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The Rediff Special/Govind Nihalani

'Through her writing, you get to hear the voice of a community that is otherwise voiceless'

Director Govind Nihalani is thrilled that Mahasweta Devi has just won the Magsaysay Award. On the sets of Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma -- based on her novel which is also Jaya Bachchan's comeback film -- he recalls his association with the Bengali novelist and asserts that she is one of the finest writers we have.

I have been reading Mahasweta Devi's works for quite a few years now, and I think she is one of our best writers. It is not only because she draws on the tribals of Bengal and Bihar for her themes, but also because, from a purely literary point of view, her work is outstanding.

Through her writing, you get to hear the voice of a part of the community that is otherwise voiceless. So, even from the sociological point of view, her work is of great value. As far as her approach is concerned, you find that she is very concerned about the fate of her characters, about the dignity of their lives, about the survival of the community, the exploitation they are subjected to, the hardships they face, the official indifference and apathy... it is a tale of survival against the odds.

Her concern with the essential human being and his fight against the system forms the backbone of her work. In most of her works, her underlying belief in the concept of protest, the concept of fighting for your rights, for your survival, for your dignity.

She does not stop with merely shedding tears over the plight of the tribal community, she goes beyond that to explore, to implant the seeds of protest and struggle. In this sense, her works are valuable -- I do not think any other writer in our country has dealt with such themes with such depth, such literary style and substance.

I saw a play based on Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma in Calcutta years ago. I thought it was a good subject for a film, but I didn't have the courage to pick it up because of various reasons. When I saw the English translation of this novel, my interest was suddenly revived.

At this point, the question in my mind was who will play the mother, and the first person that came to mind was Jaya Bachchan. I approached her, she agreed at once, and that is how the film happened.

Mahasweta Devi agreed to my doing the film, we discussed my approach to the script, found we were in agreement. She made some valuable suggestions, and when I was done I sent her a copy of the script, which she read and commented on. We then met again, talked about additional scenes we wanted to incorporate, and she wrote the drafts of those scenes, which were finally incorporated.

Though the script is mine, we worked together on the drafts of the additional scenes. She is so involved with the subject that even for a novel like this which is nearly 20 years old, in our conversations she talked like she had done it yesterday, she remembered everything. Like, when we were discussing certain characterisations, certain relationships, it was like we were talking about her latest work.

I had told her whatever we were incorporating, I would like to have the inputs as soon as possible. There were about eight, ten scenes that needed to be done, and they were all ready in two days. Her involvement with, and support for the project were really amazing, and I was touched because I had heard stories about how she was tough to work with, how she was particular about the scripts of her stories...

She is very particular about her scripts and she is very tough. You can't take her for granted, but at the same time I found her extremely supportive, extremely understanding of what one was trying to do with her work. Once that line of confidence and mutual faith was established, it was easy -- in fact, it was a pleasure to work with her.

She had no reservations at all about her novel being made into a film. She told me, my novel and play have their place in the literary world, but cinema is a different medium, you do whatever you want to, and I will help you any way you want me to. That was good. It made it easy that she realised certain things will have to be changed. For instance, while the novel ends in the seventies, for the film version we have brought the story up to the present time -- and we did this with her consent, her support, her contribution.

When she won the award, both Jaya and I had called her up to congratulate her. She was very happy, she told me she wasn't getting to write because of the number of phone calls that were pouring in -- you see, she is trying to complete her next work before Puja.

I just said to her, 'Well, Mahaswetadi, the next stop is the Nobel', and she said 'Really?!'

As told to Suparn Verma

Mahasweta Devi wins Magsaysay award

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