Word on Screen, featuring documentary films on two of the country’s finest writers followed by discussions, set the mood for The Hindu Lit for Life 2014 edition that starts on January 11. Sudhish Kamath reports

Two insightful documentaries — on two of the finest writers from the South — and discussions that lasted almost as long as the documentaries themselves. Just an intellectual warm-up to The Hindu Lit for Life festival, starting on January 11.

The Hindu Lit for Life 2014, in collaboration with the film club Cinema Rendezvous, hosted Word on Screen and screened A Momentous Life in Creativity, a documentary on M. T. Vasudevan Nair, directed by K. P. Kumaran, and Ananthamurthy: Not a Biography, But a Hypothesis by Girish Kasaravalli at Hotel Savera during the weekend.

While the film on M. T. Vasudevan Nair was a straightforward documentary that captured the landscape of the writer’s environment to break the monotony of interviews, Kasaravalli’s documentary on U. R. Ananthamurthy experimented with form and managed to explore the thinker’s mindscape.

The Navya movement

As presenter Sadanand Menon said while introducing Ananthamurthy to the audience, “The gist of it can be reduced to issues of identity and conflict.” Menon placed Ananthamurthy in the context of the Navya movement and the other modern Kannada writers, including P. Lankesh, Girish Karnad and Chandrashekhar Kambhar.

“The writers of the Navya movement had criticised an earlier movement called the Navodaya and these arguments where countered by a new movement called the Navothara, that was followed by protest writing and so on... This extraordinary density of propositions and counter propositions made the language very rich. Kannada writers have won 54 Sahitya Akademi Awards and the Jnanpith Award eight times, the highest in any Indian language. And Ananthamurthy stood out among this dense set of personalities... More than his poetry and novels, his critical essays have contributed to conversation in literature, leading to a musical kutcheri of sorts where different writers joined in, resulting not in cacophony but a sort of harmony,” said Menon.

After the screening, Menon pointed out that Kasaravalli had not accommodated voices critical of Ananthamurthy’s work.

“I never thought that bringing a different view for the sake of it would help the film. I just wanted to understand UR and his vision as expressed in his work and in his writings,” Kasaravalli replied.

“During my days as a student at the Film Institute in Pune, one of his students told me: “If you are not a student of U. R. Ananthamurthy, you have missed something in life. You won't understand till you meet him.” Then I came into contact with him and realised it was true. Give him any event or work, and he would try to understand it from a larger perspective... There are people who criticise him for various things because he keeps changing positions. For him, it is never a binary opposition. There are people who expect him to be firm and stick to his stand. The purpose of literature is not to give answers, but to ask questions, as he says,” Kasaravalli explained.

The biggest challenge was reducing 15-20 minute answers to 60-90 second clips because Ananthamurthy spoke in great detail and depth.

“For instance, I wanted him to talk about the frontyard and backyard cultures that he had referred to in an article. So I went back to him and asked him to repeat it for the camera. The challenge was to look for continuity. To correlate things. Staging, of course, is my terrain because I'm a feature filmmaker.”

One of the highlights of Kasaravalli’s documentary was how he had brought Ananthamurthy’s text alive with enactments and readings. “What I was trying to bring out was not the dramatic quality but a glimpse of his writing. I wanted the audience to understand his writing, because the use of language is very interesting, the construction of sentences is so evocative and economical. So I decided that I was not going to use film clips, because they were all interpretations of his writing and I didn’t want to change a word. I started reading passages where you get a feel of his writing style. Prashne passages read like poetry... look at the images, I have not added a single word.”

Any reason Ananthamurthy wanted Kasaravalli to make the film?

“He has seen all my films, he has written extensively about them. He has done quite a few write-ups. He likes my style of filmmaking, so he insisted that I make the film. He knows I have read him quite well. I am quite familiar with his work, not just novels and poems, but also his critical writings. If you have seen the other films made on him, you can make out that they haven't read all his critical essays. When he speaks, he has an ability to say complex things in a very conversational way. Ananthamurthy said he is not embarrassed by the film,” the filmmaker laughed.

Kerala’s pride

The previous evening, after the screening of the documentary on M. T. Vasudevan Nair, the audience was interested in how the writer responded to the film about him. “He said nothing about it,” said Sashi Kumar, Chairman, Asian College of Journalism, anchoring the discussion. “He was always sparse with words and rarely praised or complimented people. Even when he calls you for something, rarely does he say, ‘Thanks’. He probably thinks it’s your duty to do it. He was a rockstar and he knew it,” added Sashi in a lighter vein.

Fondly called MT, the writer, apart from books, had written scripts for 54 films, Sashi said. “When he scripts for films, it’s almost like a split personality. When he wrote for others, he wrote box office successes. When he wrote for himself, it was more artistic.”

As Prasanna Ramaswamy, curator of Word on Screen, said, “MT is not just a writer but a cult figure. We are happy to screen films on writers like him and U. R. Ananthamurthy. The film on Ananthamurthy is a premiere; there was just one screening earlier in Bangalore for a limited invited audience. I want to thank The Hindu, Nina Reddy of Savera and Shylaja Chetlur of Cinema Rendezvous for supporting and bringing these films on writers who have impacted us greatly. I also want to thank the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and the Films Division of India for giving us these films.”

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