As the world celebrates the 200th birth anniversary of legendary Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, Malayalam literature too is in a celebratory mood. Renowned novel Oru Sankeerthanam Pole written by Perumbadavam Sreedharan has completed its 100th edition, which is an incredible feat. It was in the serene countryside of Perumbadavam that the prolific Keralite writer had authored one of the best loved novels in Malayalam. The book that has since gained a cult status has now been turned into a docufiction titled ‘In Return: Just a Book’. The docufiction, the screenplay of which is penned by Kerala’s beloved writer Zacharia and directed by journalist – writer Shiny Benjamin, portrays the quest of a writer, longing to feel the souls of the characters that he had immortalized. Shiny, an upcoming film maker, is the director of the film that won the national award for best biographical movie.
More than just documenting Perumbadavam Sreedharan’s long awaited trip to Russia, ‘In Return: Just a Book’ is a fine cinematic creation that boasts of technical finesse and creative brilliance. Moreover, it portrays the reflection and introspection of the writer in the most lucid way. The movie, which won the national award for best audiography, earned critical praise at the International Film Festival of India that was held in Goa and the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala. ‘In Return: Just a Book’ is released on Manorama Online and is also streamed on the Youtube channel ‘Movieraga’. Mega star Mammootty presented the docufiction to the audience.
Shiny Jacob Benjamin shares her experiences of directing the acclaimed documentary film and explains the production process of this unique venture that celebrates an iconic work of literature.
Dostoevsky and Perumbadavam
Shiny was a class seven student when she ‘ran’ into Dostoevsky in the works of a few Malayali authors. She recalls that the legendary Russian writer had been her most beloved companion throughout the summer vacation. The passionate love, helplessness, yearnings and vengeful wrath of the characters that bore strange names had moved her. Young Shiny imagined that the Neva River and the vibrant streets of St. Petersburg and the Church in the name of Mother Mary where Fyodor often visited to unload his soul were all in her quaint village. “I wasn’t attracted to the contemporary Russian society that was portrayed in the magazine called Soviet Naadu whose pages I used only to wrap my text books. Instead, I accompanied Fyodor and allowed myself to be suffocated by the intense creative maelstrom,” recalls Shiny.
It was only later that Shiny had read Perumbadavam Sreedharan’s Oru Sankeerthanam Pole. Shiny says she was surprised by the writer’s immense passion for Russia, a country that he hadn’t seen until then. However, she hardly imagined that the book would, one day, become a turning point in her life.
In 2014, Ratheesh C Nair, the director of the Russian cultural center had spoken to Shiny about making a documentary. It was his long cherished dream to take Sreedharan, who had amazingly penned Oru Snakeerthanam Pole, without actually being to Russia, to the land of Dostoevsky. Meanwhile, Shiny’s job was to accompany the writer and make a movie that beautifully documents the historic journey. Things moved in abswift pace when Zacharia wrote the screenplay and Baby Mathew Somatheeram agreed to bankroll the project.
Perumbadavam at St. Petersburg
On 17 July 2015, Shiny and Perumbadavam Sreedharan along with cinematographer KG Jayan and assistant cameraman Sivakumar had boarded the flight to Russia. The group landed in Moscow and was welcomed by their friend and sponsor Dr Cherian. They then travelled to St. Petersburg which was the principal location of the movie. Shiny and Jayan had earlier been to the city to scout for locations and to cast the lead actors.
“Perumbadavam was in another world since the moment he boarded the airplane. He didn’t speak or laugh with us much. At first, I thought that he was astonished by the unknown circumstances and places. He bowed down and touched the ground to pay respect as soon as we landed in St. Petersburg. I noticed that his eyes were filled with tears. It was as if he had finally reached the place of a long lost sibling. Perumbadavam had once written that even though he hadn’t visited Russia when he wrote Oru Sankeerthanam Pole, the ecstasy of creating something so special had made him feel like Dostoevsky was walking alongside him during the nights. Until we returned, we too had felt the legendary’s writer’s invisible presence with us,” says Shiny.
The streets of St. Petersburg
Zacharia had prepared the screenplay based on the novel Oru Sankeerthanam Pole. Russian theater artists Vladimir Postnikov and Oksana Carmishina were roped in to play the roles of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anna. The crew had shot during the famed ‘White Nights’ when the city celebrates the return of nearly round – the – clock day light, between the months of May and July. During their free time, the crew members wandered through the elegant streets of St. Petersburg. They were amazed by the dazzling streets where Dostoevsky too had roamed around.
The Dostoevsky Museum is located at the Nevsky Avenue in St. Petersburg. It was at this apartment that the writer had written many of his celebrated works. His study has been preserved as it is in the museum. Dostoevsky’s writing table, chair and even his cigarette packets have been exhibited here. “We had sought prior permission to film inside the museum. So, we were welcomed by the museum director Natalia Hashimbayeva at the entrance. As soon as we entered Dostoevsky’s study, Perumbadavam knelt down as if he is in front of an altar. He was crying; so was I. I still don’t know whether it was joy, love or admiration for the great author that brought tears into my eyes. We lost the sense of time and era when Vladimir and Oksana joined us, dressed up as Fyodor and Anna,” recalls Shiny.
One night, Perumbadavam had abruptly expressed his wish to see the house where Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment, had stayed, to Ratheesh C Nair who had accompanied the crew to Russia. Even though it was almost midnight, the sun was still up, spreading a golden hue across the Russian skies. “As St. Petersburg didn’t have too many modern buildings, we imagined that we were walking through an ancient city. When we reached the building which is situated in the suburbs, people were still standing in front of it. It was an apartment complex with many flats inside. A giant rock statue of Dostoevsky overlooks the building. Some were placing flowers and bouquets in front of the statue. Throughout this journey, I had felt that the Russians deem Dostoevsky as a revered saint,” notes the film maker.
Flowers of love
Dostoevsky’s grave is in the Tikhvin cemetery, closer to Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg. Perumbadavam had asked for some flowers before the crew had left for the location at the cemetery. Old men and women sat on both sides of the lane near the monastery, selling flowers and fruits. Dr. Cherian, who speaks Russian, bought a bunch of flowers from one of them. The seller, seeing an Indian buying flower, was curious to know why they were there. When Dr. Cherian said it was for Dostoevsky’s tomb, she offered one more bunch of fresh flowers and said, “Give them to Fyodor for me.” Shiny says the entire crew was astonished by the great love and admiration that Russians have for the writer.
In front of the altar
The crew noticed that a woman was sitting on a bench in front of the tomb. She was crying profusely. Suddenly, Perumbadavam too sat down on the bench and started crying. Shiny recalls it as a truly surreal moment when two admirers shared their emotions to Fyodor, in languages unknown to each other. “Dostoevsky used to visit Mother Mary’s church in St. Petersburg and often argued and expressed his anguish to the idol of Mary there. Now, it was Perumbadavam’s turn! I saw that he was a bit agitated when he came out of the church. I asked him whether Mother Mary had chided him. With a smile, he replied, ‘No, I did’,” says Shiny.
Perumbadavam Sreedharan admits that he had gone through severe internal conflict and stress while writing Oru Sankeerthanam Pole, which recalls the tragic times when Dostoevsky had written the short novel The Gambler. “It was like the evergreen forests in my mind were still ablaze amid heavy downpour. The documentary film ‘In Return: Just a Book’ directed by Shiny Jacob Benjamin has truly impressed everyone. Such an idea was conceived at an occasion when Zacharia, Baby Mathew Somatheeram and Ratheesh C Nair had come together for a meeting. This documentary pays homage to the memories of an iconic writer, who is still loved and revered by millions of people around the globe. Moreover, Shiny’s incredible talent has turned it into a magnificent piece of art. I am overjoyed that the documentary is released on Manorama Online,” Perumbadavam Sreedharan said.