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June 16, 1999


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Shobha Warrier

Shaji Karun. Click for bigger pic!
It was Shaji N Karun's third successful visit to Cannes. After Piravi and Swahm, his latest venture, Vaanaprastham, made the grade at Cannes, arguably the most prestigious film festival in the world.

Not many directors have made their point thrice over at Cannes. Although Murali Nair's Maranasimhasanam walked away with the Prix de la Camera d'Or (Golden Camera Prize) for the first film of a director, Vaanaprastham, an Indo-French production, was very well-received at Cannes, if one were to believe the reports emanating from there.

Shobha Warrier conducted this interview just before Shaji left for the festival:

The protagonist in Vaanaprastham is a Kathakali artist and the film is about the various crises that he faces in life as an artist. Why did you choose Kathakali to narrate the story? And, when was the seed for Vaanaprastham sown?

As you know, both my earlier films had gone to the Cannes film festival. Piravi was in the 'Certain Regards category' and Swahm in the competitive section. After the screening of Swahm, a French producer approached me and stated his desire to make a film with me. Actually, I didn't take him seriously first because I did not expect such an offer from a producer from a foreign country, that too from France.


A still from Piravi Click for bigger pic!
More than being surprised, I did not believe him! I felt I didn't have the qualification to do a film for a French producer. So I conveniently forgot about the offer. But after six months, I got a letter from him asking me to consider his request. Later he came down to meet me at a film festival in Japan. Then I thought he might really be interested.

Otherwise, he would not have come all the way from Paris to Japan to just meet me and talk to me. It was only then that I understood how serious he was about the offer.

Being a writer himself, he had a story in mind. He wanted to make a film on a one-man art and he had Odissi in his mind. He sent me a synopsis of the story too. But I was reluctant to make a film with Odissi as the backdrop as I was not familiar with the particular dance form. By then, a year had passed. When I told him about my difficulty, he asked me to choose the art form. I preferred Kathakali since I know it quite well.

Were you making the film for a Western audience?

No. How can I do that? I do not know their tastes, preferences, etc. I can only make an Indian film with the Indian audience in mind. One cannot create something with the western viewers in mind. I can only make films for those who understand my language and my culture. So, I asked him, 'Do you mind if I make a film like that?'

He then left the choice of the language and the content to me. Even after giving me all the freedom that I needed as a film-maker, he decided to be the producer.

It is true that Kathakali as an art form is well known to the Western audience as it has been presented by many people through various outlets, but I still feel we have not gone deep into all its real elements or nuances.

A still from Swahm. Click for bigger pic!
What exactly do you mean by real elements?

Kathakali as a pure art form provides an opportunity for an art lover to enjoy it without even understanding the language. This ability of Kathakali is unique. It has developed a very powerful visual language in all its movements; the movements can be that of the hands or the eyes or the whole body. But -- think about it -- this art form was developed several years ago and even then the artists had thought of all the visual possibilities.

And our audience had the capability to enjoy such a superior art form then. Although Kathakali has been overexposed, it still has a lot of refined qualities. Many critics here say that people use Kathakali to sell your creations.

Since Western audiences are enchanted by this colourful art form, are the critics not right?

Tell me, who will promote Chinese literature but the Chinese? Who will promote Indian art forms but the Indians? But we have to tell the Western audience who are enchanted by the colour that there is a lot more to Kathakali and than its colour and form. There is a lot of difference between creating something only with an intention to sell it and showing what already exists without any bias and with honesty. I think we need an ability to question even what is considered as the truth, and not an ability to question anything blindly.

Why do you think Kathakali has not reached the ordinary public? Because nobody has explained the intricacies of this art form to them. We still do not have a deeper knowledge of Kathakali, we know to view it very superficially only. I feel we also have to learn and understand more about this art form.

Shaji Karun. Click for bigger pic!
Which is the area that is not understood by the ordinary public, the visual part or the language of the art form?

Yes, we do not know much about the language. More than that, we have to understand the art form as a whole, the artist and his capabilities. Like we have a spoken and written language which has 26 letters, he has a sign language that has 20 to 24 signs and he communicates to the audience with the help of those signs. But the possibility that is available to him is not explored fully. A time has come for it to grow and expand and reach even ordinary viewers.

Don't you find it surprising that the older people can understand and enjoy Kathakali but not the present generation?

I think the previous generation had adequate time in their hands to leisurely sit and enjoy any art form. But people today are hard-pressed for time. Naturally, the ability to decipher and enjoy has also been lost. It will be difficult for today's people to understand an intricate art form like Kathakali in the limited time that is available to them.

But I pity the artist. These days he gets only very little time to perform and he is expected to convey everything during that short period. Remember, years ago, he was doing the same work with a lot more time in his hands. Just think of his plight. People now behave as if the artist should be thankful to them for giving him at least that much of their precious time! Such small mercies affect the artists and the art as well. We don't give the artists an opportunity to perform his art the way he wants or the way, which gives him the maximum satisfaction.

Can we blame anyone for these changes? Is it not because of the changes that have taken place with the passage of time?

A still from Piravi. Click for bigger pic!
I feel we have to be blamed for the changes because time is interconnected with economics now. We hear people say, time is money, knowledge is money, information is money, etc. This is the kind of change that has taken place and in the process, who are the losers? I will say we have lost a lot.

But don't we also gain something in the process?

Shall I tell you something? Computers store a lot in their memory for you. It is good; I don't deny that. In the process, we don't use our memory. We have lost the power to use our memory. We are losing a feeling called nostalgia too. The saddest aspect is that man has become a slave to money. He accumulates money for his own comfort but does he really enjoy the comforts? No, because he soon becomes a slave to money and materialistic comforts.

Haven't we heard our elders tell us not to do this, not to do that, because it is a sin to do so? Here the word 'sin' does not literally mean a sin. It is a genuine philosophy to be followed to lead a better life. I feel such philosophies and such genuine feelings will be alien to the younger generation.

Like you said, a Kathakali artist now has no freedom to choose the time for his performance since it is the audience who decides it. So, now a Kathakali artist performs a story in an hour's time what he used to do in several hours earlier and many critics criticise him for doing so. Is it a sin on his part to do so?

I feel an artist should be able to value his time. Why does he perform a story in one hour? Because he needs money. So, he sacrifices artistic satisfaction for money. They have to decide about their priorities. What suffers in the process is the art itself.

We used to follow a philosophy in life and that used to get reflected in art and literature. Unfortunately that is lost today and we just cannot create an art, which has any philosophy. Now no art or artist has any philosophy.

'Film as a creative medium is dying now'

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