D. Jayakanthan

His film world

Print edition : May 15, 2015

A scene from the film "Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal" based on Jayakanthan's short story.

Jayakanthan interpreted effectively through visuals the spirit of his literary works, leaving behind memorable Tamil films.

IN Tamil Nadu, where politics is so inextricably tied up with cinema, there have been tentative interventions from the Leftist camp. Among them, the one that deserves close notice is that of the writer D. Jayakanthan. His contribution to Tamil cinema is often overshadowed by his vast literary oeuvre. It was he who started the meaningful interaction between Tamil literature and the silver screen. That this interaction has remained spasmodic is another issue. While a number of his stories have been made into films, the two he directed, both based on his own stories, are milestones in Tamil film history. They, Unnai Pol Oruvan (1965) and Yaarukkaga Azhuthan? (1966), are among the rare instances of a writer himself making a film adapting his own literary work.

Other such examples of writers who made films based on their own works one can think of are M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s who directed the Malayalam film Nirmalyam (1973) and the Bengali film-maker Buddhadev Das Gupta who filmed Kaalpurush (2005). Jayakanthan, like these writers, interpreted effectively through visuals the spirit of his literary works and has left behind memorable films.

The film scholar Neil Sinyard points out three characteristics of a successful adaptation and says that every effective adaptation has one or all the three of these characteristics. The first is, the film aims at the spirit of the novel rather than the literal letter; second, the camera is used by the film-maker to interpret the novel rather than to illustrate the story; and third, the film-maker and the novelist might share an ideological affinity and this will come through in the films. In the films of Jayakanthan cited above, the three features are visible. To adapt a literary work faithfully, the film-maker has to be sensitive to cinema and literature, words and images. That is a critical determinant.

Even as he was rising in popularity as a short story writer in the 1950s, Jayakanthan took an interest in cinema, propelled by the Marxist ideology. The works of K.A. Abbas attracted him very much and he was impressed with the sincerity of Ray’s Apu trilogy. He despised the contemporary scene in Tamil cinema, which was caught up in stars, song-and-dance routines and melodrama, far removed from social concerns. He believed that a change can be brought about through contemporary literary works.

Unlike traditional Tamil writers, Jayakanthan wrote about marginalised people—the daily wager, the sex worker, beggar, and so on. His story Unnai Pol Oruvan attracted the attention of film-makers when it appeared in a magazine. Tamil cinema was dominated by stars at that time, and a producer signed up Sivaji Ganesan and Savithri, the two reigning actors, and shot nearly 6,000 feet. Dissatisfied with what he saw, Jayakanthan decided to make the movie himself. The year was 1964. He formed a production company called Asiajothi Films, a name inspired by Jawaharlal Nehru who died that year. He proceeded to make the film after collecting money from his friends, perhaps an early example of crowd-funding.

Unnai Pol Oruvan was realistic, natural and credible, a total departure from the style and content found in Tamil cinema then. By eschewing songs, Jayakanthan retained focus on the subject at hand and increased the impact of the film. The dialogue was very different from the stylised language used by characters in Tamil films of the period. Georges Sadaoul, the French film critic who happened to be in India, saw the film and praised it as a neo-realistic masterpiece, its technical shortcomings in lighting and sound notwithstanding. The Congress leader K. Kamaraj watched the film at a special screening and recommended it to be shown in schools and colleges.

A pamphlet carrying Jayakanthan’s message, “You have not come here not to pass time. You represent a new appreciation”, was distributed among the audience in the cinema houses. That year, the film was recognised as the third best film in the country. There was such a category in the national film awards then. Satyajit Ray’s Charulatha was awarded the first prize. Unfortunately, there seems to be no good print of Unnai Pol Oruvan.

His second directorial venture, Yaarukkaga Azhuthan?, revolves around Joseph, a helper to a street preacher, whose job is to carry the petromax lamp on the head while the preacher tried to win souls. They both stay in a small hotel, and there is an incident of theft. Joseph is the suspect. When he is interrogated, the taciturn Joseph refuses to talk though he knows who the culprit is. Eventually, when his innocence is proved, he breaks down and weeps inconsolably; this is the climax and the most poignant scene of the film. There was no emotional special effect, just an understated display of self-pity. The film did not get much notice. I was lucky to watch it during the first few days it was shown in Chennai. The film’s cinematographer was the redoubtable Nimai Ghosh, also from the Left camp. He made creative use of lighting to emphasise emotions.

Jayakanthan showed a keen understanding of the importance of casting actors and that made all the difference to his films. He chose Nagesh for the lead role of Joseph, which remained the actor’s career best performance. Wahab Kashmiri, an old-time actor, and T.S. Balaiya were in the other roles. K.R. Vijaya had a small role as a sex worker. The right sense of casting remained one of Jayakanthan’s strong points. Similarly, in Unnai Pol Oruvan Kanthimathi was his choice for the lead role and Prabhakaran for the astrologer’s role.

Other than these two, another film deserves closer notice, though this was not directed by Jayakanthan— Ooruku Nooru Per, a colour film based on an eponymous novella of 1979 by Jayakanthan. It was a stunning indictment of capital punishment. B. Lenin, the director, reduced spoken words and created powerful visuals, helped by the cinematographer Alphonse Roy. This film won Lenin the National Award for the best director.

Kaivilangu was made into a film titled Kaval Theivam, in 1969. The film centred around a jail superintendent and a prisoner. It featured the performing arts of rural Tamil Nadu such as Therukoothu and Villuppattu. In fact, the leading exponent of Therukoothu, Purisai Natesa Thambiran, himself performed the piece on the extermination of Hiranyan (the mythical demon king) in the film. Both in form and content, the film, directed by K. Vijayan, stood out from the run-of-the mill films of the 1960s.

Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal (1977) was based on two of his stories, one of which was a sequel. The short story titled Agnipravesam, first published in 1966, created a controversy, and as if in response to the criticisms he wrote Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal with a different trajectory to the earlier story and taking it further. The film, directed by A. Bhimsingh, did not capture the spirit of the novel, although Lakshmi in the lead role and Sundaribai as the mother, sparkled. Long conversations by the characters, one of the prominent features of Jayakanthan’s writing, were retained in the film which made it very aural. While adapting a literary work for the screen, the film-maker has to free herself/himself from being bound by words, by the spoken language. In the film, the characters keep talking all the time and every word attributed to the characters in the novel is repeated in the film. Consequently, the film is verbose with mostly talking heads.

Some Tamil writers have written fiction with the world of cinema as the backdrop, providing insights into Tamil cinema. Ashokamithran’s novel Karaindha Nizhalgal reflects the condition of workers in the tinsel world. Jayakanthan’s Cinemavukku Pona Sithalu is about a woman who works at a construction site and the pernicious hold stars have over people. In particular, Jayakanthan deals with the popularity of M.G. Ramachandran, or MGR, among the women audience. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) staged it as a play at some of its party conferences to target MGR, who had broken away from the DMK to float his own party, the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (ADMK). Jayakanthan objected to such use of his story.

Jayakanthan has recorded his interaction with the Tamil cinema in the book, Oru Ilakiyavathiyin Kalaiyulaga Anubavangal, which provides valuable insights into film history. It is an important document for any one setting out to study Tamil cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. Jayakanthan wrote a series of articles on Tamil cinema, titled Thiraikku Oru Thirai in the mid-brow magazine Deepam, giving a critical picture of the cinema scene in the 1960s. Altogether he despised the Tamil cinema scene and avoided any association with mainstream cinema.

He wrote the dialogue for his films. He also wrote a number of songs, the most enduring among them being “Thennangkeetru Oonjalile” for Pathai Theriyuthu Paar.