‘His writings led me from darkness to light’: Filmmaker Prasanna on Ashokamitran

The documentary has writers, actors and young readers coming together to discuss his works.
‘His writings led me from darkness to light’: Filmmaker Prasanna on Ashokamitran
‘His writings led me from darkness to light’: Filmmaker Prasanna on Ashokamitran
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If there was one question author Ashokamitran found absurd, it was to ask him to explain his work. “Literature is a matter of opinion. Writers explaining their work is so out of place. Creations need not have intentions. This is like an axion – the cardinal truth.” This sums up Ashokamitran, the writer.

The author himself is hidden between the lines of his stories. They are seemingly simple, but if you were to peel away one layer, you would only find more underneath.

His prose, succinct and yet incredibly nuanced, ensures his books are unputdownable. Ashokamitran’s stories are transcendental and, more importantly, universal. Uproot his characters and place them in any city in any part of the world, and the story will still strike a chord with the reader. Such was the magic he spun with his words.

Born J Thiyagarajan in 1931, the author spent the first 20 years of is life in Secunderabad. When he moved to Chennai in 1952, following the death of his father, he joined Gemini Studios and worked under SS Vasan until 1966.

The author drew inspiration from his time in Secunderabad and, later, Gemini Studios in many of his works.

Ashokamitran is oft considered an avant-garde writer, greatly regarded as the one who defined modern Indian literature. Yet, his simple stature and inimitable flair for language are elements that have, and will continue to endear him to many.

While the author has three other documentaries made on him, it is this aspect of Ashokamitran – his ability to talk personally to his reader – that filmmaker Prasanna Ramaswamy tries to bring out in her documentary, Writer Ashokamitran.

TNM caught up with the documentary filmmaker after her documentary was screened on his death anniversary. The documentary has writers, actors and young readers talking about his works. Prasanna has used passages from his stories to help dissect the author. Excerpts from the interview below:

Ashokamitran, as he said in one of his speeches, is the kind of writer who does not like discussing or explaining his work. That being the case, how did you get him to agree for this documentary?

If you remember the film, the parts that he appears in are of him reading his own writing and the interview/questions are on the philosophy or themes of his writings. But to answer your question, he didn't have any hesitation to answer any question. However, my structure of the film is like a discourse. Others are discussing his works in different contexts – some find it great, some are critical.

There have been other documentaries made on the author (three). What aspect of the writer, unseen in the others, did you want to across in your work?

My films are what you call personal, experiential documentaries and don’t just work on 'information'. I work on evocation and travel into the writing, its nuances and open it in such a way that it is received by many, a multiple experience.

Tell us about your love for Ashokamitra's works. Of how they influenced you.

His writings clarified my life for me. At very crucial, critical moments, they have lead me to light from darkness. Even in this film, two points where he is talking about caste and created works and on ambition, it clarifies something important for me.

Selecting the writers to speak about Ashokamitran must have been a challenge. How did you go about choosing them? Is there anyone you wanted to include but couldn't?

Not really. In the group discussion, he is also seen in the scene. I requested him to choose the discussants. Otherwise, for Karaidha Nizhalgal, as the work is located in the film industry, I wanted Nasser and Rohini to respond. As for the 18th Parallel, I worked through a workshop situation and interspersed his readings with his memories of Secunderabad. I would have liked an interview with Sachidanandan Sukirtharaja as I like what he writes on literature and I know he reads Ashokamitran. That was not possible. But I am extremely happy that I could get Adiga and Holmstrom to speak, who live outside India and Zacharia who lives in Kerala.

Can you list out a few responses from writers/his colleagues/family/friends after watching the documentary?

One young student in Coimbatore said, “His writing is like showing a whole universe in a drop of water, and I get the same feeling with the film.” Invariably many people, including writers come up with the expression, “It is very moving.”

After the first screening, Mrs Ashokamitran remarked, “I got to know certain things that I didn't know about him after seeing this.” I just broke down after that. I felt it was the greatest thing to hear.

Ashokamitran, the writer

Although he took up writing full-time only in 1966, Ashokamitran began penning stories a long time ago. His first well-known work was Anbin Parisu that won him the best radio play award in 1953.

He authored over 250 short stories, 8 novels, 10 novellas and more. He also worked as the associate editor of Kanaiyazhi, a Tamil magazine, for about 23 years.

Ashokamitran has also authored the English novel, My Years with Boss, a chronicle of his experiences in Gemini Studios. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1966 for his collection of short stories, Appavin Snegidhar. Ashokamitran was also awarded the Iowa Writers Fellowship in 1973, the result of which was the novel Otran. His novels Karaidha Nizhalgal, the semi-autobiographical Padhinettam Atchakodu (18th Parallel) and Thaneer are some of his most famous works.

Ashokamitran has been criticized for writing majorly about one community, the Brahmins. Not one to be easily ruffled, the author shrugged off criticism saying, “I’ve only written about what I know.” This simple explanation is perhaps his most accurate character sketch.

In one of his interviews, the author shares that he rode his bicycle to Natesan Park in T Nagar every morning religiously for 20 years. And it was here that he penned most of his stories, between 6.30 and 7.00 am –  words flowing on to the paper. His works have touched many, always leaving them thirsting for more.

With his frail countenance, Ashokamitran is a reflection of his work – simple, yet riveting.

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