Latha Menon’s “Oru Izhaiyin Payanam” for NFDC is a sensitive take on the fate of handloom and the government’s initiative to help the tribe of weavers, finds out T. Krithika Reddy

Handloom, our fabled cultural fabric, is fast fading from our social fabric. Dingy looms with frail women and famished men beating the warp rhythmically are giving way to well-organised power looms with roaring machines that churn out fabrics in reams. So what happens to the woven legacy of the country?

Well, going by Latha Menon’s 45-minute documentary for the National Film Development Corporation, the music of the warp will continue and delicate weaves in sun-drenched hues and intricate motifs will continue to beckon those with refined sensibilities.

The documentary that explains the government’s Swarna Jayanthi Gram Swarojgar Yojana (SGSY) project is a sensitive take on the fate of the weaving community that’s faced with decreasing patronage and a dwindling work force.

Through the story of a beautiful girl (succinctly played by Aditi Rao of Sringaram fame), the documentary takes us to our roots — rural India with lush landscapes, huge homes with open spaces, meaningful rituals and an unhurried pace of life. The protagonist, who revisits her past, is filled with memories of her cheerful grandmother, an everlasting symbol of tradition and culture. As memory plays up before her, she sees herself as a little girl (Vidya) assisting her grandmother (Kishori Balal) in household chores.

“If you watch carefully, I’ve used a lot of hand skills — from plucking flowers for puja and drawing kolams to stitching. This subtly establishes our link with our woven tradition that greatly depends on the deftness of the fingers,” explains Latha.

As she surveys her grandmother’s house, she comes across her exquisite collection of handloom saris. It’s at this point that the documentary veers from fiction to fact. From the past, we get drawn into the present and the plight of weavers. Velvety visuals give way to unthinkable starkness. Dark, cramped rooms with clumsy looms. Widows bent with age weaving away until sunset. And men with tell-tale faces talking about the insecurity of their future. The camera traverses various parts of Tamil Nadu to capture glimpses of weavers’ lives. “I didn’t want it to have a news-reel-like quality. I wanted to tell it like a story — without compromising on realism,” smiles Latha.

Lilting songs

To match the poetry of the weaves, she added a few lilting songs with meaningful lyrics by Na. Muthukumar and Yugabharathi. “The songs have come out really well. It will be nice if they are beamed on the music channels,” she says. Whether it’s the evocative “Chinna china…” or the expressive Villupaatu that portrays real case studies, the songs are tastefully shot. (Good English subtitles also help in catching up with the lyrics.)

“I included these case studies because I wanted to show how failures in their professional lives impact the personal lives of the weavers. And how the SGSY project has come to their aid. Weavers are now encouraged to diversify their product range. So it’s not just saris, there are trendy stoles, table and bed linen among other things. .”

Latha is the wife of renowned director Rajeev Menon. Her Iris Productions has produced scores of ad films ( it was the cause of the weavers that made her take up the documentary. “I love working on real stories. Experience in ad films helps me cut the riff-raff from the documentaries. Earlier, I did a documentary on the Tiruvanmiyur temple tank for INTACH. Now, I’m working on one for the NGO Karnaprayag. Such works are truly satisfying. I hope this documentary on weavers will be shown widely, so that the message gets across.”