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When the big tree fell

In the middle of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, a nunnery shields a woman and her son from the communal conflagration. Sashikumar talks about his film, Kaya Taran


"TELEVISION IS a linear and uni-layered medium," says Sashikumar Menon. "But movies can transcend layers and become multidimensional. While TV works basically on facts and information, it is only in art that one can really touch the truth."

These words came surprisingly from Sashikumar who has been a print and television journalist and a popular TV news anchor. He is credited to have pioneered the first independent satellite TV venture in India in a regional language besides scripting and directing documentary features on transnational themes. He has set up the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, a premier institute for journalism education in the South Asian region. He is also the Chairman of Media Development Foundation, Chennai.

Sashi was in Bangalore recently, at the behest of Bangalore Film Society, to present his feature film. As he settled for an informal chat, Sashi went back in time: "I had always wanted to make films since my student days. By the time I was out of college, television was emerging and I walked into it." He underplays his early achievements, though: "It was no big deal for anyone who had a fairly good knowledge of the language and a particular kind of accent to get into television those days."

Into teaching

His rendezvous with the print and television media continued till 1999, "when I divested my stakes in Asianet and plunged myself to establish the Asian College of Journalism. By 2002-03, the Institute was running on auto-mode, and it was then that I realised that I could finally devote time and energy to my real passion — film-making."



Kaya Taran (Chrysalis), Sashi Kumar's maiden feature film, is based on N.S. Madhavan's short story in Malayalam

Kaya Taran (Chrysalis), his maiden feature film, is based on N.S. Madhavan's short story in Malayalam, When Big Trees Fall (the title is a take-off from Rajiv Gandhi's remark on the anti-Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi's assassination that when a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake). "What drew me to Madhavan's story was that it was once removed. The story was set in Meerut in a convent for aged nuns. It is about how they protect a Sikh woman and her seven-year-old son who have sought refuge in the convent. I sat on the story for many years wanting to make it a film. With my journalistic conditioning, I was looking for a suitable peg and that happened with Godhra."

The film is set against the backdrop of two riots. "What I now have is a film that straddles both situations— Gujarat after Godhra, and Delhi or Meerut after Mrs. Gandhi's assassination — in terms of their resonance on our times. When we scratch the surface of our secularism we find racial and religious intolerance that can repeatedly spark such conflagrations. Isn't this our single biggest challenge? The film is about vulnerability in our plural society."

Explosive theme

While dealing with an apparently explosive theme, Sashi feels that he has consciously worked on it to ensure that the film does not engage with violence explicitly. "Because I believe that violence can be far more potent if it is not dealt with as an emotive issue but in a subtle form when it actually sets us thinking, and make us wonder about the way we live. I have also used several techniques of surrealism and applied alienation strategies intentionally to highlight several layers of empathizing."

Sashi is quite happy about the way his film has finally turned out and also at the response wherever it has been previewed so far. He has received compliments from directors like Balu Mahendra, Sethumadhavan and above all, from the author of the story. "Madhavan told me that it was explosive, powerful and that he liked each and every frame of the film."

After Bangalore, Sashi will continue with the previews in other parts of the country and then release the film commercially in a couple of months. "I am under no illusions that it will be a runaway box office hit. But I am quite hopeful about recovering the costs." He also reveals that the film, which worked on a budget of about Rs. 1.5 crore, was completed in a single schedule of 38 days, because of meticulous planning and a detailed script.

Huge crowd

The Bangalore preview of the film at the Badami House last Monday drew good response attracting a large audience including writers, filmmakers, artists and mediapersons. While the technical accomplishment was appreciated (particularly the cinematography by Ashwini Kaul), the film drew varied responses for the choice of its theme and rendering of the same.

"The film worked on a rather small canvas but did fill in a vacuum about anti-Sikh riots," said artist and art historian, Suresh Jayaram. "It was a serious and honest attempt in dealing with a difficult theme." U.R. Ananthamurthy thought that the film presented something "cinematically new" and was particularly impressed at the way violence was underplayed. However, he had reservations about the theme itself: "I thought it was a little overdone. And while dealing with a sensitive issue like conversion, the whole metaphor somehow failed (in its approach and impact)."

ATHREYA

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