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A journey to the heart of human conflict: Three Screenplays and their Stories

Radical iconoclasm: M.T. Vasudevan Nair (left) during a music video shoot.

Radical iconoclasm: M.T. Vasudevan Nair (left) during a music video shoot.   | Photo Credit: H. Vibhu

MT is a one-man literary movement in the Malayalam language. The hundreds of thousands of gossamer words this 84-year-old literary phenomenon of Kerala has written since his teens is like a complex filter through which you can gaze at the Malayali and her contemporary predicament as she grapples to make sense of the persistence of the feudal past within the seductive embrace of the present.

Over the past six decades, MT taught the Malayali to look squarely in face of the multiple waves of Time she rides on and hear the plaintive sounds when they collide.

Eight major novels, 18 volumes of short stories, nine books of essays, 55 film scripts — and still going strong. You have to be a person of leisure to fully engage with the delights of this prodigious output. Of course, there would be many a Keralite of my generation who simply grew up with their literary consciousness drenched in the ink from his pen.

Giving offence

Predictably, the secondary literature around him — of reviews, interviews, critical analysis, academic and media overviews and translations — is almost of an industrial scale. It’s an avalanche. Whenever one has to write on MT, one is gripped by a sense of stunned paralysis — what more can one say on someone about whom everything significant has been already said.

But little of it captures his protean skill — the deft, surgical manner in which he dissects the middle-class Nair family to clinically expose its fears, anxieties, joys, arrogance, false pride, contradictions and its fatal nostalgia for its decadent past. He is like some in-house Balzac of the Nair community and every description of that caste, in his stories, perceptively foretells its conflicted future.

So, it’s best to leave MT here and go straight to the book under discussion — a volume of Gita Krishnankutty’s lucid translation of three of MT’s short stories and the film screenplays he converted them into. The selection is delicious, in terms of the glimpse it gives us into MT’s diversity of styles and approach. Pallivalum Kalchilambum (Sacred Sword & Anklets), a poignant, almost angry, 19-page short story from 1954, was converted in 1972 into the 76-page screenplay Nirmalyam (daily ritual purification of the idol) and, directed as well by MT, went on to win the Swarna Kamal, the national award for best film, in 1973.

Since Krishnankutty has done the thoughtful service of placing together the translations of both story and screenplay, we get a ring-side view of the maestro at work. Here, he transforms the delicately nuanced, if ambiguous, story of an outdated structure of values and beliefs, confronted with their painful obsolescence, into an emphatic contemporary melodrama whose climax leaves no room for ambiguity.

A journey to the heart of human conflict: Three Screenplays and their Stories

Driven to the wall and upended every which way in his personal life, the only retaliation left for the pious but helpless ‘oracle’ of the temple is to spit a mouthful of blood on the mute Devi’s enigmatic idol. Even back then, this was radical iconoclasm. Today, such a film might need to consider the cabal out there waiting to ‘take offence’.

The exorcist

“Oppol was crying,” is the succinct opening line of the 18-page short story of the same name. The 82-page screenplay of Oppol (Elder Sister), however, opens more dramatically with five-year-old Appu having a fearful dream of being chased by grotesque creatures and calling out to his oppol for comfort.

It is a premonition of the various demons, real and imaginary, he has to exorcise before, in a gentle and touching twist of the narrative, he discovers his own place in the sun. It’s about the coming of age of a little lad in the midst of archaic social customs in the lonely spaces of the mind. The 1980 film went on to bag the Rajat Kamal, the national award for second-best film, that year.

MT, of course, made a habit of picking up sackloads of national and regional awards. He won the national award for best screenplay four times — for Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha (1989), Kadavu (1991), Sadayam (1992) and Parinayam (1994). He is also perhaps the only one to have won national best screenplay awards two consecutive years running.

From the time he wrote his first screenplay Murappennu in 1965, he has been honing this craft with great care to travel to the heart of human and social conflicts without sentimentalising or sensationalising. Most importantly, he has negotiated the political tussle involved in living and writing in Kerala with an equanimity all his own, which has rescued his writing from ideological and tendentious pitfalls.

There are other great screenplay writers, but few so prolix. One could mention William Faulkner, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Charlie Kaufman or Jean-Claude Carrière, of whom Carrière probably comes closest to the various genres of scriptwriting that MT has explored.

Trying to recollect other screenplay writers from a literary background who might have been so prolific, there are not too many names. There have been other great screenplay writers, but few so prolix. One could mention William Faulkner, Billy Wilder, William Goldman, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Charlie Kaufman, Christopher Nolan or Jean-Claude Carrière. Of these, probably Carrière comes closest to the various genres of scriptwriting that MT has explored.

Affectionately yours

MT’s universe is largely circumscribed by his growing up in the Valluvanadan region of north Kerala, along the banks of river Nila where, post-independence, he witnessed from close the social turmoil consequent upon the rapidly changing political economy. And as the conflict is internalised by individuals, he turns his X-ray vision on the pathology that besets entire households and communities — a ceaseless trauma of insecurity, timidity, anxiety — as they live through their love-hate relationship to social change.

Cheriya Cheriya Bhukampangal (Little, Little Earthquakes) was one such psycho-drama as MT tried to come to terms with the prevailing superstitions and rituals that no amount of ‘rational’ thought or secular education has been able to erase. In 1997, this became the screenplay for Ennu Swantham Janakikutty (Affectionately Yours, Janakikutty).

The plot treads the thin line between the real and fictional, the actual and the delusional in the mind of a young girl which, in fact, is a metaphor for a large population trapped in the cusp between memory and amnesia, shame and desire.

The book could have been proofed better to eliminate niggling typos (I caught seven). But one can only be grateful for a volume that not only puts on par the art of storytelling in print and on screen, but also shows us the process by which a master craftsman explores the gap and splices it.

The writer explores the charged space linking politics and culture through his work in media, pedagogy and the arts.

Three Screenplays and their Stories: Nirmalyam, Oppol & Ennu Swantham Janakikutty; By M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Translated by Gita Krishnankutty, Tranquebar, ₹599

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Printable version | Aug 7, 2020 7:22:05 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/a-journey-to-the-heart-of-human-conflict-three-screenplays-and-their-stories/article20753929.ece

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