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May 17, 2000


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'I was carried away by his performance'

Gnana Rajasekharan Shobha Warrier first met Gnana Rajasekharan in December 1998, when his short film Oru Kan Oru Parvai was selected for the Indian Panorama. An IAS officer of the Kerala cadre by profession, his heart belongs to art and culture. Which is why he has taken time off from work to shoot his new film, Bharati.

His love for films began as a student in his home town, Vellore. His interest increased after he went to Madras to complete his education and then to Kerala, where the film society movement was very vibrant.

His debut feature film, Moha Mullu, won him the Indira Gandhi National award for the Best First Film. Since the last eight years, he had been obsessed with making a film on the legendary Subramaniya Bharati. He has finally succeeded.

Most of the film's shoot took place in Ettiyapurma, where the poet was born, and Pondicherry where Bharati settled down to fight the British (a French colony then). When Shobha met Rajasekharan in Madras, he was preparing to go to Varanasi, where Bharati learnt French, Sanskrit and Hindi, to shoot the rest of the film.

You had said earlier that Bharati was going to be your dream project.

No Tamilian interested in arts and culture can escape Bharati's influence. The quantum may vary from person to person, but the influence will definitely exist. Even those who are not interested in arts and culture are greatly influenced by Bharati. His phenomenal poetic talent has touched all aspects of life. Though he was basically a poet, poetry was only one aspect of his life. He was a journalist, the first to introduce cartoons in Tamil Nadu. He also coined new words in Tamil.

Do you remember when you first read a work by Bharati? What attracted you to his writing?

I was an admirer of Bharati from the time I was very little. His poetry mesmerised me. His social thoughts and his vision for society attracted me. But I looked at Bharati as a subject for the film medium only recently.

To me, his most powerful work is Panchali Sapatham, where he depicts Draupadi as Bharatmata, the Kauravas as the British and the Pandavas as the freedom fighters. He wrote about women's liberation when no one even thought about it. Draupadi is a very strong and independent-minded woman who sees herself first as a woman and a human being. This version was a very different and radical interpretation of Draupadi.

When did you start looking at Bharati as someone whose life could be made into a movie?

Bharati This happened at Palghat, in 1992. I was the district collector of Trichur then . I was invited to speak at a workshop on film appreciation and, when I was done, I asked the audience if they needed anything clarified. A young man of 22 or 23 stood up and asked me, "What are you planning to make after Moha Mullu?"

Moha Mullu was just complete, the film wasn't even released. I told him I had not thought about my next project. He was sarcastic, "You people have a legend like Bharati who is such an interesting subject, but no Tamilian has made a film on him yet. Why? Even we Malayalis feel that he is a phenomenon."

Until then, I had thought of Bharati as a literary figure only. Never in my wildest dreams did I think of him as a subject for a film! I drove from Palghat to Coimbatore only thinking about what that young man had said. I went straight to a bookshop and bought 40-50 books by Bharati and on Bharati. I wanted to read him again from a different perspective.

When you read Bharati again, did you start visualising his life and works?

No. It was only a preliminary kind of activity. My intention was to gain more knowledge of the subject. Yes, reading poetry and appreciating it is different from reading a book with the intention of making a film.

For example, reading your Kumaranasan and enjoying his poetry is different from making a film on him. But, somehow, I couldn't get the thread with which I could begin. So I read Bharati again and again. I read all about his life. I read continuously for two years.

It took two years...!

Yes. Even after two years, I had no idea how and where to begin. Slowly, certain images began to dawn on me. I understood I had hit only the tip of the iceberg. There was a lot more to his magic. It was only in 1997 that I began writing the script. I spent more than four years reading and thinking about him! It took me that long to clear my head. Once I overcame the stumbling block, writing the script became less of a chore.

Did you at any point of time feel intimidated by the eventful life Bharati lead, even though it was only for 39 years?

Yes. The vastness of the subject frightened me. One has to be clear about certain things before making a film on somebody's life. To make a film on a biography is like making a documentary. But to make a biographical film, which is relevant today, is very important. Bharati's writings were relevant then, as they still are today and will be tomorrow. A feature film has to be more than a documentary; it has to have life. It should communicate; it must get viewers thinking.

Bharati After all this research, do you feel you understand Bharati and his writings more?

I don't think so. I cannot boast that I am an authority on Bharati. There is a difference between understanding him as a film subject and appreciating his poetry.

I needed to identify with his character to make the film. Only if you are able to understand his thought process can you visualise how he would react in a particular situation.

Unfortunately, we don't have any authentic writing on his life. There are some interesting but exaggerated anecdotes and many have their own interpretations. I had to find the right rhythm to make the film.

Nobody can completely understand a phenomenon like him.My aim is to bring Bharati, the human being, on the screen.

Was your experience while writing the script any different from watching the characters come alive while shooting?

The experience shouldn't be contradictory. Sometimes you understand more while you make the film. When you are shooting, you require the right actors who can convey the right expressions on screen, who can show what you have in mind. You also require the right ambience to magnify the effect.

Why did you choose a Marathi actor to portray Bharati?

It is immaterial whether you have a Marathi actor or a Hindi actor. Didn't Ben Kingsley act as Gandhi? In my case, I tried all the possibilities and finally ended up signing Sayaji Shinde.

Was it physical resemblance you first looked for while casting for the role?

Physical resemblance is a factor, but that is not the end of it. Bharati was a versatile person and, so far, nobody has shown his versatility on the screen. I felt the actor should have the range to portray such a character.

Language enhances the range, but it cannot solve everything. Had we been that particular about language, we would have seen a Marathi actor as Ambedkar. Why did they opt for Mammootty? Because of his ability to show a range of emotions. The ability to act is far more important than anything else.

Bharati In my mind, the image of Bharati is fire personified. I wanted that fire in my actor's eyes. The second most important aspect was the actor's range. Language comes only after that. That is why I selected an actor who was well versed in theatre. Theatre personalities give a lot of importance to diction. In commercial films, they don't bother about lip movement.

When you thought of Bharati, which actor's image first came to your mind?

I don't want to reveal the names. I tried Tamil actors as well as some Malayalam actors. See, I don't have the kind of budget Richard Attenborough had. As a small film-maker, I have my limitations. I had to find an actor who will suit my requirements within those limitations.

How did you chance on Sayaji Shinde?

I have seen his film, Shool. He acted as a villain in it. It was his eyes that attracted me first, but I was fascinated by his range as an actor too. He was a villain in the film, but he exhibited all kinds of emotions effortlessly, including humour.

I went to Bombay and did a make-up test with him. Then, I described the character and asked him to perform. He dressed as Bharati and performed for 45 minutes, reciting Marathi poems.

I was carried away by his performance. It was amazing. I cannot express how I felt. I felt, yes, I have finally met the right man.

Did he find it difficult to deliver the dialogues in Tamil?

The way he spoke Tamil and the way he memorised his lines were amazing. He labours a lot. He understands the meaning of all his dialogues in Hindi, Marathi and English. One great thing about Sayaji is that he does not act without knowing the language.

Are you making the film in other languages too?

No. I am talking about the kind of devotion he has! If I had an actor who spoke and understood Tamil well, but couldn't emote and bring out the fire in Bharati, I would have found it difficult to make the film. I wanted Sayaji to live like Bharati in the film. And he did.

This is a modern film with minimum dialogues. The characters don't make long speeches. But, because Bharati is a literary figure, we have taken care that dialogues are properly delivered. And Sayaji delivered all the dialogues without any prompting.

The other day in Pondicherry, we shot a scene where Bharati was singing on the beach. He sang the full song (Bharatha samudayam vazhkave) without a break for two-and-a-half minutes. I shot it in one take.

I am sure a Tamilian would not have done that. He sang the song without any assistance. That requires practice, confidence, dedication. Once he finished the song, the entire crew, including the cameraman, wept! That was the kind of power Sayaji depicted in his acting.

Bharati You say you want the film to be socially relevant.

Bharati was not just a poet. He had very liberal ideas. He had a great vision and he was wise. Many do not preach what they write, but Bharati was one writer who practiced what he wrote. That is the most important aspect of his character. Today, how many people practice what they preach?

He had an opinion on everything; about women, religion, God, caste... He wrote about women's liberation and the need to protect animals in the 1900s. His ideas are still relevant.

Was it tough to portray such a visionary on screen without sounding like a preacher, without losing the artistic element?

Yes, it had to be balanced properly and that was difficult. These days, people get bored with preaching because those who preach do not practise what they say. Politicians talk about nationalism and sacrifice, but everybody knows they do not sacrifice anything. When Bharati talks about sacrifice, you know he is speaking from experience.

The film is not a documentary. I am trying to show that Bharati's life is better poetry than the poetry that he wrote. You can interpret his life in many ways. For the last seven years, I am living with Bharati.

Moha Mul was set in the fifties. This film is set in the early 1900s. Is it not difficult to make period films?

It is. You will have no difficulty in making period films if you have money. But we don't have that much money. We have kept the background simple. For instance, you can make a hut look like a real one in two lakhs! That, according to me, is not cinema. Instead, we go to a real hut and shoot there. That is the difference between our kind of films and commercial films.

The last time when we met, you said the most important aspect of a film was its soul and the craft should follow the soul. In this film, did you give importance only to Bharati and not the paraphernalia of the period?

What is the point in having everything when you do not have soul? Craft should not disturb the soul. We were concentrating on the theme and treatment of the film instead of technical finesse because the soul is the most important thing. The body is also important, but not as important as the soul. What is the body without the soul?

What is the soul without the body?

That is why we take very good technicians. I don't compromise on that. I don't say technique is not required at all. The body is also important. A story should be beautifully crafted, but the craft shouldn't overshadow soul.

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