Monday, November 21, 2016

A Close Look At An Icon

Joshy Joseph’s documentary, ‘Mahasweta Devi – Close Up’ focuses on one of West Bengal’s great writers and tribal activists 

Photos: Joshy Joseph with Mahasweta Devi; the writer

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the documentary 'Mahasweta Devi – Close up' opens, at the recent Signs Film Festival in Kochi, there is an image of an elderly woman, with round-rimmed spectacles, combing her grey hair. Behind her there are book shelves and a calendar hanging on a wall. Then the camera focuses on her face. She seems to be staring intently at something off-camera.

Mahasweta is watching the film, 'Five', by one of Iran's master film-makers, Abbas Kiarostami [who died on July 4 this year],” says film-maker Joshy Joseph.

The reason Joshy used this method was because of the lack of visual possibilities. “A writer finds it difficult to write in front of the camera,” he says. “So there are no variations in the visuals, unlike if you do a documentary on a dancer or musician.”

Nevertheless, the 40-minute film is an affectionate and intimate look at one of the great writers as well as tribal activists of West Bengal. Mahasweta, who wrote over 100 novels, won the Jnanpith Award, the Magsaysay Award, and the Padma Vibhushan.

Not surprisingly, in the film, Mahasweta talks about one of her favourite stories:

It was titled ‘Akla’ (Alone). There is a little boy whose parents have gone out and he is alone at home. He has nothing to do. He has finished his homework and is watching TV. Suddenly, next to him, comes and sits a little boy. The boy asks, ‘Who are you?’ The little boy answers, ‘I’m Akla. I came because you’re alone.’”

Joshy also travels with Mahasweta to Nandigram, which became infamous, because of the shooting of 14 people, on March 14, 2007, by the police when the ruling Left Front tried to set up a Special Economic Zone. There, she meets farmers and activists.

On her return journey, by car, there is an amusing moment when she connects with the State PWD minister Kshiti Goswami on the phone and complains about the sorry state of the roads. The minister, like most ministers, says he has no money for developmental works. “Ask one of the multinational companies,” says Communist sympathiser Mahasweta, tongue-in-cheek.

This film is a tribute to one of Joshy's close friends. “I would meet her every evening, because my office is just five minutes from her home,” says Joshy, who is Deputy Director-General in charge of the Films Division, Government of India.

Asked about the character of Mahasweta, Joshy says, “She was my friend, sister, mother and grandmother. All those roles, which different people play in your life, it was combined into one person. I miss her every single day.”  

Mahasweta died on July 28, at the age of 90. 

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

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