Thursday, January 31, 2013

Of shadows and puppets

A recent performance of Tolpavakoothu was a novel experience for many in the Kochi audience 

By Shevlin Sebastian

About 20 minutes before the start of a performance of Tolpavakoothu (shadow puppetry), at the JT Pac, Kochi, recently, veteran artist K. Viswanatha Pulavar starts looking at his watch. He has done over 5000 performances, but each event is new and different. Like the true artist, who wants to do his best, Viswanatha has butterflies in his stomach.
His family, consisting of his wife, a son and daughter, are also moving around, on the stage, placing the puppets in the right place. The other participants are changing into white moondus.

We usually perform in temples,” says Viswanatha. “So this is a new experience to perform in front of city folk.” He pauses and says, “Do you think a lot of people will come?” And he answers the question himself, “I doubt it. The audience for all types of traditional art forms are shrinking.”
Viswanatha looks sombre and continues, “People don’t have the time. They are more keen to chase money and do not want to waste time on the arts. But it is through the arts you can become aware of what is good and bad. Now people are losing the fear of God and do what they want. That is why there are so many murders and crimes in Kerala.”

Realising that the audience may have no idea about what the art form is all about, Viswanatha says, “Tholpakoothu is 2000 years old. It is performed in temples dedicated to Bhagawathy Devi in the districts of Palakkad, Thrissur and Mallappuram . There is a 40 feet long stage called a koothumadam [temple theatre].”

Traditionally, a performance begins at 10 p.m. and concludes at 5 a.m. “By then, there will only be two people present,” says Viswanatha. “We perform during the season of January to May.”

Of course, there is a myth behind how this art form came into being. The Goddess Bhadrakali had defeated the Asura, Dharika, after a hard battle. Just at that very moment, Rama had defeated the ten-headed Ravana.

When Bhadrakali, holding the head of Dharika, met Lord Siva, he told her about the great battle of Rama. Bhadrakali had a great desire to relive the war of Rama. So Shiva said, “Go to the blessed land of Kerala. There, you can witness the epic event through shadow puppet plays.”

At the JT Pac, when the curtain rises, there is a smaller white and black curtain with a bouquet of leaves in the middle. “The white curtain represents the sky, while the black is a reminder of the earth,” says Vishwanath. And then the programme, based on the Tamil poet Kamba's version of the Ramayana, begins. The filigreed puppets appear on the screen. They fight, they fall off. Sometimes, they hold hands. At other times, they tell angry dialogues at each other. Arrows move across. An opponent is felled.

There is a fight between Jatayu and Ravana; another conflict  between Bali and Sugreeva. In between, birds are flying, while an elephant rumbles across, apart from rabbits, squirrels and a deer. There is a sound of a tree falling. Lord Hanuman comes along, apart from Lord Rama, and Sita. And on and on, the characters come and go.

In today's performance, we used 200 puppets,” says Viswanatha. These puppets are made of goat or buffalo skin. First, the hairs are removed, and then the skin is dried. Thereafter, the outline of the character is drawn. Then it is cut out and painted with vegetable colours.
Sometimes, when I enact a role, I feel the same emotions that the character is going through,” says Viswanatha. Interestingly, the language spoken is a mix of Tamil, Sanskrit and Malayalam. And the instruments used are traditional ones: drums, cymbals and gongs.

Behind the screen, on a straight line are placed 21 lamps. And the performers, about 10 in total, stand behind the lamps and move the puppets, in an extraordinary display of skill, co-ordination, understanding, and dexterous use of the hands, and always moving the story forward without a pause.

It takes years of practice,” says Vishwanath. “I started learning at the feet of my father, [the late] Krishnankutty Pulavar more than forty years ago,” he says. “Our family has been doing this for ten generations.”

And Viswanatha practises diligently. “In the off season, from June to December, we perform every evening for two hours at our home in Koonathara [near Shoranur],” he says. “That is the only way we can ensure that we are performing well all the time.”

And audience member Pallavi Abraham agrees. “It was my first time and I enjoyed it a lot,” she says. “The puppets looked perfect. I especially liked the singing. And my husband, who knows Tamil, enjoyed the dialogues a lot.” 

But even if the audience enjoyed the performance, the income for the Pulavars is not much. So, in order to make ends meet, Viswanatha works as a postmaster. “I get a lot of support from the postal superintendent and other seniors,” he says. “And I get peace of mind because this is something I love to do.”  

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sex queen as an everyday woman

By Shevlin Sebastian 

Photo: Shakeela with producer Jaffer Kanjirapally

After a day’s media frenzy, in which numerous television channels recorded her every move on the sets of her latest Malayalam film, ‘Neelakurinji Poothu’ at Kochi , former soft-porn star Shakeela is in a relaxed mood in her hotel room that evening. She is wearing a nightgown and speaks fluent English even though she says, “I failed my Class ten exams and did not study further.”

She is hospitable and kind, and when an aide brings a fruit juice in a tetra-pack, for the visitor, she says, “Oh that is very bitter. Get another brand.”

When asked why there is still so much of interest in her, she laughs and says, “People are curious to know whether I am a sex symbol in real life also.”

Shakeela became a household name among adult Malayalis when her soft porn film, ‘Kinnarathumbikal’, released in 2000, became a hit. She shakes her head and says, “How did this film do well? The music was bad: some remixes of Michael Jackson’s songs, and there were only two scenes where I reveal my cleavage and my legs. Actresses nowadays reveal ten times more.”

But producer Jaffer Kanjirapally, who is sitting next to her, is not complaining. “I made 19 films with Shakeela and made a lot of money,” he says. “I am trying my luck again with her.”

Shakeela talks easily about the many incidents in her eventful life, including her encounters with another sex queen, the late Silk Smitha. “When I saw Silk Smitha on the sets at the AVM Studios in Chennai for the first time, she was leaning back on a chair, her eyes closed, with two air coolers on either side,” says Shakeela. “I thought to myself, ‘An actor’s life seems to be a royal one.’” 

(The New Indian Express, Kerala edition) 

At home with the Home Minister

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Lalithambika Pillai talks about life with Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan

By Shevlin Sebastian

Lalithambika Pillai first saw Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan in 1973 when she joined the Law College in Thiruvananthapuram. At that time, he was the president of the Kerala Students’ Union, while Lalithambika was a member. “In those days, out of 100 members, there would be only 25 women,” she says. They interacted often. And soon, Radhakrishnan developed feelings towards her.

One day he told her he had written a letter, which he had sent to her hostel address. But when Lalithambika read the missive, it was filled with general topics. “That was when I got a hint about his interest in me,” she says. Finally, he proposed. And Lalithambika said yes. Through a cousin, Ravi Kumar, who studied in the same college, her parents were informed. They were not enthusiastic. “My parents were apprehensive because Radhakrishnan was into politics,” she says. But they eventually agreed.

The marriage took place in Kottayam on April 28, 1977. And over the years, what Lalithambika appreciates the most about her husband is his punctuality. “If he has to reach somewhere at 4 p.m., he is ready by 3 p.m.,” she says. “He is very sincere in his work. On this aspect he is different from other politicians. He will never switch off his phone. At 12.30 and 1 a.m., I have heard him speak to police officers. If there are major accidents or deaths, they can get the Home Minister on the phone. Even when he is shaving, he is holding the phone next to his chin. My husband is a full-time politician.”

As a result, Radhakrishnan is unable to be involved in the day-to-day running of the household. “Sometimes, he has very little idea of how the house is running so smoothly,” says Lalithambika. “In the initial years, his absence was tough for me. When the children fell sick I had to take them to the doctor. For many parent-teacher meetings at school, I went on my own.”  

Lalithambika worked for 33 ½ years in Nedungadi Bank and after it was merged with Punjab National Bank in 2002. She retired on April 30, 2012. “Because of a steady income we were able to bring up the family,” she says. This includes Anupam, 33, Athira, 29, and Arjun, 27.

However, despite his busyness, Radhakrishnan did set aside time now and then for his family. “We would go for excursions and films,” says Lalithambika. “But ever since he became the Home Minister, he has become exceptionally busy.” 

Whenever he is at home in Kottayam, Radhakrishnan gets up at 5.30 a.m. and reads the newspapers for half an hour. Then he has a bath. By this time, people have already started arriving at the house in Kodimatha to meet him. Lalithambika prepares a small snack at 7.30 a.m. He will leave by 9.30 a.m., but will make sure he has met everybody who has come to meet him. Then he will go for his daily programmes and return by 11 p.m. “By then there are more people in the house, waiting to meet him,” she says. “Only after he has seen off the last visitor does he enter the house. That may be at midnight.”

And sometimes plans can be changed at the last moment. On a recent weekend, Radhakrishnan came in at 11.30 p.m., met a few people, had his dinner, and left for Thiruvananthapuram at 12.30 a.m., because of an early morning meeting the next day. “I hardly get any time with him,” says Lalithambika. “And even when he is at home, most of the time, he is talking on the phone.”

So, it was no surprise that one of Lalithambika’s happiest memories was when she went for a ten-day trip to America with Radhakrishnan to be with their son Anupam in Mississippi in 2005. “My husband and I were together for long periods of time,” she says. “We went to New York, Chicago, and Florida.”

But, nevertheless, people still called Radhakrishnan from Kerala because he was the minister of Water Resources, Forests, Health and Parliamentary Affairs. “My husband would often be reminded of his work while in the USA,” says Lalithambika.

So, what are the advantages of living with a powerful man? “There are no significant advantages for the family just because Radhakrishnan has power,” says Lalithambika. “My children and I lead an ordinary life. We have had the same lifestyle for the past 25 years. Perhaps, nowadays, because he is the home minister, I have stopped going to the local shops to buy things, as I used to do.”

When asked for tips to have a successful marriage, Lalithambika, says, “For the sake of the family the girl should be one step below. I know this will not be popular among many of the young working women these days but this attitude helps to have a successful marriage. I am against feminism. You must respect a man, instead of attacking him all the time. When a woman tries to take the upper hand, it leads to unhappiness and sorrow in the family. I know of many cases like that.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, January 28, 2013

Man of the masses

Naman Ramachandran has written a riveting biography of Tamil superstar Rajnikanth 

Photo: Naman Ramachandran (right) with Rajnikanth  

By Shevlin Sebastian

Two years ago, London-based journalist Naman Ramachandran was in Singapore having a chat with his agent Jayapriya Vasudevan when talk veered around to the famous sons of Bangalore. Both had lived in the Garden City for many years. Then they suddenly realised that there were no credible biographies of one of Bangalore's most famous sons, Rajnikanth. After Naman returned to London, within a week, he was asked to send a sample chapter by Jayapriya. Thereafter, there was a bidding war and Penguin Books India won the rights. And the book's release date was also fixed: 12/12/12, which happened to be Rajnikanth's birthday.

Naman immediately flew to Chennai to meet the superstar. Unfortunately, Rajnikanth had fallen sick and was quarantined. So Naman met all the people close to him, including his mentor, the director-producer, K. Balachander, cinematographer Santosh Sivan, director Mani Ratnam, lyricist Vaiaramuthu, apart from actresses like Revathy and Khushboo. Naman also bought DVDs and saw each one of the 154 films that Rajnikanth made. Thereafter, after a year's research, he sat to write down the book.

The result is 'Rajnikanth – The Definitive Biography'. It is a riveting read and more so, for those who are rabid Rajnikanth fans. It is a story of how a bus conductor of the Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation goes to Chennai to try his luck in films. But, in order to have a technical base, he studied for three years at the Madras Film Institute. One day, he went and met Balachander for a role. The producer decided to take a chance with Rajnikanth. Balachander says, “At that time everybody was casting fair-skinned actors, be they hero or villain. But I wanted to be different with each film. So I thought, 'why not try somebody dark-skinned?'”

Naman was also keen to give a background to the story. “So, I provided a history of the Dravidian movement, Tamil and Kannada cinema, apart from Rajnikanth's interplay with politics,” says Naman. “When he showed a political message in 'Muthu' (1995), I described what was happening between him and [current Chief Minister] Jayalalitha at that time?”

When asked about the reasons for Rajnikanth's emergence as a star, Naman says, “For the first time on the south Indian screen there was a star who looked like a member of the audience. He talked like them and did not resemble a manufactured doll with porcelain looks.”

If you look at the history of Tamil cinema, this is the first star who is a man of the people. Earlier, the stars would come from upper middle-class Brahmanical backgrounds. “Today, if you see Tamil cinema, a lot of them look like the man on the street,” says Naman.

And of course, Rajnikanth has charisma. “Whenever Rajnikanth was in his frame, even if it is a crowded scene, your eyes go to him directly, in the same way it happens with Mohanlal,” says cinematographer Sivan. “This is a divine gift. You have it or you don't. To be frank, when I first looked at Rajnikanth through the viewfinder, I got goosebumps.”

Naman also got goosebumps when he finally met up with Rajnikanth, at Chennai, after the book was published. So what sort of a guy is the superstar? “He is humility personified,” says Naman. “He has no airs and does not think he is a superstar. At the age of 62, this is what is working with the audience. Where do you get this level of simplicity and honesty these days?” 

(The New Indian Express, Sunday Magazine, South India and Delhi) 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The lions are roaring!

The Choice School puts up a spectacular production of ‘The Lion King’ 

By Shevlin Sebastian 
Six months ago, Jose Thomas, the president, Choice Foundation, got an idea: to do a musical, ‘The Lion King’ at the Choice School. And thus a project was set in motion, in which 450 students, from Class 1 to 11, were involved. This was divided into actors and dancers, 200, singers, 120, backstage help, 80, while there were about 50 students to welcome the guests.

And unlike most other schools, Choice also decided to take on professional help. So, leading members of the Silly Point Productions, as well as the Stepz Dance Academy from Mumbai, music teacher Joe Peter, on loan from Rajagiri Public School, apart from experts in  costumes, set fabrication and props, light and sound, choreography and music stepped in.  The end result, on a recent Sunday, on the playground of Choice School was a stunning production, with some eye-popping scenes, thanks to a backdrop which was 32 feet high.

The story is a familiar one, since the Lion King has been a blockbuster international movie hit.  The great lion king Mufasa (Pranav N. Govind) is killed by his jealous brother Scar (Tharun Mathai), but he blames the heir apparent Young Simba (Joshua Eugine). Ashamed, Simba runs away from the Pridelands (Savannah in Africa) and takes refuge in the jungle where he has the meerkat Timon (Aishwarya Sreenivas) and warthog Pumbaa (Siddarth Nambiar/Shuaib Harris) for company.

Meanwhile, Scar allows hyenas to come into the land and they destroy the ecosystem. By this time, Simba has become a young robust lion, and is lured home by his childhood friend, the   young lioness Nala (Suzanne Kurian), Rafiki, (the mandrill who serves as a Grand Vizier to the lion king), and the spirit of Mufasa.  They take back the kingdom, and the Circle of Life is restored. Incidentally, there are all sorts of animals: giraffes, zebras, birds, an enormous elephant, rhinos, and gazelles.

And the choir, placed on either side of the stage, boys and girls in full-length blue gowns, sang with gusto and passion. Says teacher Joe Peter: “Training sessions meant long hours of standing, continuous singing to perfection, without breaks, so that no singer latched on to the other’s singing lines.”

Overall, the effect was impressive. “The scenes unfolded with clockwork precision, which gave an indication of the practice that was involved,” says Reeni Joseph, a friend of a parent who had come along.

It was a colossal production,” says June Jose, the principal of the Kottayam-based Pallikoodam school, who had come with 87 students and 10 staff members. “One can imagine the infrastructure involved. The only drawback was that the stage was too far away to see all the details of the play properly.”

And some of the celebrities in the audience were equally impressed. Superstar Mohanlal, who is also the chairman of the JT Pac, says, “I am speechless. It was simply amazing.”
Says actress Lissy Priyadarshan: “It was unbelievable that the school could put up this production with just four months of practice. The children  were as good as international-level professionals. The voice modulations, the costumes, the acting, it was a remarkable show in every way.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

The Bridge Across Forever

A Jew and a Hindu find an enduring happiness but it has been a difficult road to traverse on

By Shevlin Sebastian

A. Aneesh is Hindu and Indian. Erica Bornstein is Jewish and American. They met when they were graduate students at the University of California in Irvine in 1994. “We were attracted to each other from the beginning,” says Erica. “But there were mixed signals.” Erica was chatting up Aneesh at a graduate student party, but suddenly he moved away to talk to another girl. “That put me off,” says Erica.

Aneesh defends himself by saying, “My mind was in a daze. I had just come from Delhi and was suffering from culture shock.” Anyway, it took them a year to start dating and they finally got married on March 9, 1998. Today, Aneesh is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Global Studies at the University of Wisconsin, while Erica is Associate Professor of anthropology in the same college.

Both were spotted, along with their 11-year-old son Elijah, at the exhibition centre during the recent Bharatiya Pravasi Devas at Kochi. Asked how difficult it was to bridge the gap between two ancient cultures, Erica says, “It is an ongoing adventure. Jewish culture, like the Indian one, is 5000 years old. We are merging the two. So, we celebrate Passover, and Diwali. Our son Elijah is growing up with two sets of festivals and is happy about that.”

When Elijah was asked whether he was confused he shook his head. “He is enjoying 10,000 years of history,” says Erica. But how does Elijah tackle the fact that Hinduism has 33 crore Gods, while Judaism has one? Erica smiles and says, “That is the challenge for my son's generation,” she says. “He is a Hinjew and will find his way.”

And contrary to assumptions, that it must be boring, when two spouses are in similar professions, and are intellectual and academic, at the same time, Aneesh says, “Yes, even I thought it would be nice if my wife was in a different profession. But I find that we are enjoying ourselves more because we are in similar jobs. We enjoy a mental wavelength and can talk shop all the time.”

Erica adds, “We are the most adjusted among the people we know because we knew there would be problems, so we worked hard at our marriage and never took anything for granted. As academics we analyse everything to death, and the problem goes away.”

Aneesh says that his siblings have all married Indian women. “But I don't think it is easier for them,” he says. “Marriage is never an easy thing.”

Aneesh remembers the time when Elijah was two years old. “I am vegetarian, and Erica was feeding him chicken soup,” says Aneesh. “I said no. There was a fight, but I eventually gave in.”

But, sometimes, Erica makes adjustments too. She cooks vegetarian dishes for Aneesh, including rice and lentils, while she makes Indian-style chicken curry for herself. “Sometimes I cook for Erica,” says Aneesh. “In fact, both of us are so busy we need a wife.” And they burst out laughing.

For Erica, the first time she came to India, in April, 1999, was her most memorable experience. “When I walked out of the door at Delhi airport I saw more people in one minute than I have seen in my entire life,” she says. “I realised this is a different world. I had lived in Africa and Latin America, but the population density of India was unbelievable.”

And, not surprisingly, the men have put her off repeatedly. “There is a lot of male aggression in the north,” she says. “In Delhi, men have made vulgar, obscene gestures at me. So, it is nice to be in a place [Kochi] where the men are decent and well-behaved.”

Asked to compare the people in India and America, Aneesh says, “In India people know how to relate to each other. I just met a friend, A.P. Singh, after 20 years. We hugged each other and it seemed as if I had known him forever.”

In contrast, there is more warmth among strangers in America. “If you are dying by the side of the road, people who don't know you will come and help,” says Aneesh. “There is a great respect for individuals. You are given a lot of space. As a result, you might feel alienated. Because they show courtesy to the people, they will not throw rubbish on the streets, as they do here. They like to respect the collective public space.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The director's ideal girl

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn 

Sabitha Surendranath talks about life with Jayaraj

Photo by Rajeev Prasad

By Shevlin Sebastian

In March, 1992, Jayaraj was shooting his film, ‘Paithrukam’ at a traditional home at Tavanur in Malappuram district. The house belonged to the grandparents of Sabitha Surendranath, who was doing her first-year degree in English literature at NSS College in Ottappalam.

One day, she came home to celebrate the birthday of her grandfather, Narayanan Nampoothiri. There was a large get-together of all the family members. The first time Sabitha saw Jayaraj he was directing the veteran actress, Geetha. But since she was not a Malayali she had to keep repeating the dialogues. “My cousins and I found it surprising how Geetha was having so much of difficulty to say one sentence in Malayalam,” says Sabitha.

Little did Sabitha know that the moment Jayaraj saw her, he was infatuated. Within a day, he told his friend, at the set, the scriptwriter, Madampu Kunjukuttan, who approached Sabitha’s grandmother, and gave a marriage proposal. “My grandmother said that I was still studying and was not planning to get married soon,” says Sabitha. “But nobody told me about this conversation.”

Anyway, the shoot concluded and they went their different ways. A couple of months later, Sabitha met her cousin who told her about what happened. He suggested that she write a letter to Jayaraj and talk about the film. She did so. But when he replied, it was about his feelings for her. Sabitha realized that Jayaraj was serious. So, she told her parents about it. They discussed the matter and told Sabitha she was too young to think of matrimony. “So I wrote a letter to Jayaraj saying that he should drop the plan to get married,” she says. The director agreed.

However, a few months later, they met accidentally at the Guruvayur temple. “We started talking again,” says Sabitha. “It was then that I felt that this was the man for me, which God had chosen. We started communicating with each other through letters and phone calls. Then I told my father that I would like to get married to Jayaraj.”

The family accepted her decision and Sabitha tied the knot on December 11, 1994. After 18 years of marriage, Sabitha says that Jayaraj is a loving and helpful person. “He understands the sadness of other people and is very supportive of those who are going through a tough time,” she says. “But his greatest quality is of being a parent. Jayaraj is close to our children – Dhanu, [15], and Keshav, [7].”

Since he is not at home all the time, Jayaraj compensates by spending quality time with the children. “He reads stories to them and plays cricket, football, and badminton with our son all the time,” she says. “Jayaraj takes them to school every morning. As a result, the children are very attached to him. If he is on a shoot, they always await his arrival. Every day they will ask me when acchan will come home.”

Asked about the particular qualities of a creative artist, Sabitha says, “Even though he is present in the house, I feel that mentally he is far away. He is absent-minded at times.” If a shoot is approaching, Jayaraj is thinking full-time about the film. That is because cinema is his passion. “He discusses the script, with me, right from the storyline,” she says. “Sometimes, he makes changes. But I feel, at times, that my importance has suddenly gone down. I am unable to prevent this feeling from coming up. Then I remind him that there is somebody like me who is present in the house.”

As a creative person, Jayaraj has emotional ups and downs. “When he is moody, I leave him alone,” she says. “If I interfere, it will be a hindrance. I will ask him later about what is bothering him.”

Interestingly, a couple of years after they got married Sabitha asked Jayaraj what drew him to her initially. “He told me he was attracted by the atmosphere of the house,” says Sabitha. “His house in Kottayam is in the middle of the town. Our house was in a village and resembled those in MT Vasudevan Nair’s stories. When he saw the house for the first time, he felt very excited. He told himself that if he married anybody it would be a girl from this sort of environment.”

Jayaraj was also looking for a traditional girl. “Somebody who has a naadan look, yet at the same time, is modern,” says Sabitha. “He was searching for that particular mix, and, apparently, I fitted the bill.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Never Say Die

Born in abject poverty in a village in Kerala, Kumar Bahuleyan grew up to become an eminent neuro-surgeon in the United States. Later, he would transform his village by building roads, clinics, colleges, a top-class hospital and a resort

Photo of K. Bahuleyan by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

Kumar Bahuleyan's two younger brothers and a sister were screaming with pain. He felt helpless as he looked at them. His father and mother did not know what to do. In the 1920s, in the village of Chemmanakary, 20 kms from Kochi, there was no drinking water, electricity, schools, or sanitary facilities. “My siblings got sick by drinking polluted water,” says Bahuleyan. “And there was no doctor to cure them. They died of roundworm infestation. Even now, 80 years later, I can hear their screams in my head.”

Bahuleyan's father, Kumaran, a subsistence farmer, belonged to the low-caste Ezhavas. As a child, Bahuleyan was pot-bellied, with a runny nose, and suffered from amoebiasis, chicken and small pox, scabies and typhoid. When Bahuleyan wanted to study in an English-medium school, his father was unable to pay the fees. So he joined the Malayalam government school.

One day, after Bahuleyan had completed his Class 7 final exams, he was walking with his father, in front of an English-medium school run by a Brahmin, Harihara Subramaniam Iyer.

Kumaran, where are you going?” said Iyer.

Kumaran said that he was trying to get admission for Bahuleyan in another school. Astonishingly, Iyer offered Bahuleyan a seat, even though the monthly fees were Rs 3.50.
Bahuleyan says, “It was the biggest break of my life.”

After his schooling, Bahuleyan went to UC College in Aluva and completed his science degree in 1949. By this time Bahuleyan’s aim had crystallised: he wanted to become a doctor. “My siblings had died of preventable diseases,” he says. “I wanted to use my expertise to cure the world.”

Thereafter, he secured admission to the Madras Medical College. Unfortunately, the capitation fees of Rs 1200 had to be paid. His maternal uncle, Padmanabhan, who was well off, sold off a piece of land and gave Bahuleyan the money. 

“With that sum I was able to attend the first-year classes,” says Bahuleyan. For the second year, Bahuleyean went to Subramaniam Iyer for help. And Iyer did an extraordinary thing. He pawned his wife’s jewellery and gave Bahuleyan Rs 3000. For the third year, Bahuleyan also did something extraordinary. He got himself engaged, with the help of his father, to the daughter of an affluent liquor dealer.

Consequently, Bahuleyan used the dowry money to pay the fees. But once he graduated, he broke off the engagement. “The girl’s father set too many conditions,” says Bahuleyan. His father was deeply offended, and never again spoke to his son.

Meanwhile, the state government sent Bahuleyan to do neuro-surgical training at the University of Edinburgh. He spent six years there and returned in 1964. The very next year, he was drafted into the Army, during the India-Pakistan war, because the Armed Forces did not have a qualified neuro-surgeon. Following that, in 1968, he immigrated to the United States, and finally settled in Buffalo, New York, in 1973.

Known for his extraordinary talent as a neurosurgeon, his career took off, and he made millions. “I was the right person at the right time at the right place with the right skills,” he says. Soon, he bought a large house, owned six Mercedes cars, a Cherokee 4 airplane, and a Honda 500 cc motorcycle. “It was my hedonistic days,” he says. “I threw wild parties and lived on the fast lane. I got everything money could buy, but it did not make me happy.”

Every now and then he would return to Chemmanakary and would observe that nothing had changed. In 1989, he set up the Bahuleyan Foundation and set aside $20 million for it. His first project was to set up a clinic catering to women and children. Later, Bahuleyan built new roads, improved sanitation facilities, and set up a potable water supply system. 

In 1996, Bahuleyan established the Indo-American Brain and Spine Hospital in the village. Today, it is a 220-bed super-speciality hospital and one of the premier institutes in south India. In 2004, he set up the Kalathil Lake Resort; the profits are used for charitable works. Apart from that, he also started a nursing as well as a physical therapy college.

On the personal front, he had an arranged marriage in 1958, but got divorced in 1968. One child, son Saju, lives in Chicago. His second marriage to a widow, Dr. Indira Kartha, took place in 1985. And, today, at the age of 86, Bahuleyan continues to do surgeries. “By the grace of God, my hands are steady and my brain is fine,” he says.  Bahuleyan divides his time between the USA, where his wife lives, and the hospital where he works 24/7.

And thus continues the ongoing saga of a most extraordinary Malayali.

(The Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

A young man on a hot streak

Director Aashiq Abu’s latest film, ‘Da Thadiya’ with no stars in it, is doing well at the box office

Photo of Aashiq by Mithun Vinod

By Shevlin Sebastian

Director Aashiq Abu is sitting among the audience during the first show of his latest film, ‘Da Thadiya’ (‘Hey Fat Guy’). At the end, the hero, Luke John Prakash (Shekhar Menon) has to decide whether he wants to reignite his childhood romance with Any Mary Thaddikaran (Ann Augustine). Luke is standing on the edge of a pier at Fort Kochi, while Ann stands a few feet behind him. After a few moments of reflection, Luke decides to spurn Ann, quite unlike what happens in almost any film in any language in India. 

The audience boos initially but then settles into a sustained applause. “In this story, it will look unnatural and forced if the hero accepts the heroine,” says Aashiq. “By this point, the viewer is completely identified with Luke. So I was sure there would be no problems if she was rejected.”

Da Thadiya’ is about the travails of a fat man. “Every man is different from each other physically and mentally,” says Aashiq. “You should not categorise people according to their size. Even dark and short people have a problem. Today, when the parents of a girl are looking for a boy, a fat man is definitely out of the picture. I wanted to make a point that there are all types of people, and we should accept them as they are.”
Da Thadiya’ is emerging to be a ‘word of mouth’ hit. The collections have been more than satisfactory, thanks to the holiday season. But what has been most unusual is that there are no stars in the film. The hero, Shekhar, was playing his first role, although he is a well-established disc jockey in Kochi. His cousin, Sunny Jose, played by Sreenath Bhasi, is your ordinary happy-go-lucky youngster. “I could have taken stars, but it would have looked contrived,” says Aashiq.

Asked about the qualities needed for a film to be a hit, he says, “The script should be engaging, logical, and convincing. Suppose I introduce a character named Narayanan. Subconsciously, as the film continues, the audience is searching for more details about Narayanan: Where is his home town? Who are his parents? What is his mind-set? If there is a moment’s break in this, the viewer will lose interest, and get bored.”

By this success, Aashiq has also shown that you don’t need a star to have a hit. “For me, the concept comes first followed by the story and screenplay,” he says. “It is only in the end that we think of selecting the actors.” This is in marked contrast to most Mollywood directors who selects the star first and then frames a story around him.

Another change that Aashiq is spearheading is the injection of quality into commercial films. “There is a belief in the industry that when you make a commercial film, the aim should be to make people laugh,” he says. “So a character should wear a bright red shirt or yellow shorts. The camera should not focus on an actor’s face for too long. The less logical it is the better. This is because of the fear that that the audience will not accept serious cinema. And, therefore, films should not be a depiction of real life.”

Aashiq’s previous two films, ‘Salt 'n Pepper’ and ‘22 Female Kottayam’, depicted real life in intense images and  proved to be big hits. So, it looks like he is on the right track. And the stars also want to get onto his track. The young director's next film, ‘Gangster’ will star Mammooty in the lead role. 

(The Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Married to a full-time politician

COLUMN: Spouse's Turn

Vani talks about life with P. Rajeev, Rajya Sabha member

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Vani Kesari received a marriage proposal from P. Rajeev she assumed that he was a journalist, since he was the resident editor of the Deshabhimani newspaper. It was only later she realised that he was a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

During their first meeting in April, 2004, Rajeev said that he led a busy life and travelled a lot. “He told me the time which he could spend with the family would be limited,” she says.

Impressed by his candidness, Vani said yes and the couple got married on June 12, 2004. It was a party marriage, which meant that there were no religious rituals. “Rajeev told me that he did not believe in God but was okay if I did,” says Vani. They exchanged garlands and rings in the presence of several dignitaries.

Later, they went for a brief honeymoon in Bangalore where Rajeev went to attend a meeting. In the evenings, they would go for shopping and walks in the parks.

After eight years, what Rajeev said turned out to be true. The time that this elected member of the Rajya Sabha spends with the family, which includes daughters Hridhya, 7, and Haritha, 5, is, indeed, very limited. On any given day, he leaves at 8 or 9 a.m., and returns at 9.30 p.m., or later.

At night, their daughters will keep looking through the drawing-room window at the gate of their house, near the Cochin University of Science and Technology (CUSAT). “They usually meet him if he comes by 10 p.m.,” says Vani. “They are very attached to him. So, they feel disappointed when he does not come before they go to sleep.”

But Rajeev is keen to make his children happy. So, every morning, he dresses them in their uniforms and sometimes helps Hridhya and Haritha in their studies.

For Vani, the most memorable experience was when she gave birth to Hridhya at a hospital in Thiruvananthapuram. “My daughter was born on Rajeev's birthday, June 1,” she says. “It is a rare instance of a father and daughter sharing the same birthday.”

Meanwhile, Vani has begun to realise that being the wife of a politician is not an easy experience. Recently, she had gone to attend a function at CUSAT, where she is an assistant professor of law. A man said, “You are wearing an expensive saree! Well, your husband is in a good position, so he can buy them at an exorbitant rate.”

Vani replied, “Sir, would you not buy a good saree for your wife?”

Vani pauses, and says, “There is a notion among a section of the public that if your husband is in public service, he is corrupt. The politician is a much-needed person, as far as individual problems are concerned, but in the public eye, he is always seen as a dishonest person. That is why youngsters, with a good educational background, are reluctant to enter politics.”

When Vani told Rajeev about the incident, he did not react. “My husband takes the ups and downs of life with a sense of detachment,” says Vani. “All politicians are aware that some members of the public look down upon them. Undoubtedly, it is a painful experience.”

For Rajeev, work is his solace. “He is also a voracious reader,” says Vani. “One of his favourite authors is [Marxist historian] Eric Hobsbawm. He has also written books and is always penning articles.”

One disappointment for Rajeev is that Vani does not know to read Malayalam. She grew up in Chennai, the youngest, of three daughters, of a Merchant Navy captain. “Rajeev had asked me to learn Malayalam, since it is our mother-tongue,” she says.

Meanwhile, Vani has got used to another aspect of a politician's life: the lack of privacy. By 5.30 a.m., people gather outside the house in order to meet Rajeev. “They come for medical or financial help, or to invite him to attend certain functions,” she says. “Sometimes, they share their personal and professional problems with him. And my husband tries to offer solutions.”

Asked for tips for a successful marriage, Vani says, “Mutual trust and respect are important. People marry because they want companionship. So, spouses should be friends with each other. Both husband and wife comes from different backgrounds, hence, adjustments are necessary, if the marriage is to succeed.” 

About P. Rajeev

P. Rajeev was elected to Rajya Sabha on April 27, 2009. He is a native of Meladoor in Thrissur District. He graduated in Economics from St. Paul's College, Kalamassery and did his LLB from Government Law College in Ernakulam. Rajeev also holds a diploma in Chemical Engineering from the Government Polytechnic, Kalamassery. He was a practicing lawyer at the High Court of Kerala before becoming a full-time politician. Today, he is a state committee member of the CPI (M). 

Rajeev has published a few books: 'Aagolavalkkarna kalathe campus', 'Vivadhangalile Vedhiyanagal', '1957 Charithravum Varthamnavum (editor)', and 'Purakku Mel Chanja Maram' (with other contributors).

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Saving Kerala’s mural heritage

The father-son duo of KK Warrier and son Sasi, both renowned painters, have preserved many mural paintings in Kerala, which were on the verge of being destroyed

Photo by Manu R. Mavelil

By Shevlin Sebastian

On November 30, 1970, a massive fire broke out in the Sree Krishna temple at Guruvayur. As a result, several mural paintings were damaged. When renowned mural painter KK Warrier read about the news, he rushed to the temple, accompanied by two artistes, Sreenivasan and Soman. “We traced the painting on paper so that we knew what the drawing was like,” says Warrier.

Then in 1986, the Guruvayur Devaswom, which oversees the temple, showed an interest in preserving the paintings. Usually, when there is a renovation, the old works are scraped off. Then new drawings are put on the same wall. “But I wanted to preserve the original compositions,” says Warrier. “These have been done by masters like Pulakkat Raman Nair and his disciples.”

In the ancient method of mural painting, first the wall is plastered. Thereafter, there is a coating of lime and coconut water. “In fact, there are 28 coats,” says Sasi. “It becomes thicker than paper. It is on this base that the painting has done.”

Warrier, 78, accompanied by his son, Sasi, tried various techniques to remove the paintings, but none worked, till, after four months of experimentation, they finally hit upon a foolproof method. “It is a chemical process, and we want to keep it a secret,” says Sasi, with a smile. “We have applied for a patent and hope to get it soon.”

In their method, they can take the painting off, along with the underlying layer. Then it is placed on a wooden board and for the background, the ochre-red colour, which is a must in all mural paintings, is painted in.

Apart from Guruvayur, Warrier and Sasi have collected paintings from eight temples across Kerala. These include the Kumaranalloor Devi temple at Kottayam, the Tahikkattusseri Vamanamoorthi temple in Thrissur and the Pallathankulangara Siva Temple at Vypeen, Kochi.

Interestingly, they got the largest painting, 6 x 4 ½ ft., from a house on the periphery of the Guruvayur temple. Owing to security reasons, these old houses were being demolished. But 150 years ago, Pulakkat Raman Nair and his assistants stayed in this house while they worked in the temple. And in a gesture of goodwill they painted the walls of the house. 

Over the years, the walls were painted over, except for one, which had a painting on it. And the Warriers wanted to save it. The owner, Nharakkat Pisharam, had one request: he wanted a photocopy so that he could hang it in his new home.

In this work, Hanuman is reading the Ramayana to Rama,” says Warrier. “It is one of the best paintings in our collection.” And the Warriers ensured that Pisharam got a copy.

The earliest painting -- at the Karivellur Puthoor Siva temple at Kannur -- is 400 years old.  In 2002, the temple authorities were planning a renovation. So, the ceiling was demolished, as they wanted to put a new roof, but the walls could not take the weight. So, the walls had to be demolished. “When the news broke out in the media that such old paintings were going to be destroyed, we got in touch,” says Warrier. “The authorities gave permission and we completed the job in four days.”

In total, there is a collection of 98 paintings, which were displayed at an exhibition in Kochi recently. “We wanted to sensitise the public about this treasure trove,” says Sasi. “There are many non-Hindus who will not be able to enter temples to see these works. So this is a chance for them to view them.”

The Warriers also want temple authorities across the state to view the display. “Many works are being destroyed day-by-day,” says Sasi. And there are various reasons for this. 

“Sometimes, it is the handiwork of human beings,” says Sasi. “But there are natural causes, like fire or when rain water seeps down the surface of the painting. Sometimes, the walls develop a crack. On other occasions, insects and birds, which dwell in the temple premises, make scratches.”

Incidentally, the subjects in the paintings include gods like Brahma, Indra, Vishnu and Siva and goddesses like Bhagawathy and Durga. There are also scenes from the Mahabaratha, Ramayana, and the Puranas. And in order to ensure that no painting is taken abroad, every one of them has been registered with the Archaeological Survey of India. 

So, an unlikely combination of an ageing father and son, both well-known mural painters, have taken the onerous task of preserving a particular niche of Kerala’s cultural heritage. 

(The New Indian Express, Sunday Magazine)

'I am competing with newcomers'

By Sathyan Anthikad

(As told to Shevlin Sebastian)

It is true that I have been a reasonably successful film-maker for more than 30 years, but I cannot afford to relax, because, till today, nobody has discovered a sure-fire formula behind hits. But what I ensure is to do the job with 100 per cent sincerity. The passion which I showed at 19 still burns brightly within me. Another reason why my films have done well is because I try to see my films through the eyes of an ordinary person. I have also ensured that no matter how entertaining a film is, at the core there should be a social message. This is there in every one of the 52 films that I have made.

I also tend to repeat my actors and crew in film after film. They include actors like Jayaram, Innocent, KPAC Lalitha, and cinematographer Venu. Apart from having a mental wavelength with them, and a sense of family, which is very important for me, they are all great talents. And it is because of their contributions that my films have done well.

As soon as a film of mine is released I go back to my village of Anthikad and lead the life of an ordinary dweller. Because of this, I am able to keep track of the changes in society. It does not mean I am constantly monitoring what is happening. It is an unconscious assimilation of trends by going for movies, talking with people, and reading a lot.

I am not particularly affected that my last film, 'Puthiya Theerangal', has got mixed reviews. In my mind, I have made the best film. But on Facebook and other social media a lot of careless comments are made. There is a desire to bring down established directors. But I take comfort from the fact that my earlier films, like 'Nadodikattu' and 'Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu' received negative reviews initially, but, later, it became positive.

I will take a break of a few months before I start work on my next film. The reason why I have not faded away is because I am trying to compete with the newcomers. That is my mind-set. This has kept me young in mind and heart. It is only when the media says that I have been in the profession for three decades that I am reminded of my age. But in my heart I always feel that I have joined the industry only the other day.

And it is these hot young directors who are bringing about a positive change in the Malayalam film industry. It reminds me of an earlier trend. In the 1980s, there was a similar change when a group of new directors, writers and actors came on the scene. They included Mammooty, Mohanlal, Fazil, Priyardarshan, Sibi Malayil and myself. 

Now, after many years, a similar change is coming. Rajesh Pillai’s 'Traffic' is an impressive film. Talented directors like Aashique Abu and Sameer Thahir, and actors like Fahad Fazal, Dulquer Salman and Nivin Pauly are making an impact. But that does not mean the senior people will fade away. Mammooty and Mohanlal are highly talented and committed actors. They will continue to have their space.

As to the oft-asked question of how long I will make films, I remember the case of the great director Satyajit Ray, who shot his last films, while an ambulance was on permanent stand-by at the location. But, realistically, I hope to make films as long as I have the passion for it!

(Senior director Sathyan Anthikad has had several hits in Mollywood) 

(The New Indian Express, Sunday Magazine)