Dr G Prabha, former Head of the Department, Oriental Languages at Loyola College, Chennai, the director of Ishti, the first Sanskrit movie with a social theme, spoke to Ganesh Krishnan R. The director shares his experience of the making of Ishti and warm response it received after previews in New Delhi. Excerpts:
Though the medium is Sanskrit, the film is getting rousing response and critical acclaims after its previews. How do you feel?
As the film, Ishti, reaches out to more people, it is getting more appreciation and applause from viewers and critics. So far, that’s what I experienced. Language is not a hindrance for enjoying the movie. Visual language coupled with simple Sanskrit dialogues makes it easier to understand. The film communicates through rather visual language than dialogues. Obviously, people had apprehensions about Sanskrit medium before the film was showcased in Chennai and Delhi. From their reactions while watching the movie and comments after the preview, I got to know that they could easily follow. Since all Indian languages are influenced by Sanskrit in one way or the other, viewers can understand it even without sub-titles.
The readers like to know about the story and plot. Please give a brief account.
Ishti is set in 1940s’ Kerala. Ramavikraman Namboothiri (Nedumudi Venu), the 71-year-old head of a family, is a Somayaji i.e he has performed the Somayaga. His life ambition is to perform an Athirathram to become an Akkithiri. Ramavikraman Namboothiri's third wife, 17-year-old Sridevi, is literate. She inspires the younger ones, including Ramavikraman Namboothiri’s eldest son Raman Namboothiri, in the household to learn how to write and read. Soon a conspiracy is hatched against the two, alleging an illicit relationship between them. This leads to unexpected and unconventional developments.
You have directed several documentaries, but in Malayalam. When it came to a feature film, you chose Sanskrit. Why?
Sanskrit language has more authentic books on aesthetics, like Natyashastra, than any other languages can claim. This is the main reason why I wanted to make a film based on a social subject in Sanskrit. This is the first Sanskrit movie with a social theme. Sanskrit as a language was more prevalent among Brahmins. So it would sync with the theme if we tell the story of Brahmins through Sanskrit. It would be convincing too. Hence I chose this plot.
With a plot set in 1940s, the film tells the story of the then society. What is the social and political relevance of the movie in the present day?
Though the story revolves around a Brahmin family, it is not confined to a small section of society. It has a universal appeal. Ideally, it has to be like that. We use certain elements or symbols to convey the story of a whole society or a larger section. This way, the social messages Ishti puts forward are: gender equality, women’s empowerment, freedom and education. In totality, the movie is female oriented. This is the movie of woman who tries to revolutionise the society through education. The issues discussed in the movie are pertaining to gender inequality and denial of freedom and education to women. These are still seen in our present day society. Once Namboothiris were grappling with all these social evils. Though Namboothiris have come out that over the time, these evil practices still exist in our society, among certain groups.
You have explained why Sanskrit. Now please tell us why this story and subject Are there any inspirations?
Yes. For example, there are the lives of great personalities like VT Bhattathiripad and Akkitham. I have made documentary on the life of Akkitham. Though VT Bhattathiripad was exponent in Veda chanting, he was illiterate. One day, his life was transformed and the pursuit of learning started after a girl asked him to read out a newspaper clipping. Such incidents described in VT Bhattathirippadu’s autobiography Kanneerum Kinavum have influenced me a lot and later happened to be an inspiration for this movie. Later, in 2012, I made a documentary on Panjal Athirathram. My experience with that gave me more insights. That’s how I moulded the main character of the film Ramavikraman Namboothiri.
What is the future of Ishti? What are avenues opened before the film?
I don’t believe that awards and recognitions are the prime goal of an art form. Most of the classic films and novels which are still being discussed among connoisseurs are not necessarily award winners. The acceptance among viewers and their appreciation are more important to me. For that, I want to exhibit the movie in various film festivals so that the film can reach out to the mass audience. Now the film has got an entry in Calcutta International Film Festival. Getting a distributor is almost impossible. If so, I could have got a producer. I produced this film with the help of my friends and we financial assistance of Kerala Film Development Corporation. So I hope the KFDC will facilitate a release and exhibition at least in Government owned film theatres. Of course, being a Sanskrit film it may have viewers even in abroad. If anybody is interested to arrange a preview, I will to send my film abroad because all I want is to ensure maximum number of people watching my movie, nothing else. The great Sanskrit scholar, poet and Jnanpith laureate Shri Satya Vrat Shastri was the chief guest in the preview function held in Delhi. For me, his very presence and commendation were a big motivation.
Do you think Ishti can contribute in the revival of Sanskrit, especially when a certain section of scholars and historians call it a dead language?
I would like to make it clear that, as far as I am concerned, Sanskrit is not a dead language. I and my family subsist on this language as I have been earning my livelihood by teaching Sanskrit for the last many years. I can see it is very much alive around me, in my
surroundings. Sanskrit is the language which keeps me alive. So if I call it dead, it is like calling my living mother dead. So, for me, it is not an attempt to revive a language. I believe it is a folly to think that I or my film can revive a sacred language like Sanskrit which is as deep as an ocean. However, the success of Ishti sends out a clear message that Sanskrit is as alive as any other languages.