In the age of the internet and social media it does not seem very far fetched for a young and budding film director to become an overnight global sensation. The world is so inter-connected, at least virtually, for art, literature and cinema to rapidly spread across the world. Now imagine living in the middle of the 1980s in Kerala and dreaming of directing a film that would win a prize at Cannes and then getting another 30 honours in festivals in different parts of the world. This is what a 36-year old man from Kollam managed to achieve.
Shaji N Karun’s film Piravi, which won the 1989 Camera d’Or-Mention d’honneur, an award of the Cannes Film Festival for the best first feature film presented in one of its selections, showcased the horrors of the 1975 Emergency to an entirely new generation. The film, which was released in 1988, is the story of a family that waits for their son, who was arrested, tortured and murdered by the police. The story is based on the life of Professor T V Eachara Warrier, a human rights activist, who was famous for his struggles against the Kerala government during the Emergency.
In this remarkable film, the magic of Kerala's monsoons is captured in a way that no other movie before or since has managed. The haunting landscapes, the ocean, the forests and backwaters form the backdrop for a traditional Malayali father (played by the great actor Premji) waiting for his son, an engineering student to come home so they can fix his daughter's engagement. There's a wonderful glimpse of the life of yesteryear Kerala, including the festival of Vishu and the movie has some priceless moments depicting the life of the two children.
It’s hard to not be moved to tears while witnessing the predicament of the father, depicted so well by Premji. Just about every struggling parent of the post-independence generation gave it their all for the education and well being of their children. Nothing could be more torturous for a parent than not having word of a child but still keeping hope against hope. Was this the independence that Mahatma Gandhi and millions of freedom fighters dreamt of? This is a question that must have definitely been on the mind of those who suffered in those dark days of the mid-1970s.
Special screening in Mumbai
This writer belongs to a generation that was born after the Emergency. A generation that witnessed market reforms, economic growth and higher standards of living… So in January 2011, when the Alliance Française de Bombay managed to obtain a rare and surviving print of Piravi and screened it for its members, university students and those in their 20s and 30s at that time watched in cold sweat, how the country descended into authoritarianism in the 1970s.
The screening was followed by a discussion on the days of the Emergency. Young people couldn’t believe that a country that prided itself on being the world’s largest democracy would subvert laws, the judiciary and the constitution, arrest a large number of people and keep them locked up without any proper due legal process and stifle the press to the point that it stopped talking truth to power.
The young and impressionable minds at the screening wondered how a large number of ordinary middle class citizens and those with success in cinema and sports could just pretend that everything was fine. In 2011 comedy shows on television lampooned the government; the press reported financial scams with vigour, and freedom of speech was something that just about everyone took for granted.
Would those who sat in that comfortable air-conditioned auditorium of the French cultural centre in Mumbai on that day in January, 2011, have the same views about the film and the acquiescence of artists, actors and athletes of the 1970s? How would a group of university students and twenty-somethings in 2021 react to such a film or on being told about what happened in India in 1975?
Probably a generation from now, another maverick filmmaker will depict the authoritarian tendencies that many countries in the world displayed before and after the pandemic. Or maybe the story turns out differently over the course of the decade and the next generation sees that on the silver screen.
What an illustrious career Shaji has managed to have since Piravi! Films like Vanaspratham and Swaham stand out among the great pieces of Malayalam cinema. The director who turned 69 on January 1 is sure to be following the events that are shaping our lives. If only we could be so lucky as to watch another masterpiece directed by him!
(The writer is the author of 'Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’ and 'A Week in the Life of Svitlana’)