Sense and sensitivity

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Down to earth: M.T. Vasudevan Nair.
Down to earth: M.T. Vasudevan Nair.


M.T. Vasudevan Nair, the man who is equally at ease with both the written and the visual medium, says he is going to stick to writing because of the freedom it affords these days.

Rarely does one get to know a person who is both sensible and sensitive in the written word and a visual art, rolled into one. I had the pleasure and privilege to meet such a man a few weeks ago. We met for over three hours spread over two days. M.T. Vasudevan Nair (75), is someone who looks like just another man on the street, wears a bush-shirt, smokes beedis, likes his drink and talks in simple language — be it Malayalam or English. No airs, no bombast. Only when you talk to him for a few minutes on subjects like literature, cinema and the fast-changing world that you get a glimpse of the inner drive and acute sensibility of the man.

About the changes in Kerala since he wrote his famous novel Nalukettu, he says, “Things were simple. We thought of ourselves as Keralites and nothing else. In films, we worked as a team. In literature, there was mutual respect, and very little bickering. These days, casteism and communal feelings are increasingly visible. Society is becoming complex.”

“Chemmeen” (1965), the Malayalam film based on a story by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, brought Kerala and its fisher folk alive to the world. Then it was “Nirmalyam” (1973) that made the world sit up and take notice of life in Kerala. This fine portrayal of life in Malayali society caught between ancient beliefs and modern reality, brought laurels, including the President’s Gold Medal for Best picture to its creator, M.T. Vasudevan Nair.

Changes over the years

I asked MT about the changes in film-making he notices today, 35 years later. “Things were cheaper and simpler. Today, it is common to spend two or three crores (of rupees) on a picture. Unless that kind of money is spent, there is no guarantee that the producer will get back his money. And for a commercial venture, compromises have to be made,” he says in a matter-of-fact tone, without emotion.

His last movie, “Oru Cheru Punchiri”, was made in 2000. MT gave me the gist of the story. It is about the life of an old couple, who live all by themselves. They have frequent quarrels, but are like two parts of one whole. Only a small boy comes to take tuitions from the man. In one scene, the old man climbs up the attic and finds a lot of junk. The wife, when asked why they shouldn’t be thrown out, says they are meant to burn his corpse, since that is the only purpose they can serve. Then she removes the ladder, leaving the man fuming, sweating and swearing in the attic. The old woman whispers to the boy that the fellow is fond of gorging himself with sweets. Later, she goes on to feed her husband his choicest foods. Finally the man dies. The old woman continues to live there and refuses to leave what was her “home” for decades. She feels her man’s presence in that house, even after his death.

This film got rave reviews in several places, including the London and Munich film festivals. It was the first film for the female lead. “I missed the London event, but attended the Munich festival. The hall was packed. At the end of the screening, the organisers gave just 15 minutes for interaction. There were many questions — some very intelligent and insightful. But then, when I told them that the characters were based on real life, one old lady got up and asked, ‘Do they still have sex?’ I gathered my wits in a few seconds and replied, ‘That’s something I have to ask them’. You can’t think of anyone in India posing such a question,” he remarks with a chuckle.

More demanding

Sometime ago, MT said he does not plan to direct any more films, since it takes a lot of energy and he is “too old”. I asked him about this. His response: “I have decided to spend my time writing. Knowing how much money is involved in making a picture, at the back of the mind there is always the nagging feeling that you should not let down the man who has invested. That is something you are free of while writing. You have absolute freedom and it is only for the readers to accept or reject what you write.”

Becoming the character

“Oppol” is one moving short story written in 1975. It is a first-person narration by a five-year old boy, Appu, who lives with his “sister”, and the old lady Valiamma, her mother. The boy always sleeps with Oppol who bathes him, combs his hair and sends him to school. Oppol often cries silently, and never goes out of the house. Valiamma is cantankerous to both. The boy hates her. But he is stunned when one day a stranger comes to the gate and makes the fearsome Valiamma walk up to him and talk gently. That man refuses to come inside, even has the temerity to talk back to old Valiamma, and makes her sob! That’s when Appu thinks, “After all, is she not our Valiamma?” Later, he learns that the man is “your uncle, Ammaman”, but does not get any more answers from Oppol to his myriad questions. During a little argument with a friend later, he is told that Oppol is not his sister but really his mother. To quote:

“You fool, your Oppol is your mother, didn’t you know?”He laughed, thinking how foolish Kuttisankaran was. No wonder Kelu Master said he had no brains.“Go on, you don’t know a thing,” said Appu.“And what do you know? My mother told me.”“And what does your mother know?”It ended in a quarrel. Kuttisankaran asked him to give back the lime. Appu threw the lime at him and made a face.

I asked MT about this remarkable empathy and whether he “became a boy” while writing that story. “Most of my stories are based on real life. I knew someone like Oppol. That story was written from a child’s viewpoint. Yes, I think I became a boy when I wrote those words”.

Extensive knowledge

In his creative life, he has been honoured with many a laurel, including the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Gnan Pith Award. MT had come to Bhubaneswar to deliver the 17th Gopinath Mohanty Memorial Lecture, in tribute to the first Oriya Gnan Pith winner. The lecture given by this unassuming man was a revelation — of his sharp intellect, vista of knowledge and depth of research. He quoted freely from the life and works of Flaubert, Chaucer, Scott, Maupassant and other French scholars, Irish novelists and English writers who deeply influenced Indian thinking during colonial times, not to speak of masters in Malayalam literature who preceded him. He carries his wealth of wisdom lightly on his sleeve. Sitakant Mahapatra, who was awarded the Gnan Pith two years before MT, said, “I was dumb with disbelief when Dr. Nair casually replied to my question that his Nalukettu has been bought by more than 7,00,000 readers. That kind of a thing is unimaginable in any other language or for the work of any other person in India.”

Earlier this year, the Golden Jubilee of Nalukettu was celebrated in Thiruvananthapuram. The Kerala Minister for Culture said on that occasion, “If at least one child has taken interest in books and literature, attending seminars and discussions, the effort has been worthwhile. Should we honour MT and his novel? If we do not honour the likes of Basheer, Asan and MT, who else would we honour?”

Who else indeed! The memory of Gopinath Mohanty was honoured by an honourable man.

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