Blind man's buff
A scene from Guru. Click for bigger pic!
It's just not done in Indian cinema -- a film-maker with box office hits going into the art market. Usually happens the other way. For, in industry terms, such a shift would equate shooting yourself in the foot.
But that is what Rajeev Anchal, who started his career with runaway hits like Butterflies and Kashmeeram did when he fell under the spell of Karunakara guru, the spiritual head of the Santhigiri ashram at Potencode, near Thiruvananthapuram, who has earlier influenced men of letters like O V Vijayan.
Rajiv's latest film, Guru, is about the guru, though it derives ultimately from H G Wells's The Country of the Blind about a normal man who finds himself in a valley of blind people and hopes to rule on the basis of that saying, 'In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.'
But the blind men think his claims to sight are a mental aberration. The tale shifts though, based on the experiences Rajeev had with the guru. And so Guru, the film, went on to become the first Malayalam film nominated for an Oscar by the Film Federation of India. To squeeze it into the foreign category section, the film has been pared down to 90 minutes, hopefully with nothing of relevance lost.
Oscar or not, the film has bombed, as yet scraping together only one-third of the Rs 30 million expended on it. D Jose spoke to the director. And this is what he had to say...
How far is your film indebted to The Country of the Blind?
I had read the Wellsian work when I was a college student. I was awestruck by the description of the mysterious mountain valley Wells inhabited with blind men. The intimate association I had with Karunakara guru helped me find a spiritual answer to the malady. I have used the Wellsian theme to picturise the human condition, that of darkness overpowering the soul.
What is the importance of Karunakara guru in your film?
The hero of my film, Raghuraman (Mohanlal), who heads the suicide squad formed to avenge the death of his loved ones in a communal riot, is transformed after he comes across an emissary of the guru. The emissary, a sanyasini herself, tells him his mission is evil and that he should give it up.
Raghuraman, who is puzzled that she already knows of his plans, agrees to prostrate himself before her guru's sandals, kept as a symbol of his presence. When he touches the sandals, Raghuraman undergoes deep inner turmoil and he is transported to another level of knowledge and being. He lands in the valley of the blind, which I used as an allegorical representation of mankind enmeshed in spiritual blindness.
Did you intend to spread the guru's message through your film?
Mohanlal. Click for bigger pic!
I am very honest about it. The second half of my film is a fantasy woven around the community of the blind people, highlighting the metaphors of 'sight' and 'eyes' to establish the spiritual search of the hero.
I have described the hero as the chosen one who has the power and knowledge to awaken the blind men from their darkness of ignorance.
The awakening takes in two levels: one is the scientific and the rational, which destroys ignorance of superstition and ritual; the second is the intuitive and the transcendental, which is superrational and which gives one knowledge about reality. The narrative is handled to highlight the evils of caste atrocities, communal violence and spiritual blindness, against which Karunakara guru is waging a war.
The hero in my film enters the state of blindness and then that of sight is able to collect together a band of people who trust him. They become true followers of the 'guru' when they realise that the root cause of their blindness is a fruit they have been eating.
Your film is set in a Hindu ashram but it is replete with Christian images. How do you explain this?
This is because I borrowed a lot from H G Wells. However, I have taken care to blend contemporary values with the situations envisioned by H G Wells.
How do you place the influence of Karunakara guru in the making of the film?
A scene from Guru. Click for bigger pic!
The sum and substance of the film is the message this saint is striving to convey to the materialistic world. I got a spark of his message when I met him seven years ago. The theme of the 'guru' was always there in my mind even when I was making other films suiting popular tastes. The film became inescapable as our relations became more intimate over the years. My interactions with other disciplines gave me the spiritual courage to undertake the task. Thus 60 of us got together and raised the funds for the film.
Although the film may not have been commercially rewarding we have had the satisfaction of spreading the message of our guru.
Has this strong urge for conveying the guru's message not affected your film's artistic fabric?
I think every work of art has a message to convey. It is manifested in either a convert or an overt manner. I am honest enough to admit that I am trying to spread the message of Karunakara guru through my film. I have tried my level best to keep the aesthetic quality. That may be the reason why the Oscar nomination has come in search of me.
Is the film autobiographical?
The film is not autobiographical in the sense of portraying one's life in totality. Guru is in some way the transformation that took place in my personal life after I met Karunakara guru. I feel that something very important happened to me after I met him. It was this meeting that inspired the film. I found in Karunakara guru a friend, a guide and a philosopher. I can assure you that my subsequent films will show the shadow of Karunakara guru's influence on my professional life. I will not be making mainstream films like I have before.
What do you feel about the Oscar nomination for your film?
I am proud to be the first Malayalam film-maker to get nominated for the Oscar. I won't be disappointed even if the film fails to get an award because I consider the Oscar nomination itself as recognition. I was happy that my film suited the tastes of the materialistic West as it offers the spiritual answer they are looking for. I have taken great pains to satisfy his spiritual quest.
How have your fellow film-makers taken your film?
The reaction from the celluloid world has been mixed. The so-called art film-makers are not ready to accept my film. I don't know whether some of those who passed comments have even seen the film. But there really is a section which believes that I have made a different film.
What do you think about the present state of the Malayalam film industry?
I think it is trying to ape the West. The film-makers of my time are out to exploit the sentiments of crisis-ridden modern man. I view the media differently. I think the media has got the duty to guide and teach misplaced men. My film is a humble effort to guide and teach such misplaced men. My film is a humble effort in this regard.