I.V. Sasi

Trendsetting titan

Print edition : November 24, 2017

I.V. Sasi (second from left) being honoured with a lifetime achievement award by Kamal Hassan, Mohanlal and Mammootty in Kozhikode in 2013. Photo: PTI

A still from "Avalude Ravukal".

A still from "1921".

I.V. Sasi (1948-2017), a giant among Malayalam film-makers, explored and dramatised the internal tensions and external conflicts of society in the post-Emergency, pre-liberalisation era.

THE departure of Malayalam film director I.V. Sasi marks the exit of a titan of south Indian cinema. In a career spanning four decades, he made more than 150 films, including a few in Tamil, Telugu and Hindi. For almost two decades after his debut in 1975, I.V. Sasi’s name was synonymous with superhits in Malayalam cinema. His films brought a new dramatic vigour, visceral sensuality and visual feel to Malayalam cinema. What marked I.V. Sasi apart from other filmmakers was his keen understanding of popular taste and his willingness to set trends and take risks rather than follow the beaten paths and play it safe. His most successful films, made during the 1975-1991 period—the post-Emergency and pre-liberalisation era—explored and dramatised the internal tensions and external conflicts of the period, whose thematic contours and pluralistic content resonate differently but significantly in our times.

He entered Malayalam cinema when its narratives were dominated by family dramas, jaded romantic comedies and outlandish detective stories. On the other side, the “new wave” ushered in by P.N. Menon, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan and the like was already creating a parallel niche. For years, I.V. Sasi films and their commercial success constituted “art” cinema’s extreme Other. I.V. Sasi’s preference was for stories that unfolded in larger canvases and fresh narrative terrains; his characters were painted in broad brush strokes and their emotions were always high-pitched and their actions magnified.

His multi-stranded narratives were populated by people from all walks of life, classes and levels in society and, most importantly, social and religious sections. He introduced several new artistes and gave some minor actors momentous roles, while a few were moulded into superstars.

Lured by cinema at an early age, he left home and studies to pursue his passion in the dream city of Madras. He began his career as an art director and assistant director, and his first directorial venture was Utsavam (1975). This film dealt with the issue of drinking water shortage on an island and the conflicts arising out of it, and had K.P. Ummer, an “established villain” in cinema of the time, as its hero. It was a commercial success and launched I.V. Sasi as a much sought-after director, so much so that in the next five years he directed 45 films. In 1977 he did as many as 11 films in a row, followed by nine films each in 1978 and 1979.

Emotionally intense and dramatic storylines were his narrative forte; these dramas, whose epicentre was Malabar, were mostly set in a specific milieu with masculine tensions at the centre juxtaposed with strong female presences that ignited, spurred and sometimes mediated the macho conflicts, or became prey to its rapacious ambitions or unquenchable lust.

In the 1970s he made some very successful films like Itha Ivide Vare, Avalude Ravukal, Eeta, Iniyum Puzhayozhukum, A lavudinum Albudavilakkum, Manas a Vacha Karmana, Ezhamkadalinakkare, Aarattu, and a superhit of all times, Angadi. Avalude Ravukal became a cult film for its brazen depiction of the life of a sex worker (much before the term came into politically correct parlance) portrayed sensually and sensitively by Seema.

Depicting the raw and rustic life of people whose survival and fortunes revolve around the busy market in Kozhikode town, Angadi was another popular hit that also launched Jayan as a major actor.

The next decade saw I.V. Sasi marching ahead with more hits like Ahimsa, Ee Naadu, Ina, Aaroodam, Uyarangalil, Athirathram, Aalkkoottathil Thaniye, Adiyozhukkukal, Aksharangal, Kanamarayathu, Anubhandham, Karimpinpoovinakkare, Koodanayum Kattu, Vartha, Aavanazhi, Adimakal Udamakal, Abkari, 1921 and Mr u gaya.

The mood of the post-Emergency decades pervaded by general disillusionment and revolt and the crumbling of Nehruvian nationalism and the rise of corruption provided an ideal setting for the rousing popularity of I.V. Sasi films. They presented a society that was gradually being pulled apart by narrow power groups and vested interests of different kinds—communal, economic and party-political. Hence the immediate and intimate identification and empathy the viewers felt for his characters, such as the aged but defiant communist played by Balan K. Nair in Ee Nadu raging against corruption, the rebellious headload worker and union leader played by Jayan in Angadi, the sex worker played by Seema in Avalude Ravukal, the manic pursuer of pleasure and success played by Mohanlal in Uyarangalil, the belligerent Mappila rebel played by Mammootty in 1921, and the ever so many macho men and luscious women in his films whose desires, personal dreams and survival were in conflict with establishments of all kinds—political, social, sexual and moral. They offered a deadly mix of populist politics and misogynist energy that vibed well with the disillusioned mood of the times.

In 1990, with the spread of television and the rise of superstars who were dictating terms, I.V. Sasi found himself out of tune with the times. Inspector Balram (1991) and Devasuram (1993), starring the two superheroes of the time, were the last big commercial hits of his career; these films in a way also marked the end of a certain period and the beginning of another in Malayalam cinema, whose narratives until then were largely rooted in social and historical settings and whose heroes, heroines and characters were life-size. These features were to change radically in the post-Mandal, post-Babri Masjid decades. Though he did make a few films in the last decade, they were a world apart from his earlier works, both in terms of popular appeal as well as thematic resonance, far removed from the dreams and discontent of the post-television, digital generation.

Larger and plural canvas

What I.V. Sasi did to the Malayalam film industry was to shake it up from its small-scale vision and narrow narrative canvas. He set his narratives in different milieus, vocations and locales. The characters who populated these terrains came from all kinds of backgrounds; rich landlords, industrialists, abkari (liquor) contractors, communal leaders, traders, middlemen and corrupt politicians and trade unionists on one side, and on the other, coolies, headload workers, bamboo cutters, sex workers, pimps, hooch brewers, middlemen and beggars, along with aging but raging nationalists and communists and young idealists who voiced the despairs and desires of Kerala’s civil society. The social drama at the centre was about the promises of the Nation, and of the various renaissance and political movements that shaped a secular, pluralistic and democratic society like Kerala. With the narrative set on a large canvas and with several parallel story tracks within it, Sasi always featured several actors from different generations with equal importance in his stories. Actors like Madhu, Jayan, Soman, Sukumaran, Srividya, Seema, Sheela, Ratheesh, Urvashi and Swapna, and brilliant performers like Kuthiravattam Pappu, Balan K. Nair, Sankaradi, Bahadur, Kunchan, T.G. Ravi and Meena, who were usually typecast, played some of their most significant roles in I.V. Sasi films.

The strength, vigour and popular appeal of his films drew not only from the panoply of actors but also from the creative synergy he had with scriptwriters like Sherif, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Padmarajan, T. Damodaran, John Paul and Sreekumaran Thampi in the first phase of his career and later with Lohithadas and Renjith. In each such association, I.V. Sasi explored distinct thematic streams; for instance, in his films with M.T. Vasudevan Nair, the dilemmas and conflicts of the individual in the changing social scene were foregrounded ( Thrishna, Aalk oo ttathil Thaniye, Adiyozhukkukal, Aaroodam, Aksharangal, Anubandham, Rangam, Idanilangal, Uyarangalil, Abhayam Thedi and Midhya); in his Padmarajan films, the themes of revenge, male sexuality and desire were central to the narrative ( Itha Ivide Vare, Vadakakku Oru Hridayam, Kaikeyi, Kanamarayathu and Karimpinpoovinakkare). With T. Damodaran, he created a successful film genre of political thrillers that fumed against the various political scandals, corruption in public life, belligerent unionisation and the degeneration of erstwhile progressive movements ( Ee Nadu, Ahimsa, Angadi, Innal enkil N a ale, Aavanazhi, Adimakal Udamakal, Vartha, Abkari, Inspector Balram, etc.).

The sheer versatility of a master craftsman is evident from his prolificacy as well as the range of themes and actors and his technical control in all departments of filmmaking. A hallmark of his films was his penchant for the sensual and the erotic. He explored very sensual themes through a visual idiom that unflinchingly placed the human body and its desires in all its dark shades at the centre.

He was at ease both with intense personal dramas as well as vast and complex narrative terrains. For instance, Avalude Ravukal dealt with the life of a “prostitute” in a trading town like Kozhikode, juxtaposing various faces and facets of Malayali male sexual desire and morality; Ina was about a taboo theme like adolescent sexuality. While Ezhamkadalinakkare (1979) was set in the United States and was about NRI life, 1921, one of the first big historical movies in Malayalam, was a journey back in time to narrate a very controversial moment in the history of Malabar. This contentious chapter of our Independence struggle, the Mappila rebellion, is dealt with in grand style, great visual detailing and high drama. In the next decades when the movie images of minorities became highly biased and parochial, the representation of the region, the milieu and the historic struggle in 1921 assumes great political relevance and social resonance.

I.V. Sasi was a pioneer and trendsetter whose impact on the Malayalam film industry is deep and far-reaching. He broke away from the old-generation storylines, dramatics, moralism and visualscapes, infusing a fresh vigour, pace and sensuousness into the narratives and confidence into the industry at large.

Looking back, his films leave behind a narrative archive of Malayali life and society at a very tumultuous period in its history, when assurances about the past, expectations about the present and hopes about the future were crumbling. The most successful of his films were animated by the hope and anger and dreams and frustrations of people from various social strata, classes, castes, political hues and religions. In various ways and at different levels, I.V. Sasi films portrayed the multicultural plurality called Kerala society, something that is fast disappearing from the life-world of our films.

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