To Russia, with love

Shiny Jacob Benjamin’s docu-fiction, <em>In Return: Just A Book</em>, inspired by Perumbadavam Sreedharan’s bestseller <em>Oru Sankeerthanam Pole, </em>has been selected to IFFI. She talks about the making of the movie

November 03, 2016 03:42 pm | Updated 03:42 pm IST

Author Perumbadavam Sreedharan in a still from Shiny Jacob Benjamin’s In Return: Just A Book

Author Perumbadavam Sreedharan in a still from Shiny Jacob Benjamin’s In Return: Just A Book

Filmmaker Shiny Jacob Benjamin travelled on wings of creativity with three eminent writers during the making of her new docu-fiction, In Return: Just A Book. The fact that one was 19th century Russian literary great Fyodor Dostoevsky and the other two were contemporary, eminent writers in Malayalam did not create any barriers when she embarked on the unforgettable voyage with the three wordsmiths.

Filmmaker Shiny Jacob Benjamin

Filmmaker Shiny Jacob Benjamin

Shot in St. Petersburg and Kerala, the film has been selected for the Indian panorama section of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in the documentary (non-fiction) category. The award-winning filmmaker says the idea of such a movie was born when a group of friends were discussing the influence of Russian literature on writers and readers in Kerala. That is when Ratheesh C. Nair, director of the Russian Cultural Centre in the city, came up with the concept of the film, In Return: Just A Book.

In the sixties and seventies, beautifully illustrated translations of Russian tales for children were widely available at affordable prices. As such, many young readers grew up with stories set in the erstwhile Soviet Republic. As the readers grew up, it was natural for them to gravitate towards Russian classics by some of the finest writers in the world. Noted author Perumbadavam Sreedharan was one such reader and in 1993, he wrote Oru Sankeerthanam Pole ( Like A Psalm) - a Malayalam novel about Dostoevsky’s affair with his stenographer Anna Snitkina, which became a runaway hit, with the book going into several reprints, 77 at last count and still counting. More than two-and-a-half lakh copies of the novel have been sold and it has been translated as well.

They wondered about the possibilities of making a short film based on Perumbadavam’s encounter with the book and also a trip to St.Petersburg where Dostoevsky lived. When Paul Zacharia agreed to write the script for the documentary, Shiny was convinced that she would be able to turn it into a film. With Baby Mathew agreeing to produce the film, all the obstacles were erased and filming began in earnest in 2015 with veteran K.G. Jayan as cinematographer.

Author Perumbadavam Sreedharan, cinematographer K.G. Jayan and Shiny Jacob Benjamin in a working still of In Return: Just A Book

Author Perumbadavam Sreedharan, cinematographer K.G. Jayan and Shiny Jacob Benjamin in a working still of In Return: Just A Book

Shiny saw the film as an exciting opportunity to explore the creative aspects that linked the two writers, erasing barriers of time, space, language and culture.

“One has to remember that this was a work of fiction inspired by Perumbadavam sir’s reverence and admiration for Dostoevsky and it was written by someone who had never travelled to Russia. The Malayali author had written the book while living in a little village in Kerala but his characters were protagonists in a famous novel set in Russia. Oru Sankeerthanam Pole centres on 21 days in Dostoevsky’s life when he was writing The Gambler . It was a particularly trying period in the Russian’s life as he was heavily in debt. In addition, he would have had to pay a heavy penalty if he failed to complete his book within the stipulated period. Perumbadavam sir focussed on the difficult stage in the Russian’s author’s life and wrote a moving novel that has stood the test of time,” points out Shiny.

She adds: “The challenge was to capture that literary spark that inspired a writer in Kerala to write a best seller about an episode in another country without ever stepping out of his village. It is a docu-fiction or you could say it was my attempt at visualising magical realism. The film has Perumbadavam sir walking in the footsteps of his favourite author, imagining Dostoevsky’s characters coming alive in the streets of St. Petersburg and visiting places that figure in the Russian writer’s works and life,” says Shiny.

While Perumbadavam appears as himself in the film, the Russian characters were enacted by theatre actors in Russia. Shiny says she cherishes images of the author’s emotional reaction as he visited Dostoevsky’s study and tomb. Twenty-one years after he wrote Oru Sankeerthanam Pole , he released a new edition of the book at the house where Dostoevsky lived in St. Petersburg.

The 77-year-old author agrees that it was an emotional and creative high point in his life. “In my youth Russia was my dream destination, not the Russia of Lenin and Stalin but the Russia of Tolstoy, Pushkin, Gorky and Dostoevsky. And Dostoevsky was my favourite author. His novels and life inspired me to write Oru Sankeerthanam Pole,” says the writer.

He says it was a dream-come-true to travel to his idol’s homeland and walk the same paths that Dostoevsky had walked, visit the places where his famous characters lived and just be in St. Petersburg. “After that dream-like trip to St. Petersburg, life goes on an even keel for me. But I felt as much at home there as in my village in Perumbadavam or in my home in Thiruvananthapuram,” says the author with a laugh.

All praise for Shiny’s film, he says that he enjoyed the filming and the film. He adds that all during the filming he remained a faithful disciple of Shiny’s!

“The movie has been made in such a way that it feels that the entire journey could be a dream, a figment of his imagination …,” says Shiny.

In Return: Just A Book will be premiered at Kalabhavan in the city on November 17, before travelling to Goa for the IFFI.

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