Celluloid tribute

Print edition : July 18, 2008

Jayakanthan, a class apart. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A documentary on Jayakanthan brings out the many facets of the eminent writer and his valued contribution to Tamil literature.

ONE of the recent developments on the Tamil cultural scene is the emergence of a band of documentary film-makers, most of them young and endowed with a deep sense of history. They are a class apart from the products of visual-media training institutions crowding the corridors of the tinsel world for a chance to make a mark (and also big money) in commercial cinema. A section of the new generation of film-makers has documented in recent years many an event, ranging from atrocities against Dalits to the struggle for survival of the marginalised, such as the tribal people and fishing folk.

A few others of this group have trained their eyes on writers who have made a deep impress on the Tamil consciousness, with a view to recording for posterity their lives and contribution to society. In the past few years, they have produced documentaries on eight contemporary writers of repute, apart from the one on the pre-Independence nationalist poet, Subramania Bharati, who inspired writers of succeeding generations. The creative writers to be documented include D. Jayakanthan, Indira Parthasarathy, Sundara Ramaswami, Asokamitran, Ki. Rajanarayanan, Neela Padmanaban, M. Aranganathan and La.Sa. Ramamirtham.

A recent addition to this impressive list is a second docufilm on Jayakanthan, which was released in Chennai by former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in April. The short film, Ellaigalai Vistharitha Ezhuthu Kalaignan (The writer who expanded his boundaries), directed by Ravisubramaniyan, is a tribute in celluloid to the celebrated writer from his long-time friend and music maestro Ilaiyaraaja, who has produced it and, as desired by Jayakanthan, also scored the music.

Hundreds of the writers admirers, who were privileged to watch the 75-minute documentary unfold his colourful life, rose in spontaneous applause at the end. A few even complained that some interesting aspects of his life and contribution had not been covered in the film. But in fairness to Ravisubramaniyan, who made the documentary, it should be said that he has succeeded to a large extent in bringing out the quintessence of the writers many-sided contribution to modern Tamil literature.

In a span of about half a century, Jayakanthan (born in 1934) authored 15 novels, 30 novelettes, 15 anthologies comprising over 200 short stories, and about 20 collections of essays touching upon many contemporary issues. He wrote mainly on the sufferings of the deprived sections and the challenges the expanding urban middle class confronted in the early years of the Indian republic. He also tried his hand at making films, and one of his films, Unnaippoal Oruvan, won a National Award. He also wrote poems and lyrics for films (Frontline, March 25, 2005).

A school drop-out, Jayakanthan left his native town Cuddalore and went to Chennai in search of a job. He took up odd jobs before joining the printing press of the Communist Party of India as a compositor in the early 1950s. His association with the Communist Party left a deep impress on him. He read a lot and wrote stories, particularly on the plight of the poor, in party publications and magazines. He quit the party in the early 1960s, but later in life he acknowledged the inspiration he drew from his interaction with party workers and leaders such as P. Jeevanandam and S. Ramakrishnan (SRK), both his mentors.

Subsequently, he started writing for mainstream magazines. During this phase, he also wrote stories on the conflicts faced by the urban middle class. He enjoyed great popularity thanks to his bold approach to problems, particularly in respect of the status of women in upper-class and upper-caste families.

Jayakanthan has won several prestigious awards for his contribution to literature. These include the Jnanpith Award, the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Rajaraja Chozhan Award. A Sahitya Akademi-funded documentary on Jayakanthan made by the noted Tamil writer Sa. Kandasami was released about 10 years back. The near-impossibility of containing the whole gamut of a rich and varied life of such a towering personality in a short film is understandable. Ravisubramaniyan appears to have passed the test.

The documentary opens with a soulful song by Ilaiyaraaja. Jayakanthan is shown going on a morning drive. His reflections on darkness and light, based on the observations of Bharati, follow.

A brief account of his many-sided activities, narrated by Ravisubramaniyan in a loud and clear voice, introduces the writer to the new generation.

Jayakanthans entry is a turning point in the history of Tamil literature, says the narrator. Through his writings Jayakanthan gave voice to the voiceless. He spoke aloud for the common man and brought him into the world of literature. The film documents the writers views on Tamil life, Tamils philosophy, his purpose of writing, the need for democracy, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and so on. Scenes showing his interest in music and his foray into the film world, all with visual support, follow.

In a striking scene, Jayakanthan and his classmate Dravidar Kazhagam leader K. Veeramani are shown walking through the streets of Cuddalore a trip down memory lane, literally. They recall their school days and visit the street where they lived. Veeramani speaks of his admiration for Jayakanthans novels.

The writers views on a range of issues, from the Karnataka governments stand on the Cauvery controversy to globalisation, are presented in a question-answer format. The writers Asokamitran and Prabanchan and the art critic Dhenuka speak on Jayakanthans contribution to Tamil literature.

The poet Sirpi Balasubramaniam told Frontline that Jayakanthans personality has been brought out very well in the documentary. His walk on the road wearing a turban, his meeting with Veeramani and the scene showing his liking for music have been depicted realistically. His mild anger over tricky questions and his sharp replies show him in his true self, he said.

Chezhian, 36, the cinematographer of the documentary, called it a pleasant but challenging experience. It was like taking pictures of a lion. I cant expect the lion to do as I please. I have to adjust myself to the lion. I took care not to disturb the writer in any manner whatsoever. Discreet silence paid dividends, he said. He said that on the completion of the project, Jayakanthan turned to him and said, How is it that you had all along been silent? I couldnt feel any noisy movements around. Said Chezhian: He is indeed a photographers delight. K.S. Subramanian, a former Director of the Asian Development Bank who has translated into English many of Jayakanthans works, told Frontline: This film is a creative product of a sensitive person looking at a literary colossus from the film-makers angle. Whatever aspects of J.K.s personality that appeal most in a contextual sense to Ravi have been captured in the film. J.K.s personality has been covered with a certain vibrancy and authenticity. J.K. does not typically paper over some cracks in his thoughts. He is an open book.

In his view, the film has made a significant contribution particularly in the manner in which it has captured the exchange of views in the sabai (an informal gathering, mostly of Jayakanthans friends, which meets often, where a creative exchange of views takes place.) In fact, I told Ravisubramaniyan that I felt as if I was taking part in an extended sabai session of sahrudhays [soul-mates] with J.K. I believe it should be taken as a very handsome compliment because it is not easy to capture the nuances of a vibrant personality in the space of a one-hour docufilm.

This is significant, said Subramanian. He elaborated: While the creative outpourings of J.K., in the form of novels, short stories, novellas and essays and also autobiographical pieces are there to see, it is rather unfortunate that outstanding sparks of wisdom and engaging dialogues taking place in the thatched shed in his house are lost.

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