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Sunday, October 10, 2010


In filming a biopic, the director’s truth is reflected in how he selects from history, points out shreekumar varma

Exactly 12 years ago, I wrote a small book for children entitled Pazhassi Raja: The Royal Rebel. It was the story of a brave king and his trusted followers who fought the British deep in the jungles of Wyanad in northern Kerala.

Pazhassi Raja Kerala Varma was among our first freedom fighters. Like a closely guarded secret, the world was yet to hear of him. My book was a tiny disclosure. Today, a major Malayalam film has managed to do the full monty. Loaded with hand-picked talent and powered by the biggest budget in Kerala’s film history, the Pazhassi film is a feast. It not only throws open a page of history, it does so in style.

As a chronicler of that period in history, how do I evaluate this new version, embedded in state-of-the-art technology?

Cinema is today’s medium, and among the most complete ones we have. Almost all experience can be conveyed through it. And yet, when we think of a biopic or slice of history filmed, each viewer searches for his own personal satisfactions. Which is to be expected since popular cinema is a mass medium. Individuals, groups and schools of thought expect to find their own piece of the democratic pie.

When I finish writing a play, I understand the director must take over, and the final product is a creature of our combined truths. Cinema too involves two stages of interpretation, writing and filming. In filming a biopic, the director’s truth is reflected in how he selects from history.

My earliest biopics, spectacular at the time (Todd Ao, stereo and all the rest of it), were El Cid and Lawrence of Arabia. Since I’d no idea of the actual history of their protagonists, they remained just that to me: spectacular. Later, the list burgeoned, including subjects as varied as Dr Kotnis, Michelangelo, Ayn Rand, Subrahmanya Bharati, Bose, Shankaracharya, Gandhi and even my own ancestors, Swati Tirunal and Raja Ravi Varma!

When filmmakers appropriated the last two, they focussed on exaggerated romantic episodes and relegated everything else in their lives to the background, apparently to satisfy prurient audience expectations. I was personally (but of course!) outraged. But then, theoretically, everyone owns a historical figure, so anyone can forward an opinion. The film-maker is, thus, never 100 per cent right or wrong.

The difference between filming fiction and history is that, while both are prone to interpretation, fiction is more verifiable (against the written word, which is generally a single source) while history may depend on a hundred perspectives. That’s catch number one. The second is the appropriation of the film-maker. Here we come to the process of selection. This depends primarily on the kind of film that’s contemplated. A biopic for The History Channel, for instance, is more faithful to sources than a film meant for a wider release. The latter may add a few extras to keep the audience engrossed. It may also change history in small ways to become acceptable!

In my above list, the Michelangelo film (The Agony and The Ecstasy) was a more or less typical Hollywood film about the famed artist while Shantaram’s Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahani was a no-nonsense film about a selfless Indian doctor in wartime Japan. Both stretched out their themes, though, to depict and study human qualities and emotions. The biopic, besides its role as chronicler, also showcases human qualities in order to suggest the ideal ones. Similarly, the other films: Bharati (patriotic, social, political), Bose (patriotic, political), Rand (intellectual, emotional) and Shankaracharya (spiritual-philosophical). The biopic is rarely a stand-alone offering. It rests on the unfolding of a thesis.

As for the present film on Pazhassi, Director Hariharan has said he altered the ending to give it a suitably cinematic finale. This can be argued, especially when we’re dealing with a historical subject.

In the preface to my Pazhassi book, I wrote: “I have taken the help of props like plays, legends, stories passed on from mother to son — anything that could breathe life into the musty pages of official records. The story only grows stronger because of these props.”

There's no other way of handling this. On one side are pages of official (mainly revenue-related) records. On the other, romance and legend — generations keep adding to this storehouse of stories until the protagonist becomes a prototype of everything heroic. The creative interpreter has to steer his steed through both these extremes and come out into an area of imaginative plausibility. In the absence of solid proof, this is the only way left: to be true to the dictates of your medium, whether book or film.

That’s why when Hariharan made Pazhassi Raja confront his opponent Baber’s army on a hilltop and end his life in mortal combat, I had nothing to say. Because when history has already been touched with legend, anything can be made to happen. And because another version suggests that Pazhassi took his own life rather than surrender. In my book, straight from the present Pazhassi family’s mouth and those musty records provided by Baber himself, the Raja comes down to a mountain stream to perform rituals for his mother’s death anniversary. The British army catches him there. His men surround him protectively but, in the scuffle that follows, Pazhassi is felled by a bullet. This is probably not dramatic enough for the grandeur of the present film.

Being a long-time observer of cinema, I personally feel that any moment in history can be rendered dramatic with the available technical and story-telling tools; you don’t have to manufacture moments to suit cinema. The director, being a long-time practitioner of cinema, probably had other ideas
(published in the Sunday Herald, Bangalore, in 2009)

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