Ishti: A Cinematic Metaphor For Our Times
October 13, 2017
The landslide victory of the BJP in the national elections was spearheaded by the charismatic and articulate Narendra Modi, the present Prime Minister of India. But the promised ache din for all was long in coming. Once the political honeymoon got over, the right wing intolerance and violence threatened the social amity and cultural freedoms enshrined in and ensured by our Constitution. The cultural policing in some cases unleashed attacks against people of different worldviews and political persuasions. They included intellectuals, writers, artists and scientists; even common people were not spared. Some were brutally murdered. As the level of intolerance and "othering" spread, many of the sensitive people who were concerned expressed their anguish and dismay. Quite a few returned their awards in protest, and some others resigned from their positions in public cultural institutions. In spite of BJP’s thumping victory in Uttar Pradesh recently, things have not turned for the better yet. Frontline’s cover story "Lynch Mob Rashtra" in the issue of 21 July 2017, is again symptomatic of the disturbing situation in the country.
Media debates and headlines, protests of various kinds by the followers of opposing viewpoints, also took place in many parts of the country. In 2016 itself, two publications responded to the mood and tempo of intolerance to democratic dissent, the freedom for personal choices and differing lifestyles, the diversity of cultural and political expression and action. One is the book Words Matter: Writings against Silence edited and introduced by K. Satchidanandan (Penguin Viking, Gurgaon, 2016). The other On Nationalism was co‐authored by Romila Thapar, A.G. Noorani and Sadanand Menon published by Aleph, Rupa Publications, New Delhi, 2016. They try to “uphold the ideal of secularism that presupposes not just ‘tolerance’ but also respect for the other” (p.4), as Satchidanandan introduces his collection to remind us of the essence of our “Republic of lived diversity” (pp. 6 & 139), an expression he borrows from Githa Hariharan, one of the contributors. This year Ashok Vajpeyi edits the third, a volume titled India Dissents: 3000 Years of Difference, Doubt and Argument, Speaking Tiger Publications, New Delhi, 2017. It is an anthology of Indian texts establishing and affirming “India created a civilization which was marked by curiosity and quest, by questions and doubts, by accommodation and acceptance of contrary viewpoints. (P.3)
Dr Prabha’s film Ishti: [A] Search for Self can be seen as one of the artistic and metaphoric cinematic expression of the decadent consequences if we do not change into a more egalitarian and democratic social order. This social inclusion and consciousness should respect human rights and dignity of all, irrespective of their caste, class and/ or gender. For me, this is what Ishti effectively portrays. The movie scripted and directed by Dr Prabha achieves this not just in terms of its thematic focus. The visuals, sounds, music and other cinematic features of the film creatively collaborate with the story. As the readers know this film was screened at the inaugural show for the 47th International Film Festival of India in Goa. It was one of the two Indian films in this festival chosen for the international competition section. Ishti was selected and also screened at this year’s Kolkata International Film Festival.
Dr Prabha may not have the deliberate ideological intent of the three books mentioned earlier. Still, the timing and the issues the movie foregrounds bring it into the artistic vanguard of dissent against freedom of expression, human rights and justice, gender equality, respect for difference, diversity and democracy. To get into the specifics of the theme, the single‐minded and egoistic ambition of Ramavikraman Namboothiri is sanctioned by the conventions of a narrow‐minded patriarchy, caste superiority and unjust feudal entitlements. These so called traditions throttle the lives and possibilities of his younger brother, his own illiterate though artistic son, the intellectually inclined and literate third wife as well as his own young daughter.
The reform movement in the Namboothiri community in Kerala during the mid‐twentieth century coincides with the Indian Independence Movement. That reform movement exposed and challenged the crude and cruel traditions and tactics of the feudal patriarchy, as well as the brahminical caste domination among the Malayali Namboothiris. This picked up momentum in the wider context of the awakening against enslaving and colonising foreign as well as indigenous socio‐cultural order of the time in India. The film’s director and his able team of cinematographers acknowledge their inspiration from the pioneering spirit of that reform movement, V.T. Bhattadirippad, himself a writer, activist and freedom fighter of the time.
The story is simple and straight in targeting the vanity of the patriarch of the family, Ramavikraman. As the eldest of the family, he is the sole arbiter and proprietor of the property and prosperity of the household. He owns all and everything in the family. By tradition, he alone can marry, and marry any number of times too. The character and role are sensitively and ably portrayed by Nedumudi Venu, a veteran Malayalam film actor. The patriarch’s siblings can have sexual alliances outside the family, and the family owes no duty towards the outsider progeny. The case of his younger brother Narayanan Namboothiri is touchingly real and tragic in the movie that ends with the premature death of his young son. The elder brother denies funds to take the very sick boy to a doctor. The reason? The child was born of a lower caste woman, to whom no one owes any responsibility.
The film Ishti commences with the elaborate and successful completion of the Somayagathat through which the patriarch earned the title Somayajippad. The family members are aware that the expenses for the yagna have already drained the finances of the household. Nevertheless, the vanity and ambition of the Somayajippad is to achieve the position of an Akkithirippad, the ultimate and final ritual status, despite its prohibitive monetary cost. He sells off some of the heritage possessions of the family, properties and other livelihood support systems. Even the family cow is sold. At the age of 71, he marries a third time, a 17‐year‐old girl, Sridevi admittedly for money. Stark is the irony and the tragic poignancy of the system and its mindlessness. There is a scene where Ramanvikraman Namboothiri mistakes his own daughter for his young wife and touches her. He is rudely startled and embarrassed when the girl turns to face the father. His single‐minded pursuit to collect money for his next yagna is telling. He even shows the shameless audacity to invite a 73‐year‐old wealthy Namboothiri to give away his teenaged daughter in marriage, as one of the viable means to fund his Akkithirippad project. His strapping son Rama, boldly and bluntly intervenes to stop the event. The character of Rama is portrayed as one from the new generation who is thirsting to be literate as his self‐awareness grows.
The change in Rama is quite a turning point for him. He becomes much more vocal, and challenges the unjust practices and customs under the guise of tradition. He is partly influenced by the neighbouring youth of the reform movement and is equally motivated by the kindred spirit of Sridevi, who was already well into reading and writing, leading the feminist charge for change within the household. She ignores and questions the traditional prohibition against women’s education. She not only encourages Rama to read and write but also helps educate his sister. The move to change and to challenge the system from within the family has a welcome feminist thrust in the movie.
Discontent due to discrimination and exclusion leads to dissent and rebellion against the status quo. It started with the younger brother Narayanan who symbolically cuts off his caste-marker tuft and burns the holy thread. He leaves the household convinced that it is better “to be a dog, a cat or a cow than a younger brother” in this traditional Namboothiri family. The other women in the household and the outside community suspect and misinterpret the interactions between the son Rama and the patriarch’s third wife, Sridevi. Some of the very few occasions of positive and uplifting moments inside the illam are their creative inclinations in the arts and literature, as well as their mutual interests in education and justice for all. Otherwise, the house mostly remains dull and dreary. The camera work here masterfully emphasizes the thematic motifs of the movie. It effectively captures the sunlight‐starved indoors of the household during the day, as well as the amber ambivalence of light and shade from the oil or kerosene lamps during evenings and nights.
Once the patriarch fails to quell the winds of change and rebellion among the new generation, the music also switches gear. It shifts from the mere lonely bird calls and the mindless monotonous recitals of Vedic hymns. Rama’s dream of his kathakali preparations in the company of Sridevi is one such high point of culturally and aesthetically appropriate music, bright and colorful visuals. They signify the way things are going to dramatically unfold; and eventually dismantle the patriarchal feudal structures.
Then the other special aspect of this movie is its use of Sanskrit. There can be no doubt about Dr Prabha’s facility in the classical language. He is an experienced professor of Sanskrit and served as the head of the Department of Oriental Languages at Loyola College, Chennai. Still, the anachronism of such a linguistic medium remains. As one of the very few Sanskrit movies dealing with social themes, Ishti envisions a better social order of human rights and justice. Then, liberating the classical language of Sanskrit from the so‐called sacred shackles of the Vedic hymns and rituals as an exclusive male privilege should also be a part of the thematic project of the film. Would it be one of the possible relevance for Sanskrit here? The difference and distance Ishti keeps from the overpowering visual spectacle of most of today’s commercial films of dazzling pyrotechnics, song and dance is a welcome change, maybe partly also because of its linguistic medium of Sanskrit.
The whole movie points to a much more subtle and substantial way the cinematic art of an atypical aesthetic sensibility can communicate with its audience. From a technical perspective, the nuanced and subdued way in which the camera pans the scenes, especially of the interiors, symbolically and effectively reflects the decaying innards of a Namboothiri illam bonded to outdated traditions. The close‐ups and the interior spaces used mostly by the patriarch of the family Ramavikraman Somayajippad are shot to evoke his scare: His scare to open up to and bring in the bright light of a new dawn as well as the true fire of unrestricted knowledge signified also by the Vedic ritual fire he labours to keep live at home. It is only the young Sridevi and her generation who understand knowledge as fire that will set them free from the blind unthinking “faith in the systems and traditions” of the Somayajippad. That’s what actually happens to Rama when he dissents against and dismisses the community leaders’ demand to probe the rumoured scandalous relation between Sridevi and him.
The movie forces us to seriously reflect on what can befall a family, community or society that refuses to search for its self and soul to recognise the true fire of knowledge leading to the daylight of wisdom and freedom. On the other hand, like the character of Ramavikraman Namboothiri, if we mistake Ishti as a mere ritual of a yagna, it works as a stratagem of patriarchal prejudices and feudal exclusions. These will eventually bring in conflict and violence making a mockery of the so‐called ethos of vasudevakudumbakam, embracing the whole world as the one home of the Divine. Even the advaita ambition of Aham Bhramasmi (often part of the dialogue in the movie) will remain a mere metaphysical vanity in a society still struggling with caste, gender and class discriminations. I admire the courage of the producer Mr P.S. Chanthu, the director Dr Prabha and their able team of cinematographers and actors to have taken the commercial and cultural risk with such a movie. This movie will provoke us long after we have watched it. I think the socio‐cultural critique of Ishti comes from the deep concern for and hope in the future of our society. “It cannot be denied that India had a very restrictive, indefensible caste system and many elements of a feudal structure. But simultaneously it also had a republic of the imagination in which ideas and wisdom had a democratic remit.” (Ashok Vajpeyi, India Dissents, p.4) After Independence, once Indians decided to remain a democratic republic, it was as if the natural evolution of our ancient democratic ethos, and must remain an updated vital part of our collective national DNA. We can try for a society and polity that aspire for “a future born of the new ideas and hopes of the twenty‐first century…” and not “merely the future of the past” as Yuval Noah Harari puts it in his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. (p.66)
T R Joy is an English and Life Skills consultant, writer and translator. He was part of the Poetry Circle Mumbai and worked in the editorial team of its journal, Poiesis. His books of poems, Brooding in a Wound was brought out by Allied Publishers, Mumbai. His typescript The Secular Aesthetics: An Indian Model is ready for peer review. He has published articles, reviews and translations in several literary journals.Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.
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