Interview – Shyamaprasad (Indian film director)

Craft of integrity
Award-winning Indian film director Shyamaprasad is fond of Andrei Tarkovsky’s idealisation of making cinema that does not deliberately try to please an audience yet hope that the picture will be accepted by all who see it. Rajeev Nair met him in Dubai

Photographs: Mohammed Rasheed

A beard would have been a burden on filmmaker Shyamaprasad. He doesn’t need the unkempt looks and associated intellectual superiority that are an abused cliché of offbeat filmmakers.
There is an air of intense personal discipline to the man, which invariably rubs off on his works too. His milieu in films can be defined without ambiguity: Good cinema that does not compromise on his own and his work’s integrity.
A touch of irony marks his journey to become filmmaker: He worked almost simultaneously on two genres of films. While his eventual debut Agnisakshi fetched him the best director award and international recognition, the other, Kallu Kondoru Pennu, an out-and-out commercial flick was a near wash-out. But the film was part of a learning curve that reinforced his faith in “upholding integrity in what you want to do.”
His next film Akale, an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie won six state awards and two national awards. He has wrapped up Bokshu, an international co-production, based on the celebrated Hindi novel by Ganga Prasad Vimal, starring veteran actors like Stephen Berkoff. His next foray is into the heart of the modern Malayalam classic, Khazakkinte Ithihasam, a novel by OV Vijayan.
Literary adaptations have come to be the signature statement of Shyamaprasad. Agnisaskhi is the award-winning work of Lalithambika Antharjanam; Kallu Kondoru Pennu is a successful play based on the life of expatriate Indians in the Gulf by SL Puram Sadanandan.
For television, he has adapted the works of Anton Chekhov (Vivahalochana); Albert Camus (The Just); Vaikom Mohammed Basheer (Viswavikhyathamaya Mookku); Kamala Surrayya (Venalinte Ozhivu); N Mohanan (Peruvazhiyile Kariyilakal); Sarah Joseph (Nilavariyunnu) and K Radhakrishnan (Shamanathalam), among others.
Expatriation is a recurring theme in Shyamaprasad’s repertoire. His Manalnagaram (City of Sand) based on a story by UAE-based writer Surab, was a well-received television series on Gulf Indian expatriates.
A graduate in Theatre Arts who won a Commonwealth Scholarship and did his Masters in Media Productions at the Hull University, UK, Shyamaprasad has reached films from theatre through television. A slow journey, if you may, but rewarding nevertheless.
He took the learning as intern at BBC and Channel 4 to Indian television and redefined the parameters of tele-serials and documentaries. He continues to push the frontiers of television in his role as president, Programming, Amrita Television.
He was in Dubai recently to announce the opening of Amrita TV’s Middle East operations. In a freewheeling interview, he speaks about his films. Excerpts:

You seem to have a fixation for Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. You did a theatre production, Laura, based on the play, in 1982. Now, you have made Akale…
Yes, come to think of it, indeed, there is a fixation (with the play). It has been over 20 years since I first did The Glass Menagerie on stage but during all these years I have been thinking about adapting it for television and film. It took some time to mobilise the right production resources. The play basically deals with the very essential aspects of humanity, our concerns for each other and how happiness is achieved in this life…

The Glass Menagerie resonates the ghetto culture and the impoverishment of New Orleans way back in the 1930s. Why did you define Akale in the context of the 1970s?
Akale, like The Glass Menagerie, is a story of memories so the key events happen many years in the past. And the 1970s is the sort of idealistic past that I can identify with.

Was the choice of an Anglo-Indian family too deliberate?
I thought the tale was best placed in an Anglo-Indian context because the community has the kind of customs and ambience that go down well (with the theme). Secondly, I was always curious to know more about their lives. They mirror so much of the angst of the characters (in the play) — their isolation, the desolate-ness, fragility….

Do you think the play could have been adapted to a thoroughly Indian context, say, against the backdrop of a Hindu family?
It could have been….

Was it ever considered?
Never. When I did the initial theatre production in 1981, I had based it loosely on a translation by Vijayagopal. He had given it the ambience of a Nair family, which I thought never worked.

You have also followed close to the original, even retaining some motifs and dialogues…
Those were equally important aspects as the central theme…

But, set aside the opening and how the film ends, don’t you feel you were going by the book a trifle too much?
That is interesting… You are probably the first person to say that. Many people thought I went away from the book. I think using some of the dialogues was critical because they are important in revealing the psychology of the characters at a given moment. These dialogues are so interwoven with the theme that I can’t rip them off from the structure.

You did so even in Agnisakshi…
Absolutely… Anyway, I have no qualms about adopting a play and using the dialogues in a film as long as they work.

You have maintained that you are not a writer as a justification for adapting literary works for television or cinema. Doesn’t that limit your own evolution as a total filmmaker?
I really don’t know what a total filmmaker is. I deal with a story, period. It is essentially the job of any artist to identify with the other voices in humanity. If I can identify with Tennessee Williams and I can attempt to make my own story, I think, that is the magic of art. I don’t see any divinity in conceptualisting a 100 per cent original story. Look at the masters… well, take Satyajit Ray. Most of his brilliant works are based on written works (by others). The point is that he could recreate them in a different age, medium and point of view. That process is what is more important.

What grabs you into a story provoking you to film it?
I don’t know. These are all very subconscious decisions involving the many elements of your own life that connects you with the story. With The Glass Menagerie, I could identify with all the characters and their predicaments.

Do you think there were certain aspects of Akale that you wanted the audience to assimilate but went unnoticed?
I don’t think so. Akale is more accomplished of my works. I was much more in control of the various elements basically because there were very few elements — few characters and locations. If at all there was any problem in communication or the structure, it may be due to my own inadequacies.

In your web-site, you quote Andrei Tarkovsky’s observation: “There is no contradiction in the fact that I do nothing in particular to please an audience, and yet hope fervently that my picture will be accepted and loved by those who see it.” Twisting it a little, is it your eagerness that Akale should be appreciated by the masses that made you conceive a song specifically for television marketing?
It is only natural that I look for some tool that takes the film to the audience. Television is a right one for that but I didn’t want to hamper the flow of the film or its structure in any way. That is why I kept it out of the film; in fact, the song’s score had nothing to do with the film. Tarkovsky’s is a statement that I am fond of. It is the constant preoccupation of an artist — of wanting to reach as many as possible and yet not wanting to dilute or compromise…

The last play you did was Woody Allen’s The Death. Do you have no plans to return to theatre?
No, I would love to. But theatre needs constant practise and involvement. Currently, I am involved with a play based on Padmarajan’s Kallan Pavithran as producer. I don’t have time to direct a play now.

As one who initially did television and now heads the programming of Amrita TV, do you feel television as a medium is underutilised in India?
Yes. Television is used as a platform for entertainment programmes like music and dance. It isn’t being discovered for its own properties as a medium. Amrita TV is definitely trying to understand and realise its true potential.

What is your bottom line with Amrita TV?
Explore the possibility of giving quality entertainment within the framework of mass appeal. It is possible as long as you keep the communication free-flowing and you approach it with honesty and integrity without prejudices.

For one who does not believe in the art versus commercial cinema dichotomy but in entertainment as being simply good or bad, aren’t you disturbed that the good never gets popular?
True. Good is never as popular as the bad ones but it is due to many reasons. First of all, many people do not know what is good; secondly, the good is not available to them; and thirdly, many of the so-called good ones are so closed that they are unable to reach the people. Many of these “good” ones are not honest jobs. But you can’t make a broad statement that the good is not accepted.

Given the background of Amrita Enterprises, how much of Amrita TV is influenced by religion, and how much of your father’s (O Rajagopal, a former union minister in the BJP government) ideology influences you?
My father’s ideology has nothing to do with anything that I do. As for Amrita TV, we do have programmes on different religions as religion is a part of society but it is done in a broad-based and proportionate manner. The audience in Kerala have realised our sincerity and respect our credentials.

What did Hull University teach you that Pune didn’t?
Pune taught me a lot of things. I was watching at least five films every day for many months. I also learnt a lot about the practical aspects of television production. Hull University was more academic. And the experience of interning with BBC and Channel 4 was invaluable. This was at a time when satellite television was non-existent in India.

You worked with a predominantly Western crew in Bokshu – The Myth. How different was the experience?
It was a great experience working with a production team that is meticulous about the arrangements. I also could work with international actors like Stephen Berkoff, and many trained theatre and film actors like Irfaan Khan and Nandana Sen. The film’s genre — an adventure, mystery — was also new to me.

Do you regret doing Kallu Kondoru Pennu early in your career?
Yes, in some ways. But it also taught me about the industry and the importance of upholding integrity in whatever one wants to do. It is not that I am totally free from it; there are some elements that nag me but I am more careful now about selecting stories.

What is the progress on Khazakkinte Ithihaasam?
It is a big production; the canvas is huge and the story is many layered. Two to three versions have already been written but I am not happy. I also need a good producer who will understand the true scope of the film.

Malayalam cinema is progressively having a lesser haul at national level awards. Do you feel there is a deterioration in the quality of Malayalam cinema?
Certainly. But you must also understand that even mainstream Indian cinema, Bollywood, has changed. They are incorporating elements of aesthetics in a commercial framework and exploring new turf thematically. In Malayalam, we are still going round the arthouse cinema formula.

What is your definition of good cinema?
Let us not just talk of cinema. Take any art or communication, a good one should change you in some way. It should have the potential to motivate and move another mind.

Do you see that happening in current Malayalam cinema?
Very rarely. I can’t remember a film that has moved me in the recent past.

Considering that cinema is a very subjective medium, where every individual takes home what relates to his or her individual sensibilities, do you think international cinema that moves all cross-sections of audiences is possible?
Yes, definitely. The binding forces that unite humanity are the same. Look at The Glass Menagerie. It moves all audiences because the essentials of humanity are the same, we are all confronted with the same existential issues.

Read Akale review at:

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