me.”

The next person who influenced Shyamaprasad was the architect Laurie Baker whom he had met to do a documentary.

“The reason why Laurie Baker avoided plaster and paint in his buildings was because he felt that that the colour, texture and the little imperfections of a brick are beautiful by itself,” says Shyamaprasad. This has become his artistic philosophy.

“If we can bring out the truth through rawness it will create the highest aesthetic experience,” he says. “If a dialogue you write or a scene you make does not reach the level of truth, it is not beautiful. Beauty is not something that is applied afterwards. Beauty is inherent. It is something you discover when you peel off the falsehoods.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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