Portrait of a poet

Print edition : October 28, 2000

The first-ever film on Tamil poet Subramania Bharati strikes a chord.

MAKING films on historical personalities presents a special challenge. Even unusually long feature films may not be able to cover the whole gamut of their lives. Such films could at best hope to capture the high points in their lives. That is exactly wha t Gnana Rajasekaran has attempted in Bharati, a new Tamil feature film on Subramania Bharati.

Sayaji Shinde as Subramania Bharati and Devayani as the poet's wife Chellammal in Bharati.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Poet, journalist, nationalist, freedom fighter and reformer, Bharati inspired Tamils during the struggle for Independence through his spirited patriotic songs. His achievements in literature and several other fields continue to inspire writers, social ac tivists and political workers. Bharati is considered the first Tamil poet to have reacted to political events. As a journalist, he wrote forceful essays on contemporary political issues. He is credited with liberating Tamil from elite academics and takin g the language to the common man. Besides countless patriotic songs, Bharati wrote poems on a variety of subjects - from nationalism to nature, from politics to philosophy. His Paanchali Sabatham (based on an episode in the Mahabharata), Kuyil Paattu and Kannan Paattukkal are among the prize possessions of Tamil society. A devotee of Shakti, Bharati rendered a substantial number of devotional songs. He introduced political cartoons in Tamil journalism (Frontline, September 8, 1995). Bharati died young, in 1921, at the age of 39.

Although the Tamil film industry has extensively used Bharati's songs for well over five decades, no major attempt was made to make a film on the basis of the life of this multi-faceted personality. Bharati's songs have been popularised by musicians and film artists since the 1940s. All India Radio played a significant role in taking Bharati to the masses. Theatre personalities such as T.K. Shanmugam and S.V. Sahasranamam staged plays based on Bharati's life and his works, notably Paanchali Sabatham.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Tamil feature films were made on two crusaders against British ruler - Veerapandia Kattabomman, the 18th century ruler of a small Tamil kingdom, and Kappalottiya Thamizhan, on V.O. Chidambaram, a freedom fighter and a contemporary of Bharati. Kappalottiya Thamizhan had some scenes featuring Bharati as a close friend of VOC.

Apart from a 16mm film made by the Films Division of the Tamil Nadu government and some productions by Doordarshan, no major efforts had been made to produce a documentary on Bharati until a few years ago. A short film made in the mid-1990s did not do ju stice to a poet of Bharati's stature, according to critics. The first serious, professional attempt at making a documentary on Bharati was made by United States-based N. Muruganandam, for Cindhanai Vattam and the Tamil Association of New Jersey in 1999. The documentary, titled Subramania Bharati, was directed by Amshan Kumar, a bank employee turned film-maker. It gave an authentic and aesthetic account of the poet's life and won appreciation. With the Bharati scholar Seeni. Viswanathan as chief a dviser, the novelist and Tamil scholar Indira Parthasarathy as script-writer and L. Vaidyanathan as music director, the 60-minute video documentary featured interviews with two of Bharati's contemporaries, both in their late nineties. An interesting piec e of information contained in the documentary is that Bharati was one of the 13 Indian subscribers of a revolutionary American magazine Gaelic America.

Gnana Rajasekaran's Bharati (The Story of a Poet), produced by Media Dreams, is a simple and absorbing narration of the poet's eventful life. Through a series of well-knit episodes relating to his childhood, early marriage and stay at Varanasi wit h his aunt soon after his father's death, the film deals with his evolution into a poet and a rebel of a journalist, his encounter with the British administration and his life in French-administered Pondicherry where he took refuge in the face of British repression. It concludes with a poignant narration of his poverty-ridden last days.

The film begins with Bharati's funeral, which is attended by only 14 persons, a disturbing scene for any viewer who knows the fact that the great patriot-poet inspired thousands of people during the freedom struggle and continues to be loved and admired by millions of Tamils the world over. "It is this irony that disturbed me and it is the why of this that the film seeks to explore," says Gnana Rajasekaran, who wrote the screenplay and the script besides directing the film.

The story deals with the many facets of Bharati's life before ultimately answering the query. And in this process it highlights in a powerful way a less-known side of the poet - as a ceaseless fighter for justice for the socially and economically deprive d sections of society, Dalits and women. More than anything else, it is his uncompromising crusade against casteist oppression and religious obscurantism that appears to have alienated Bharati, who was born in an orthodox Brahmin family, from the traditi on-bound society around him, including his relatives.

The film has many striking scenes. For instance, Bharati's encounter with Gandhi in Chennai. Bharati almost gatecrashes into the room in which Gandhi is in discussion with Rajaji, and invites him to preside over a meeting he would address that evening. When Gandhi excuses himself and offers to spare time the next day, Bharati says "no" in a polite but firm tone and leaves in a huff, but not before extending his "blessings" to Gandhi's new mass movement. After he leaves, Gandhi tells Rajaji that the poe t's life is precious and it needs to be "protected". The neat handling of the scene - the meeting of the two great minds - with dignity deserves mention. The way Bharati faces death with courage, unlike his father, is poignantly told. After a life full o f struggles, he dies without any trace of bitterness.

Hailing the film as a "most welcome attempt", Tamil writer Prapanchan says that two aspects of the film impressed him the most. "First, the film effectively portrays the conflicts between the poet's ideals and the real life, and secondly, it brings out i n a telling manner the dreamer in the poet," he says. Social reforms including women's liberation and the uplift of the socially oppressed people, politics and creative literature were Bharati's three passions. "While the first two find adequate expressi on in the film, the third is sadly missing," says Prapanchan. The crucial 10 years that he spent in Pondicherry saw Bharati at his creative best. It was during this period that he produced Paanchali Sabatham and Kuyil Paattu. Prapanchan say s that this period could have been covered better. He also says that the fact that Bharati was among the first few Indians to hail the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) has also been missed by the director. "The film," he says, "has succeeded in portraying bea utifully the social environment that shaped Bharati into a poet first and then into a committed political fighter with extreme social concern."

Powerful performances by Marathi actor Sayaji Shinde as Bharati and Devayani as Bharati's tradition-bound wife Chellammal are among the assets of the film. Ten songs, eight of them Bharati's, tuned to music by Ilayaraja, and Thangar Bachaan's cinematography are its other strong points.

Amshan Kumar, who described Bharati as a "valuable addition to Tamil cinema", has a word of praise for Media Dreams. He said the makers of Bharati, unlike the producers of earlier non-mainstream films, had shown great enthusiasm in releasing the film fo r public viewing.

The film has, by and large, been well received by the media as well as Tamil literary and art circles. The Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers Association held meetings and seminars on the film in Chennai, Madurai and many other places. At a largely attended meeting at Bharati Memorial (the house where he spent his last days) in Chennai on October 8, speakers were unanimous that the film had "captured the spirit" of Bharati and would inspire progressive sections among the viewers.

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