Monday, May 29, 2017

Providing A Home Sweet Home

A nun in Kerala has taken upon the task of building houses for the poor. So far, she has made 60 and more are in the pipeline

Photos: Sr. Lizzy Chakkalakal. Photo by Albin Mathew. An inside room

By Shevlin Sebastian

Sr. Lizzy Chakkalakal was standing at a bus stop at Chellanam, Kochi sometime ago. The principal of the higher secondary section of Our Lady's School at Thoppumpady, Kochi, was on her way to visit a student's family. On the opposite side she saw a blue plastic sheet tied to a tree. Underneath it, a family was living there. Curious, she crossed the road and met the woman, Pushpa M.

She had two school-going children. Her husband, an alcoholic and part-time butcher, had committed suicide because of mounting debts. Now Pushpa was struggling to survive. The creditors came at night and asked Pushpa for sexual favours. “But she held on to her integrity,” says Sr. Lizzy. “She always kept a machete under her pillow.”

Sr. Lizzy, who belongs to the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, a Catholic order, felt compelled to do something. When she heard that Pushpa had a small piece of land, she got the idea – she would build a house. And, through donations from retired and current teachers, students, parents, and affluent businessmen, she built a 500 sq. ft. house.

There is a hall, kitchen and a room which opened towards the street. “This is a space for a shop,” says Sr. Lizzy. Soon, Pushpa began selling tea, coffee and snacks from this room. On the first floor, there are two bedrooms. Gradually, the children gained self-esteem when they started staying in a proper house. “They began doing well in their studies,” says Sr. Lizzy. “And Pushpa's life has changed.”

Sr. Lizzy is changing the lives of many families through her ‘House Challenge’ project. Thus far, with the help of teacher Lilly Paul, she has built 60 houses, while a further ten are in varying stages of construction.

But what is most amazing is the quality of the houses. They are better than most middle-class homes. All the floors are tiled, the walls are painted brightly, the kitchen counter has a granite top, and there is a washbasin in the dining hall, apart from bathrooms, with faucets and cisterns, and wooden doors. Incidentally, each house costs about Rs 10 lakh.

Dr. P.J. Abraham, chairman of Divine Developers, who has built most of the houses, says that he did not want to distinguish between poor and middle-class houses. “We have always used high-quality materials,” he says. “And Sr. Lizzy told us that the poor did not have any money to spare for repairs. So the houses had to be in tip-top condition.”

Not surprisingly, the impact has been stunning for the recipients. New house-owner Mini Benny says, “It sometimes feels like a dream. My children say that they are living in a posh hotel. It is so unbelievable at times.”

Major financial contributor TA Joseph, Managing Director of the Confident Group, a construction firm, says, “Sr. Lizzy is doing a remarkable job.”

Meanwhile, when asked about how she selects the beneficiaries, Sr. Lizzy says, “They are mostly widows, and families who have specially challenged children, because they are the ones who need the most protection,” she says. 

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

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Mentor's Impact

Educationist Molly Cyril talks about her experiences at Stanford University, USA, when her former student, Ashwin Sreenivas, selected her as being his most influential school teacher

Photos: Ashwin Sreenivas and Molly Cyril; Molly with the other participants

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day in March, when Molly Cyril, the Dean and Director of The Charter School, at Kochi, opened her e-mail, she saw an unusual tag line: 'Terman Award 2017-Teacher Notification'.

She felt puzzled, as she clicked on the mail. The accompanying letter from Stanford Engineering College, USA, made things clear. Her former student, Ashwin Sreenivas had been selected as a recipient of the Frederick Emmons Terman Engineering Scholastic Award for distinguished academic performance at the university.

The letter, by Thomas Kenny, Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs went on to state: 'We asked award recipients to invite their secondary school teacher, who was the most influential in guiding them during the formative years of their academic career. I am delighted that Ashwin has identified you as that person.'

Naturally, Molly was shocked, surprised and thrilled. She knew Ashwin, because he had remained in touch with her long after he had left school. Ashwin was an alumni of Choice School when Molly had been the Principal (2001-13).

Asked why he chose Molly, Ashwin says, “She was always very supportive. Whenever I wanted to take part in competitive exams or represent the school in different competitions, Molly Maam would allow me. Sometimes, she let me skip school, too. My successes were always celebrated by her, while my failures gently brushed aside."

Once, when Ashwin wanted to start a 'Model United Nations' competition, among the schools, Molly's response surprised Ashwin. “I expected a pushback, but Molly Maam immediately said, 'I believe you can do this. Tell me whatever you want and we will make sure it happens'. Thanks to this response, we were able to host the first 'Model-UN' in Kerala schools.”

Ashwin pauses and says, “If she had not been my principal, it would have been been nearly impossible to get to where I am today.”

So, on April 8, Ashwin and Molly walked into the Jen-Hsun Huang Engineering Centre at Stanford. Around 40 teachers, from countries like China, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Germany and Iceland, apart from the USA, had also come. Some were English teachers, while others taught Chemistry, Biology, Computer Science, Maths and even Physical Education. Interestingly, Molly was the only Principal present.

After a welcome speech by Dean Jennifer Widom, the teachers were invited to talk about their former wards. And so the speeches began. As Molly listened intently, she found it an interesting experience. “I was able to see the impact of different kinds of teachers on their wards,” she says.

Soon, she noticed a common thread. “Many spoke about the humility in the students and their willingness to help others,” says Molly. “It does seem that, to be successful, you need to be humble. In the sense that this particular quality helps you go along a long way, apart from the need for hard work, perseverance, discipline and focus.”

Interestingly, Ashwin is the only Indian from India. There are two other American-Indians. The future looks bright for Ashwin. “He is one of the best students in my course,” says Advisor Gerald Cain, of the Computer Science Department. “I was most impressed with the open source work that Ashwin did. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to teach him and for the work he did, and I wish him all the best.”

Adds Molly: “I never for a moment doubted that Ashwin will do well. He is a brilliant boy.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Cold And Hot

Actor Anu Sithara talks about her experiences in the film, 'Ramante Eden Thottam'
By Shevlin Sebastian
Mollywood actor Anu Sithara got up one morning at Vagamon and looked out of the window. A fierce wind was blowing and the cold was unbearable. She shivered a bit. Soon, she stepped out and the production controller led her to the top of a hill. This was for a shoot for Ranjit Shankar's 'Ramante Eden Thottam' (2017). Ranjith looked at Anu and said, “We are going to do a sequence for the song, 'Akale Oru Kaadinte' [sung by Shreya Ghoshal].” Anu replied, “Yes Sir.”
Then Anu looked around to wish good morning to her co-star Kunchacko Boban (Chackochen). But he was nowhere to be found. Till she looked skywards. And there was Chackochen standing at the top of a tall tree, which had bare branches. Anu was mystified, till Ranjith said, “The shoot will take place at that height.” That was when Anu started having heart palpitations. “I have climbed trees during my childhood at Kalpetta, but not such tall trees,” she says.
Anyway, with the help of a ladder, and crew members, Anu was able to reach where Chackochen was standing. “When I looked down, I really felt scared,” she says.
Chackochen immediately said, “Anu, there is nothing to worry. Just be normal. Have courage.” So thanks to Chackochen's constant encouragement, Anu was able to shoot the sequence without any problems. “Chackochen is a relaxed person,” says Anu. “And he was always comfortable in the chilly weather.”
And he showed it many times. During the night shoot of the song, 'Maavilakudil', it was extremely cold. “So, whenever the shot was over, we – Muthumani, the two children who acted in the movie and myself – would rush into a room nearby and huddle under the blankets,” says Anu. “But whenever we looked through the window, we would see Chackochen walking around, wearing only a shirt. The cold never affected him.”
But Anu did feel affected as she shot the other sequences. For the song, 'Akale', Anu had to drive a jeep down a road, with Kunchacko by her side. There was a steep gorge on one side, stones on the road and mud on the other side. “I felt a great tension within me,” she says. “I just knew enough driving to get a license, and nothing more.”
Again, Chackochen came to the rescue. Keeping his hand away from the camera view, he held the steering wheel steadily, so that Anu could drive straight, and without a problem. “Thankfully, the shoot went through smoothly,” says Anu.
Thereafter, it was time for Anu to perspire. Because, this time, the shoot was being held at Panampilly Nagar, Kochi. The summer heat was pressing down on her. This time, she had to drive one side of a car up a wooden plank placed at an incline, and come to a stop at a precise point. “If I went past, the car would topple over,” says Anu. This time, Chackochen was not around, as it was a solo shot.
After reaching the incline, Anu had to fall out, and say a dialogue. What added to the tension were the numerous bystanders who were standing on the road and watching the shoot. However, inside the car sat cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan who kept saying, “You are driving perfectly. Keep going.”
All this helped because the shoot was concluded without any mishap. “Many people think shooting is an easy thing to do, but, sometimes, it can be tough mentally as well as physically,” says Anu. 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)   

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Second Burial

By Shevlin Sebastian

In the 1980s, when I was doing my Plus Two at Christ College in Bangalore, I was staying with my uncle George Mani, a scientist. What I remember most about Uncle was his study desk. It was filled with numerous papers, files, plastic clips, and a mug. Whenever I looked at the desk, I would think, ‘How does Uncle locate what he wants?’

The other memory was his rush every morning, before he set out for work: the hurried breakfast, the quick grab of the briefcase and the rapid walk towards the car. 

Uncle, who was my mother's first cousin, lived with his wife Mercy. Their two sons were studying in colleges in the USA. I stayed with them for a year, before moving to a hostel. Later, with the help of his elder son, who had settled in America, Uncle migrated to the US when he was in his fifties. Thereafter, he had a brilliant ten-year run at a research laboratory, where he flourished, thanks to America’s culture of meritocracy.

About ten years ago, Uncle fell ill while on a visit to Kochi. Soon, his health deteriorated. By now, my parents and I had relocated from Kolkata to Kochi. So we rushed to meet him at the hospital. Uncle managed a warm smile. Then he died, at the age of 79. And I felt sad. He was a good man. But that was not the end of the story.

A few days ago, my parents received a call. Apparently, Aunt Mercy had bought a plot in the cemetery of a church, at Kochi, near where she has a house. She wanted Uncle’s remains to be taken out of the family burial spot, from another church, 20 kms away, and put in this new grave. And since she was not well enough to travel from the USA, she deputed her Kottayam-based brother, Francis, and his wife, Reena, to do the needful. And she wanted my parents to be there also.

And so there we were, at the graveside, on a hot summer morning, with the remains of my uncle: it consisted of a few bones, taken from the rib cage, and placed inside a large white envelope. Reena whispered, “Since the skull was large, we did not take it.”

As the priest intoned the prayers, a helper used a ladder to reach the bottom of the grave. He delicately placed the envelope on the ground, and used a spade to cover it with mud. Later, concrete slabs were placed across the top of the grave. Thus, my Uncle got a new burial spot. But I won't be surprised, if, up in the heavens, Uncle has a bemused smile. 

(Published as a middle in South India editions, The New Indian Express)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

In Praise Of The Almighty

The qawwali group, Mehfil-e-Sama made an impact with their first performance at Kochi recently

Photos by Melton Anthony 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the stage at the Rajendra Maidan, recently, for the Caritoon Kochi 2017 festival, qawwali singer Irfan Erooth says, “The next song is called 'Sanson Ki Mala Pe', which was sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.” Immediately, musicians Jawed Aslam and Javed Allaf start playing the harmonium, while Rohit Sudheer and Sundaran let fly on the tabla.

Soon, Irfan sings in Urdu:

Aa Piya In Nainan Mein
Jo Palak Dhaamp Tohe Loon
Naa Mein Dekhoon Ghair Ko
Naa Mein Tohe Dekhan Doon

(O beloved arise inside my eyes
Let me hold you within
I will not see any other
Nor will I let you)

The Malayali audience, which includes the Kochi Corporation Mayor Soumini Jain, listens avidly.

Later harmonium player Jawed Aslam says, “We felt a bit apprehensive because this was the first time we were performing in Kochi. So we were not sure about the audience reaction.”

In fact, before the concert began, many people had gone up to the group, as they stood near the stage and told them that they had come for the programme, because they did not know what a qawwali is. “So they were curious,” says Jawed. “However, the beauty of the songs is that you can enjoy it even when you don't understand a word.”

This is true. Even though the crowd did not understand the lyrics, there were many who were tapping their feet and swaying their heads from side to side, with a smile on their faces.

Jawed is part of a 14-member group called the Mehfil-e-Sama. They include three female chorus singers, Neetu, Pragila, and Shringa. While a few of them, like Irfan and Jawed are based in Delhi, the others live in Kerala.

But the group comes together often to give performances in the state. And they have a huge fan following in Malabar. “We have been accepted there whole-heartedly,” says Irfan. “They love the songs.”

Interestingly, the songs which get the most response are those sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Earlier, Qawwalis would be sung in dargahs, since they are songs in praise of Allah, Prophet Mohammed and Sufi saints. “But the one who made it popular among the people was Nusrat Sahab,” says Jawed. “He has also sung romantic songs, apart from verses in praise of God.”

Born in Faisalabad, Pakistan, Nusrat was, indeed, instrumental in popularising the Qawwali among international audiences. He also composed music for Hindi films like 'Aur Pyar Ho Gaya', 'Kartoos' and 'Kachche Dhaage'. Nusrat was called the 'Shahenshah-e-Qawwali' (or 'The King of Kings of Qawwali'). Unfortunately, he died aged 48, of a sudden heart attack, on August 16, 1997, at London.

The Qawwali group also sang songs by the Sabri Brothers, Abida Parveen, and Amir Khusrow (1253-1325), who is regarded as the father of the Qawwali. He has composed thousands of spiritual songs in Urdu, Brajabasha, Poorvi and Farsi.

The Mehfil-e-Sama had performed at Kochi at the invitation of the Secretary of the Kerala Cartoon Academy Sudheernath. “Following our first performance, we got a couple of offers to do concerts in Kochi,” says Jawed. “This means that our debut performance went down well.”

Incidentally, whereever they go, especially in North India, non-Muslims and foreigners comprise the majority of the audience. “Music has no religion,” says Jawed. 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Being True To Nature

Noted architect Anupama Kundoo makes buildings that do minimal damage to the environment and uses local materials

Photos: Anupama Kundoo by Juan Rayos. The prototype of the dining room of 'The Wall House'. Photo by Andreas Deffner

By Shevlin Sebastian

Anupama Kundoo, with flowing black hair, and dressed in a black and white blouse-skirt, walks elegantly towards the lectern at Thanima-2, an international conference for architects which was held recently at the National Institute of Technology, Calicut.

Indians are one-sixth of the world population, but we have only 2.4 per cent of the world's land,” says Anupama. “This is a huge problem. The number of people on the footpaths of Mumbai are much more than those who live in multi-storeyed buildings. We are in denial of our social segregation.”

The internationally-reputed Anupama makes buildings that are low-cost, have low environmental impact and is suited to the local socio-economic conditions.

She displayed an example of this at last year's architecture biennale at Venice. Within a 2500 sq. ft. installation, she set up a 400 sq. ft. prototype of a low-cost house.

The house was hand-made,” says Anupama. “I took the help of artisans from Tamil Nadu who made blocks made of ferrocement (a cheaper and different type of concrete) at the Technical University of Berlin, with the help of German engineers. Then they came to Venice and made the walls and floors on the spot.”

Ferrocement has many advantages. While reinforced concrete is 15 cms thick, ferrocement, which is made of fine chicken mesh, is only 2 ½ cms. “Thanks to the mesh, the tensile strength is evenly distributed,” says Anupama. “So, it is more ductile than concrete and earthquake-resistant.”

This kind of house can be assembled in five to six days. So you save a lot of money and time. And local masons can build these simple components in their own backyards.

Meanwhile, the trip had an impact on the artisans. “Because they spent time in a heritage city like Venice, they realised that there was no need to imitate anybody,” she says. “In fact, they felt proud of their Indian heritage.”

And so does Anupama, who passed out from the JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai in 1989. Thereafter, for the next 12 years, she lived in Auroville, Pondicherry, where she built several innovative buildings. The most notable one was her own residence called 'The Wall House'.

It is L-shaped, with a courtyard in the middle and was built using traditional achakal bricks and terracotta tubes. As a result, she had reduced the use of concrete and steel. The dining table was made from a single log of wood, while the bathroom has an open-to-sky design. Incidentally, a life-size replica was shown at the 2012 Venice Biennale.

Apart from her building projects, Anupama is an academician. Today, she holds the chair of 'Affordable Habitat' at Universidad Camilo Jose Cela, Madrid, and was the Strauch Visiting Critic at Cornell University. Earlier, she had taught at Berlin, New York and Queensland. And she urges her students, especially those from India, to use local skilled and unskilled labour, along with the members of the local community for their projects. “In this way, the impact on the environment will be minimal,” says Anupama. 

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

Always With A Smile On His Face

(A tribute to my first cousin John S Powath, whose birthday falls today)

By Shevlin Sebastian

Whenever John S Powath would meet me, he would immediately ask, "Are you getting the magazines?" These were his babies: 'Rubber Asia', 'Tyre Asia' and 'Auto Parts Asia'. I would nod quickly.

Then he would also ask me whether I liked them. And, of course, there was plenty to like: lots of interesting stories, good layouts, high-quality paper and printing. Then he would ask me about his columns. Again I liked them. He had a natural and engaging style. So, his columns were always interesting to read.

Here is an extract from a recent issue:

"In this globalised world, we have to admit the fact that the English language has become the lingua franca.

In spite of that cross-cultural (mis)communications happen.

In the initial years of Coca-Cola’s entry into China, its name was rendered as Ke-kou-ke-la. The phrase meant 'bite the wax tadpole' or 'female horse stuffed with wax', depending on the dialect!

When General Motors launched the Chevy Nova in South America, it was apparently unaware that 'no va' means 'it won’t go'. It renamed it Caribe.

Similarly in Brazil, Ford had to change the name Pinto as it realised that it meant 'tiny male genitals'. It renamed it Corcel, which means horse.

When I went to a restaurant and looked around for the washroom, I saw this intriguing sign: 'Toilet out of order…… please use floor below'. I could not help but laugh aloud.

However, as I begin to see such signs frequently, they leave only a chuckle.

At a hotel’s laundromat, customers who are unfamiliar with the subtle nuances of the language often get scared to see signs such as this: 'Automatic washing machines: please remove all your clothes when the light goes out'.

At a department store run by an immigrant in London, I was amused to read the following: 'Bargain basement upstairs'.

What I found hilarious while visiting an office were two signs that made me giggle: 'Would the person who took the step ladder yesterday please bring it back or further steps will be taken.'”

After I gave the thumbs up, John would smile happily. He valued my feedback, since I have been a journalist for many years now.

John is my first cousin. When I was growing up in Kolkata, John had come to stay with us, from Changanacherry, Kerala.

After a while, he got a job in Dunlop Tyres. And he would always be well-dressed, in a white shirt and freshly-ironed trousers, and shining black shoes, as he set out for work.

Later, after marriage, he settled down in Mumbai.

Looking back, he was one of the most unforgettable people I have met. For one, he always radiated positive vibes and smiled easily. He could tell a joke at a moment's notice. As a result, a conversation with him always ended in laughter. And a good feeling all around.

His constant advice to me was simple: stay in touch with everybody all the time. So, it was no surprise that whereever he went in the world, on my birthday and wedding anniversary, he would always give a call and wish me. And please be sure that I was not the only one. He called all his friends, business acquaintances and relatives. That was John for you. He had a natural gift for friendship and networking.

So, it did come as a huge shock when I heard that he was stricken with cancer. And, perhaps, in the only time that I have known him, two weeks before he passed away, (on March 28, at age 71) at his seventh floor room at Lakeshore Hospital, Kochi, he told me, frankly, “I cannot bear it any more. It is too difficult.”

However, a couple of minutes after John said this, the conversation veered to 'Rubber Asia', his several trips abroad, including his meeting with Nikki Haley (of Indian origin), now US Ambassador to the UN, and his eyes lit up.

Anybody who knows him will tell you that John left too soon.
He had a lot more to contribute.

But destiny and the Almighty have willed otherwise.

And we have to accept it. 

But John will remain in our hearts forever! 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Being Ever-Youthful

Advertising guru Piyush Pandey talks about the talent in Kerala and the trends in the industry

Photo by Melton Anthony 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a recent summer afternoon, advertising guru Piyush Pandey stands outside the entrance of the Vivanta by Taj at Kochi and pulls on a cigarette. He has an easy smile on his face. And a sense of humour. Because, later, when somebody asks about his playing Ranji Trophy, Piyush says, “That was a long time ago. You can see from my size that I no longer play the game.”

Standing next to him is Prathap Suthan, the Mentor of the Pepper Awards, one of South India's biggest awards event for advertising.

Piyush, who is the Executive Chairman and Creative Director, South Asia, Ogilvy and Mather had been invited as the chief guest.

And the experience had been a good one for him. “I saw some very good work,” he says. “Since a lot of it was in Malayalam I cannot comment on the copywriting. But my Kerala colleagues told me the copy was good. I loved the humility of the award-winners, organisers, and the press.”

Piyush also has a touch of humility. And smartness too. It is not easy to be relevant in a creatively demanding and highly competitive field of advertising for more than three decades.

Asked the reasons behind his success, Piyush says, “I might have scored a 100 yesterday, but when I go to the cricket pitch today, I start at zero. In other words, you have to forget the work that you did earlier. You love it, respect it, and have wonderful memories, but you have to move on. Nobody can live on past glory. You have to try and be the best today. ”

It helps that in a country where are the majority are young, his creative team is stacked with youngsters. “They make me feel younger,” says Piyush. “And because I interact with them, I get an idea of their mindset.”

There are other reasons behind the success story. “You should be sincere in your work, and respect your audience,” he says. “Then only will they love you. After seeing my work, the audience members should be telling their friends, 'Have you seen that ad? It is so beautiful'.”
It seems to be the right way, because Piyush has won numerous awards. In 2000, the Ad Club of Mumbai called his commercial for Fevikwik as the 'commercial of the century' and his work for Cadbury as the 'campaign of the century'.

He is the only Indian to win a double gold at the Cannes Lions International festival, and a triple grand prize at the London International Awards. In 2012, Piyush received the Lifetime Achievement Award (the first for an Indian) at the Clio International Advertising Awards and, in 2016, he won the Padma Shri.

However, Piyush has noticed a disturbing trend regarding awards. “Most youngsters are only gunning for awards these days,” he says. “And that is a wrong way of looking at your work. At the end of the day we are commercial artistes, not pure ones. We are hired by somebody to help his commerce prosper. So, we should create ads that will help promote the brand.”

Instead, many are making esoteric ads, which has nothing to do with the brand. "They make five-minute films, put it on digital, and get millions of likes,” says Piyush. “'Likes' does not mean that I will go out and buy the brand. And that is a trend that I am worried about. If you cannot connect, then you have wasted somebody's money.”

And interestingly, in their latest Sprite ad, Ogilvy takes a tongue-in-cheek dig at this obsession. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Ideal Playground


Director Ranjan Pramod talks about his experiences in the films, 'Rakshadikari Baiju Oppu', 'Meesa Madhavan' and 'Photographer' 

Photo by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

For two months, last year, director Ranjan Pramod travelled throughout Kerala, to look for a playground for his recent hit film, 'Rakshadikari Baiju Oppu'. “I was not searching for a typical ground,” he says. “Instead, I was looking for an area where there was wild growth but which had a ground also. And the coconut leaves should look dried up.”

Ranjan finally managed to locate such a place at Payolli. Unfortunately, the owner, Abdul Aziz (name changed) was unwilling to rent it out. “He said that we would spoil the place,” says Ranjan. “I said, 'There is nothing to make bad. You hardly look after it'.”

Abdul replied, “You are cinema people. If you enter my property, and suppose you don’t leave, what will I do?” Ranjan said that if they did not leave, the film would not be released.

The director was feeling dejected. But then redemption was at hand. Since no shooting has taken place in Payolli before, the local people were very keen that it should happen. “They asked the maulvi of the local mosque to intervene,” says Ranjan.

The maulvi spoke to Abdul and finally the landlord agreed.

Expectedly, the people were over-excited at seeing stars like Biju Menon and Aju Varghese in the flesh. Once there was a shoot next to a government school. More than 100 schoolchildren leaned against a wall to watch. Unfortunately, the wall collapsed. And many students got injured.

But despite this, the other students and locals were more keen to get closer to the stars and did not bother about the injured youngsters. “However, Biju and Aju focused on placing the children, in a production vehicle, which took them to the hospital,” says Ranjan.

On the sets of 'Meesa Madhavan' (2002), there was another type of emergency. The shoot was taking place in a wide expanse of golden paddy fields in Palakkad. There were a lot of dry husks lying around.

Meanwhile, all the production vehicles, about 30 in total, were parked, one behind the other, on a narrow road that bifurcated the fields.

Suddenly, a fire started at one side. And owing to the hot breeze it headed towards the road. “There was absolute panic on the sets,” says Ranjan, who was the scriptwriter. “There was no way we could turn the cars around. Instead, it was decided that the vehicles would reverse at high speed.”

The stars, Dileep and Kavya Madhavan as well as director Lal Jose were in different cars. Somehow, they managed to reach the main road. “In the end, all of us managed to escape unhurt,” says Ranjan, with a smile, at a coffee shop in Kochi.

There was another type of emergency on the sets of 'Photographer' (2006) Ranjan's first directorial venture. The hero was a 12-year-old tribal boy by the name of Mani. One day, Mani complained about the food. The next day, one crew member said, sarcastically, “The shooting is going to be over. Where will you have your next meal?”

Mani became very upset. Then he vanished. After an extensive search, he was finally spotted at the top of a huge tree. “We asked him to come down, but he refused,” says Ranjan. “Finally, a few crew members climbed up and brought him down. And it took quite a while before I was able to persuade Mani to start acting again.” But it all turned out happily for Mani: for his performance, he won the Kerala State Film Award for Best Child Artiste. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode) 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Feminine Force

American Dianne Jenett, an ardent devotee of Goddess Bhadrakali, of the Attukal Devi temple in Thiruvananthapuram, talks about her experiences

Photos by BP Deepu

By Shevlin Sebastian

Dianne Jenett carefully holds the steel plate, which contains upturned lemon rinds, on which oil has been put and a wick is burning. She places them one by one on a large circular stand, just before the entrance of the Attukal Devi temple in Thiruvananthapuram. Her concentration is intense. So, she is oblivious to the curious stares and tender smiles that she gets from the other women.

But later, she says, “I love these women. They are always so welcoming. Most of them want to take selfies with me. There is nothing that I enjoy more than being in the middle of a crush of them going to see the Devi.”

Dianne stands out because she is a foreigner, who is wearing a saree. And within the temple precincts, nearly everyone – the administrators, security-men, priests and female helpers – all know her. That's because she has been coming annually to the temple for several years now.

It all began in 1993, when the California-native had come to Thiruvananthapuram. Somebody told her about a big festival at the temple. “When I first came, there were long queues of women and I wanted to know what was happening,” she says. “I was interested in rituals that had female deities and was women-centred.” Incidentally Dianne has retired as a professor of women’s spirituality from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology at Pala Alto, California.

During the course of one of her visits, Dianne became friends with Dr. MS Hema, an academic. And it was with Hema's help that Dianne was able to submit a successful doctoral dissertation on the temple at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Ever since then, she has given presentations at academic conferences and at the American Academy of Religion. “The people were fascinated,” she says. “They told me that they would never look at cooking in the same way.”

That’s because, during the annual Pongala festival, which was held on March 11 this year, the women made Pongala (a mix of rice with ghee, coconut and jaggery) on small pots out in the open. And it is offered to the Goddess to please her.

And it was also Dianne who ensured an international spotlight on the event. She submitted a successful application to the Guinness Book Of World Records in 1997 stating that the annual Pongala festival has the single largest gathering of women for a religious activity. In fact, the number of women who participate today is well over 30 lakh.

Over the years, Dianne also developed an intense devotion to the Goddess Bhadrakali. Asked about the qualities of the Devi, Diane says, “She is everything: fierce and tender, a mother as well as a warrior. And she provides emotional solace.”

So, when, some years ago, her four-month-old grandson, Simon, fell seriously ill, and hovered between life and death, at a hospital in California, Dianne prayed fervently to Devi. “I felt her presence very strongly,” she says. In the end, Simon survived.

Once at the temple, a women told Dianne she had to testify in court regarding an automobile accident and felt very nervous. “But when she prayed to Devi, she felt a courage and discovered her voice,” says Dianne.

Finally, when asked about the attractions of the temple, Dianne says, “Everyone is equal and the same before the goddess. We are all connected to each other. All are welcome here. There is a tolerance. This is something the world needs right now. ” 

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Cold And Freezing


Director/actor Dileesh Pothan talks about his experiences in the films, 'Rani Padmini', 'Maheshinte Prathikaaram' and 'Kullante Bharya'

Photos: Dileesh Pothan by Shekhar Yadav; the poster of 'Maheshinte Prathikaaram' 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When director/actor Dileesh Pothan arrived at Manali, in early 2015, he began to shiver. The temperature was below 5 degrees centigrade. He was supposed to play television reporter Ullas Menon in Aashiq Abu's 'Rani Padmini' (2015).

On the first night, he was sitting alone in his room, rubbing his hands together, even though he was wearing thermal underclothes. At about 10 p.m., he decided to go and see the rest of the crew. They lived in another building, 150 metres away, separated by a small field. So, Dileesh lit a cigarette and stepped out. A light rain was falling.

Halfway through, he became frozen. “I just could not move my body, even though I could see the building in front of me,” says Dileesh, who had worn socks, with his slippers. “I tried to shout, but no sound came out from my throat.”

Dileesh felt a panic rise in him. Then he slipped, and rolled all the way to the house. When the crew members saw him they became shocked. They took Dileesh in, removed his clothes and socks and rubbed his feet. “In the end, I spent the night in their room,” says Dileesh.

The shoot of 'Maheshinte Prathikaaram' was also a wet experience. “My method is to shoot scenes according to the script,” says Dileesh. So, one early scene is when Vincent Bhavana, Mahesh's father, played by K. L. Antony, is found in a bamboo grove at night by his son (Fahadh Faasil).

When we went location spotting, in Idukki, we spotted a beautiful banana grove,” says Dileesh. “But on the night we were supposed to shoot, there were fierce winds and a heavy rain and the grove was destroyed. Then we managed to find another place. But once again, as the shoot was about to take place, it started raining.”

So, they gave up. They were unable to settle for a rain sequence, because the previous and after scenes had no rain. "So there would be no continuity," says Dileesh.

Meanwhile, shoots at other locations were being done. Then, after a month, another attempt was made to shoot this particular scene. Again a new grove was located. Amazingly, just as the shoot was about to begin, it started raining. But this time, they were determined to finish the sequence. “Whenever there was a brief respite, we would shoot for a few minutes,” says Dileesh. “It was only at 3 a.m., the rain stopped and we were finally able to finish the scene.”

Looking back, Dileesh felt that the delay was good. “When I first imagined the scene, I had planned to shoot it in a particular way,” he says. “But after I did the other scenes I understood that I had to shoot it in a different way and that helped the film overall. So, sometimes, when obstacles happens, it is for one's good. ”

But perhaps this may not be at all times. In Amal Neerad's short film, 'Kullante Bharya', Dileesh played a watchman who is supposed to keep an eye on a bed-ridden man played by Dulquer Salman. So Dileesh had a night scene where he had to pour water into a glass which contained whiskey and drink it in one smooth movement.

Several takes took place and Amal was not satisfied. And each time, Dileesh had to drink the liquid, which was Pepsi. Eventually, it took 21 takes. But, later, when Amal asked Dileesh whether he wanted dinner, the latter said, “Four litres of Pepsi inside my stomach! There is no way I can eat anything.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

A Lifelong Impact

Mollywood director Blessy will soon release his documentary on Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar Thoma Valiya Metropolitan 

Shevlin Sebastian

Photos: Blessy with Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar Thoma Valiya Metropolitan; the cover of the DVD 

Noted cartoonist Yesudasan sits near the 100-year-old senior Philipose Mar Chrysostom Mar Thoma Valiya Metropolitan and does a sketch. After that, he asks, in all seriousness, “Thirumeni (Bishop), have you ever tried to draw?”

Mar Chrysostom says, “I am very bad at it. Once I drew a hen and it looked like a duck.” 

Yesudasan breaks into a smile.

In another scene, set in New Delhi, Mar Chrysostom tells Sitaram Yechury, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), “When I go back to Kerala, I will say I have converted Yechury to Christianity.”

A quick-witted Yechury says, “And I will tell my comrades that I have converted Father to Communism.”

And they both burst out laughing.

These are scenes from Mollywood director Blessy’s documentary, ‘100 years of Chrysostom’. “It is a detailed study of Mar Chrysostom,” says Blessy. And it is divided into five categories: ‘100 Celebrities Versus a Legend’: numerous notables have an interaction with the Bishop; ‘Golden words and classic lines’: these are drawings by noted cartoonists like the late Toms and Boney Thomas; ‘Walking with Chrysostom’: the events he took part in, as well as his speeches, ‘Archives’, and a 90 minute film.

Interestingly, apart from the film, Blessy is also going to upload 40 hours of recordings. “So you can choose what you want to see,” he says.

It has been a two-year labour of love. Asked why he decided to make a film, Blessy says, “We live in an era where religion is narrow-minded and divisive, and people do not accept the believers of other faiths. So, we need the Bishop's attitude of being able to see the face of God in all human beings, whatever religion he belongs to. In fact, the Bishop has moved away from looking at the religious background and focuses only on the individual.”

In the film, the Bishop says, “My friend's God is my God too. Just as I will not hail his father, with a ‘Hey You’, but always with the respect due to a parent, similarly, I cannot treat my friend with disrespect just because he belongs to another faith.”

Thanks to his excellent sense of humour and witty repartees, the Bishop has been close friends with the heads of many religions including Mata Amritanadamayi. In the documentary, Mar Chrysostom is also seen interacting with celebrities like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, actors Mammooty and Mohanlal, singers KJ Yesudas and KS Chithra, former sportspersons PT Usha and IM Vijayan and writers like the late ONV Kurup and MT Vasudevan Nair.

Interestingly, Blessy found Mar Chrysostom a natural in front of the camera. There is a scene where an old woman has to proffer a mug filled with coffee. But since her hands shook, she was given an empty mug. “But we did not inform the Bishop about that,” says Blessy. “But very naturally he took the cup and pretended to drink from it.”

And this constant interaction with the Bishop has led to a change in Blessy. “Earlier, when I would pray to God, it would be to ask Him to fulfill my wishes and dreams,” he says. “But now I have begun praying for others, for society, and the world.”

On the career front, Blessy says, there will be no changes. “I have always made socially-committed films, so I will continue to do that,” he says. “In fact, it is because of this social commitment that I got the idea to do the film on the Bishop in the first place.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)