Ishti grabs our attention not only because it is the first Social film in Sanskrit, but also because it speaks very strongly for gender issues
Sanskrit is an ancient language. The story of Ishti is also not modern. Ishti talks about the life of Namboothiris, (Kerala Brahmins) in the 1930s or 40s. Yet, both the language and the story seem familiar to us who watch the film.It talks about uplifting and empowering women through education. That is exactly what our present government is also trying to do – educating the girl child so that she becomes self-reliant, to break the shackles that have tied her down all these years.
Sanskrit is called Devabhasha or the language of Gods. It moved away from ordinary people because it was taught only to the upper castes then. It seems it was spoken in many places in India before Independence. But its popularity waned and we had to wait till 1983 for a Sanskrit movie. Sri GV Iyer who made that film Sri Sankaracharya made one more Sanskrit movie called Bhagavad Gita in 1993. The next Sanskrit movie was Mudrarakshasam by Maneesh K Mokshagundam. Last year we had a Biopic in Sanskrit, called Priyamanasam. Ishti is different from all these films, in that it is the first Social film in Sanskrit. The film gives Sanskrit a more contemporary feel. Perhaps it is because the theme has a topical fee land the language used is so simple and eloquent.We realise that Sanskrit is not a dead language after all!
Ishti grabs our attention not only because it is the first Social film in Sanskrit, but also because it speaks very strongly for women's issues. Gender bias is nothing new to our society. It is not restricted to any particular period or place. The downtrodden female is there all over, for us to see. Ishti has chosen the Namboothiri community to show case it, that is all. That is where Ishti becomes contemporary and that is also why at least some of us think of Malala, the girl who fought for her rights, when we see the main character of the film Sridevi, breaking away from the shackles that tie her up, to walk into a future of freedom and righteousness.
Nedumudi Venu, the doyen of Malayalam film industry, sails through the film with ease. I don’t think any other actor could have done justice to the role of Ramavikraman Namboothiri, the patriarch of the family who steeped in traditions and rituals. He speaks Sanskrit with the same ease that he has for Malayalam. It seems it was on the advice of late Kavalam Narayana Panicker that Nedumudi agreed to act in this Sanskrit movie.
Venu acts as Ramavikraman Namboothiri, a Somayaji, who is very keen to become an Akkithiri after performing an expensive Yagam called Athirathram. It was believed that the sacred fire that is brought from the Yagna has to be preserved till the death of either the patriarch or his wife. In other words, the Somayaji was all the time more concerned about the fire that was to light his pyre, than he was about the wellbeing of his family members. But that was his belief, his conviction, his custom, his tradition. Under dire circumstances also he stays rooted to his convictions. But destiny has other plans for him. The fire dies down as nobody tends to it amidst all the upheavals in the family. He feels he is already dead! The fabric of his belief is torn apart! The scene where the autocratic patriarch finds that the fire is dead, speaks volumes of Nedumudi's acting prowess.
The simple, slow, poetic approach that the director has embraced throughout the movie, speaks for itself. You don't have to be a Sanskrit scholar to understand Ishti. The long scenes do not need any spoken language. The language of real art is enough. The Other actors-Lakshmi Gopakumar, Mohini Vinayan, Aathira Patel, Preeja Madhu, Baby Meenakshi, Nivedita, Prajila Aneesh, Jijoy (teacher at Pune Film Institute) Anoop Krishnan, Nandakishore, Hari P Nair, Gopakumar, Devan Kakkad, Dr Unnikrishnan, Vasan, Aneesh and Dayanandan are all new faces. Vedic students and teachers from the Brahmaswam Madhom, the school of Vedas, have also done some real life roles for the film.
Lakshmi Gopakumar acts as the first wife of Rama Vikraman Namboothiri. Mohini Vinayan is the second wife. Ramavikraman Namboothiri has a 26 year old son Raman Namboothiri and a 16 year old daughter Lakshmi from his first wife. In his avarice for money, he brings in a new bride who is just 17 years old, just a year older than his own daughter. New comer Aathira Patel does the role of the educated, strong willed third wife, Sridevi. One may wonder how a girl managed to learn to read and write, when most of the other women were illiterate. It is not too difficult to decipher that she was a girl par excellence, a girl who had grit, a girl who had fire in her, a quest for knowledge and the freedom that comes from knowledge. She passes on her fervour for life, to the daughter in the family, with the intention of emancipating her position too. Her determination to live a free life is amply illustrated at the end of the film by her action of breaking the mangalsutra and telling her husband to burn it in his sacred fire.
Raman Namboothiri, the son is older than the third wife Sridevi. They share a good relationship, but it was easy for others to judge them, as friendship between a man and a girl was unheard of, in those days. .She teaches him to read and write. They discuss art, books, life in general. When their relationship is misconstrued, the onus of purgation also falls on the female. But nobody is able to break the girl, instead, she becomes stronger. She shows dignity and maturity when finally she bids good bye. She tells them that it is not enough to chant Vedas without understanding the meaning. Truth is our Dharma and Dharma has no bias. This is what she wants to prove.
All the actors show restrained acting. There are no overtones in acting, photography or music. The question may arise as to why a young educated girl agreed to marry an old illiterate man in the first place.This is also what makes that character stronger. The film perhaps tells us that changes in a society should always come from within the four walls of a household. Perhaps she was curious to know the results of a practical experiment in life. In a small way at least, she is able to bring about change in one family. A small Kindle flashes when the first wife tells Ramavikraman Namboothiri that it will rain during rainy season and it is not because of the Yagna that he has performed.
The fire that physically burnt in the pyre at the Patriarch’s house was nothing compared to the fire that burnt in the heart of the young woman. She had decided “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield “.In those days, among Namboothiris only the eldest male was allowed to marry, from the community, the younger brothers were only allowed to have Sambandham (cohabitation)with lower caste women. The helplessness of these Apfan Namboothiris is also clearly brought out in the film.The director admits he has been influenced by the life and literature of VT Bhattathirippad the great reformist of pre-Independence days
The rich cinematography of Ishti has to be seen to be believed. The yagas, Veda classes, wedding ceremony etc. are all shown as in real life and not reel life as is done now. Kudos to Eldo Isaac for the work of art he has created. The treatment is soft,and romantic in the light of oil lamps .It takes us to another realm with the light and shade in each frame. Editing by B Lenin and sound by Krishnanunni leave no stone unturned. Both contribute to the beauty of the film. Roopesh, the art director has also done a good job. Special mention should be given to Pattanam Rasheed for makeup and Indrans Jayan for costumes. PS Chanthu, the Chief Associate Director of this film, produced Ishti, along with his friends under the banner Creative Creations. The film really takes us back to the pre-Independence days.
Dr G Prabha, the filmmaker of Ishti is a Sanskrit scholar. The story, screenplay, dialogues—are all his own. Ishti can claim many firsts-the great Malayalam poet Akkitham penned a film song for the first time in his life, for Ishti. The film also has a Sanskrit song written by Professor V Madhusudanan Nair. Kaithapram has composed music for the film. Dr Prabha can be proud of his first feature film Ishti. We are quite certain it will be a mile stone in the history of Indian Cinema.
(The reviewer is an Assistant Manager in an NBFC in Chennai, a freelance certified broadcaster associated with AIR, a translator and an avid blogger)