It was an evening of surprises at the M M Preview Theatre in T. Nagar, last Sunday. The first surprise was that a Sanskrit film, Ishti , was being screened. Arguably the country’s first-ever Sanskrit film with a social message, Ishti , starring Nedumudi Venu, played to a packed audience. The director, Dr. G. Prabha, says he was astonished that so many people turned up for the screening. “I wanted this preview exclusively for members of the press, as I wanted to spread word about my film. For all the money I put into making it, I was worried that the film could simply vanish without getting its time in the sun.”
A month ago, though, things were a lot rosier. The hope that the film could win a National Award was still alive… until it was quashed by the announcement that Priyamanasam , the only other contender in the Sanskrit category this year, had won it instead. But Ishti wasn’t made in Sanskrit just for the awards, Prabha says. After all, he is a retired Sanskrit professor, and a former head of the oriental languages department at Loyola College. “Sanskrit isn’t dead, as many people think. I’ve always wanted to make a Sanskrit film, if only to show that the language needn’t just be used only for biographical films.” He’s making a reference to the 1983 Sanskrit film, Adi Shankaracharya .
Ishti is about a conservative namboothiri family in the early 1900s, when “it was the norm for the head of the family to practise polygamy, and often marry women at least 40-50 years younger than him.” The film ends with the heir of the family burning his sacred thread in anger, and the old namboothiri’s third wife walking out of the house in rebellion, after flinging away her thaali. But Prabha doesn’t agree that the film is anti-namboothiri. “I’m simply showing the evil practices of society in the past. Even during those days, there were progressive namboothiris.”
But not everybody shares his opinion that Ishti is harmless. Sivadasan Namboothiri, the president of Brahmanakshema Sabha in Muvattupuzha, has filed a case against CBFC for granting the film a U-certificate, and the director for tarnishing the reputation of the namboothiri community. Prabha reacts, “The case is ongoing; so, I can’t make any comments. I’m told though that the plaintiff is a man from a little-known organisation; I’m not really worried about this case.” But Prabha wishes it hadn’t come to this. “I know there are those who probably think that this is publicity for the film, but as a retired professor, I’ve never wanted such cheap publicity for my work.”
Perhaps Ishti being an art film could have something to do with the lack of wide interest? Prabha disagrees that it’s an art film, and calls it a “serious film”. “In between all these star-driven commercial films, I guess I can see why people would be interested in films like Ishti ,” he says. That’s why he’s now sending Ishti to film festivals across the country. “If it meets with good response there, perhaps the distributors will show more interest?”
Controversy at the cinema
Following the screening of Ishti , several guests took to the stage to talk about the film. Among them was B. Lenin, an editor and director who has to his credit as many as five national awards. He created a stir when he said that he had reason to believe that the central government had a part to play in Ishti being ignored at the national awards, and that the film wasn’t even watched by the National Awards jury members.
When asked about this controversy, Prabha, the director of Ishti , said he didn’t know enough to make an informed comment. “But if it’s true that the awards are manipulated by the government, then I’m really pained.” Prabha also said that he hadn’t yet been able to catch Priyamanasam , the Sanskrit film that won the National Award this year.
When contacted, Gangai Amaran, a chairperson at the National Awards this year, who was responsible for the selection of Marathi and Bengali films, rubbished this allegation. “They should know that not all films can be recommended for a national award. Films by directors like Mani Ratnam and Shankar didn’t make it to the final list. Having been part of the process of selection, I can confirm that there was no pressure from any external body. I strictly condemn those making these wild allegations. Perhaps this is just a case of sour grapes.”