Joe Eshwar is a braveheart. Against all odds, he decided to tell the story of a neglected freedom fighter set in Karnataka.
I’m flummoxed. A Malayali who’s been working on films in various avatars finally makes his directorial debut after 14 years. He chooses to tell the story of a neglected freedom fighter, sets it in the fictitious village of Kunthapura in Karnataka, but makes the film in Malayalam and English, and the film is running for the third consecutive week in Liverpool, U.K.!
Back home in Kerala, predictably, Joe Eshwar’s film Kunthapura, starring Charu Hasan, Anu Hasan (Charu and Kamal Hassan’s niece), and Malayalam actor Biyon, gets a lukewarm response. “Nobody seems to want to watch a Malayalam film in a Kannada setting, with Tamil and British actors! And being branded a ‘period film’, people don’t seem to want to see such an old story,” laments the filmmaker. “There’s this whole hype that’s been created about young, urban films,” he says exasperated.
It’s happened over and over again in India. Films that tell stories of the country’s own freedom struggle rarely get an audience. Why did Joe wish to tell this story, despite knowing the outcome? "Somebody had to tell the story. Somebody needs to remember our freedom fighters, their isolation after Independence, remind people of their past…You can only make a film, which comes from your heart. Commerce alone doesn’t matter; it’s about art,” says Joe. For 14 years after his graduation, Joe has done everything from being an IELTS English trainer, to working at KFC, editing wedding videos, making his own short films, and working as assistant director to famous filmmakers in India and U.K.
As the film’s promo reiterates, it’s about how we have gone from “enjoying to exploiting” the freedom, earned from sacrifices of selfless individuals in the past. “I’m a Defence kid,” he says by way of explanation of his patriotic sentiment. His father was in the Indian Air Force and he travelled the country with him. “I was also inspired by Raja Rao’s Kanthapura and the deep nationalist sense it brought out.” He’s watched all of Girish Kasaravalli’s films, his favourite being Tabarana Kathe, starring Charu Hasan. “I’ve read translations of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Bharatipura and Samskara.”
“And only after you’ve lived abroad do you feel so much for your country, you become more patriotic; your perception about your country changes,” says Joe, who spent eight years in the U.K., having started off as a dependent when his wife went there for work.
A graduate of Chirst College, Bangalore, Joe says it was this deep connection he felt with Karnataka where he spent his growing-up years, that made him set the story of his film in the State. “Every weekend I would go to Majestic Bus Stand, take the first bus out of the city that I would sight, and go exploring the place.” Moreover, the intensity of the freedom movement was far greater in the Karnataka and Tamil Nadu region than it was in Kerala, he says. “Of course there was a language barrier while trying to decide the language of the film; I could express myself best in my mother tongue. And I wanted to tell the story to people beyond Karnataka.”
The film has been shot partly in Madikeri, Shravanabelagola, Bangalore (Karnataka), Pollachi (Tamil Nadu, for the 1920s feel); the Colonial scenes were shot in the U.K. “Through the key character of the film, Kasim Bismillah Khan, I have tried to represent the Muslim community of the country, and the community’s contribution to India’s independence movement.” Kunthapura doesn't look at the past in isolation. It links it to the current day, raising issues we choose to turn a blind eye on — of what we have achieved since Independence, how we treat old people in our country.
Kunthapura is currently running all over the country in PVR Cinemas. Joe can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org