Friday Review

Fuelled by memories

What is the need that spurs a historian, and a very eminent one at that, to turn to cinema for writing history? Renowned feminist historian Uma Chakravarti’s premiere screening of her documentary Fragments Of A Past in the capital city in a way answered this question with élan. Long hours after the film’s closure the fragments of the past that it sought to narrate continued to haunt many of its viewers. And this was a past that was linked to one woman’s life and her tryst with history, a history fraught with pain and suffering, a history of violent caste and class struggles. The woman in question was Mythily Sivaraman, a firebrand political and social activist from Tamil Nadu.

Mythily was educated in the United States and had a promising career in the United Nations. But her life was utterly transformed with the Kilvenmani incident of 1968 when an entire village of Dalit agricultural labourers was burnt down by upper caste landlords. Mythily’s life from then on was devoted to campaigning against the atrocities of caste, and Kilvenmani thus became central to her story. Uma says that for her as a filmmaker the burning questions became ‘How to rediscover an event through a woman and how to recover a woman through an event?’

Uma first got to know Mythili closely when she came to her with a diary of her grandmother Subbalakshmi, a victim of her age. Married at 11 and mother at 14, Subbalakshmi was for Uma another instance in the long annals of Indian women who dared to dream of education and emancipation but whose dreams were snuffed out by an intensely patriarchal society. Borrowing from Tagore’s poetry Subbalakshmi had written poignantly in her diary, “I forget, I ever forget that I have not the winged horse, that the gates are everywhere shut at the house that I dwell”. The magic of Subbalaksmi’s archive fascinated Uma and she says “I wanted the poignancy of this woman’s life to come alive”. It was then that the historian decided to don the cap of a film director and thus was born A Quiet Little Entry, a documentary on Subbalakshmi directed by Uma with the support of an all women team. However, Uma recalls wistfully that the film ended with so much of sadness and was filled with such elegiac intensity that she was left questing for a ray of hope. She wanted another woman in another time who could have shaped her destiny differently to show a way out of the pall of gloom that Subbalakshmi’s story wove. She arrived at Mythily, Subbalakshmi’s granddaughter as the subject of a sequel to the first documentary and thus was born Fragments Of A Past.

Uma however recalls how, by the time she discovered this woman of grit and fire, who would live out the dreams of women of another age, Mythily had already started slowly losing her memories. From then on the historian-turned-filmmaker joins hands with the spirited activist to fight Alzheimer’s and retrieve memories from a life lived fruitfully and trenchantly. From the archives of a fading memory the film slowly pieces together, bit by bit, the portrait of a woman etched in fire. Mythili’s sagging personal memory is offered support by a vibrant collective memory as many women, relatives, comrades, compatriots, rally around her to re-live her history. Thus Subbalakshmi’s (his)story becomes Mythily’s (her)story, and the silenced texts of earlier women’s lives suddenly begin speaking in a thousand tongues, breaking the bunds of silence and reverberating with tales of a thousand atrocities undergone by women and other marginalised sections of society in this country.

As Kilvenmani and Mythily blend in Uma’s narrative, one discovers the radical potential of memories and realises the need to preserve them for posterity. Uma says the film is as much about history and memory as it is about women. The full extent of her words dawns later with the realisation that Uma has written herself into the film as much as she has sought to bring alive the portrait of Mythily. A film about personal history thus weaves the little histories of many women, renowned and unknown, oppressed and liberated.

The most poignant moment in the film is probably when Kalpana, Mythily’s daughter breaks down while offering flowers at the memorial built for the martyred Dalits in Kilvenmani. In that monument a daughter probably sees a memorial to the life of her mother, a memorial that speaks about the need to fuel memories even as her mother’s memories slowly wane into oblivion. In Kilvenmani the film finds the kernel of Mythily’s life, and in that landscape of sacrifice and pathos comes alive the portrait of a woman who dared to dream revolution. In sifting personal memories and representing women’s histories with soulful poignancy Uma combines empathy with a rare sensitivity.

However, her tryst with Indian women’s histories does not end with Mythily and Uma ardently plunges into speaking about her next project which is about women political prisoners. “This will be a participative project”, she says. Passion and conviction and the strong support of fellow women activists betray the hope that with her films she will break open the gates of the houses in which many Indian women dwell.

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 3:45:58 PM |

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