Friday Review

History of ideas

Kesari Balakrishna Pillai

Kesari Balakrishna Pillai   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement


Kesari, a documentary by Manoj K.R., traces the intellectual genius of Kesari Balakrishna Pillai.

It’s with near reverence that journalists, writers, historians and thinkers in Kerala look upon Kesari Balakrishna Pillai (1899-1960). The Thiruvananthapuram-native and firebrand publisher of Kesari newspaper, was a true Renaissance man. As one of Kerala’s foremost intellectuals, he is credited with nudging society to think modern with his far-sighted approaches to journalism, literature, literary criticism, politics, philosophy, art, history, geography, journalism and what not.

Kesari, a new documentary directed by National award-winning filmmaker K.R. Manoj, is a journey through this unconventional visionary’s ideas and intellectual patterns in a bid to explore the man, his mind, his contributions and how “modern society sees him.”

It’s rather different a documentary to the usual biographic fare. “It’s an intellectual biography. Some 20 years ago, filmmaker Rajiv Vijay Raghavan directed a definitive biography on Kesari, featuring inputs from Kesari’s wife and his contemporaries and fellow intellectuals such as E.M.S Namboothiripad and M.N. Vijayan, to name a few. I did not want to rehash it. Instead, I decided to contextualise the intellectual life of Kesari,” says Manoj. As such, “the documentary critically engages with his radical interventions, which placed itself against both colonialism and narrow renditions of nationalism. The documentary follows the temporal and spatial axis provided by Kesari’s large corpus of writing and foregrounds its potential to displace modern linear time,” he adds in the director’s note.

Naturally, the documentary involved extensive research and Manoj’s been on the job for the past year and a half. “As a former journalist and journalism student, I was familiar with Kesari and had even read a few of his works. However, to script an intellectual biography one needed more than basic knowledge and, also, I didn’t have the time or the wherewithal to go deep into all his works. It covers such a vast array of subjects and contains a whole lot of revolutionary ideas and ideals that honestly, I didn’t know where to begin! This was a man who completely turned Malayalam literature and culture on its head. Litterateurs like Thakazhi have gone on record saying that they were influenced by his works. Kesari translated Proust from the original French to Malayalam as early as the 1930s and taught Malayalis to think beyond colonial literature to the nuances of European literature. He was farsighted enough to write about subjects like homosexuality….”

During the research, Manoj came across the working papers of Malayali historians Dileep Menon, Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, and Udaya Kumar, Professor, Centre for English Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “They had interesting, new-age perspectives on Kesari’s legacy, particularly on his writings on history, which had for long been written off as drivel by historians,” says Manoj. He also picked the brains of contemporary writers like Sunil P. Elayidam, Sachidanandan, B. Rajeevan and art historians such as Chandran T.V., Kavitha Balakrishnan and Vijayakumar Menon, among several others, to get their views on Kesari. “It’s very much an inter-disciplinary work and I actually had enough material for two hours or more but had to cut it down to 77 minutes, with the help of editor Ajay Kuliyoor,” says Manoj. Shenad Jalal and Jomon Thomas, meanwhile, cranked the camera. “The task before us was to translate thoughts into images. Therefore much of the documentary is surrealistic. For that we banked a lot on still photography, photographs sourced from Manjeri-based photographer’s collective Light Source,” says Manoj.

The documentary was commissioned by Muziris Heritage Project (MHP) and produced in association with Centre for the Development of Imaging Technology (C-DIT). It will be screened permanently at MHP’s new Kesari Balakrishna Pillai Memorial Museum that’s come up in North Paravur at Madavanaparambu, Kesari’s wife’s ancestral home, where he lived the last 17 or so years of his life. “The documentary was not easy to make and it’s not an easy view,” says Manoj, as he signs off.

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Printable version | Nov 15, 2018 10:13:47 AM |

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