The directness of her words is too adorable. In a diary that she carefully locks and puts away in a drawer, little Santhi writes, “Sundari chechi is so beautiful, why would anyone hurt her?” Santhi’s nine. That’s the simplest logic she can think of. An older person would have told her that being beautiful didn't protect someone from getting hurt by another.
Music director Bijibal wrote those words spoken by Santhi as a screenplay for a short film – Sundari - and got his young daughter Daya to play the little girl. The original story comes from Bijibal’s late wife Santhi, who wrote it as an eighth grader, for a story writing competition in her hometown of Ottappalam. Santhi Mohandas, as she was known then, had won a prize from Mathrubhumi for her touching short story from a panel that consisted of writers MT Vasudevan Nair, Paul Zacharia and C Radhakrishnan.
“Santhi’s story was more like a monologue and the words came from a more mature girl. She developed it from an experience she’d had at the Chavakadu beach near Guruvayoor. There was a Sundari chechi she met on the beach whom someone had hurt,” says Bijibal, who directed and edited the film and gave music to it.
It is not because he had a secret desire to direct, it’s just that Bijibal wanted the visuals he had in his mind to be taken to a screen, it would be hard to explain it to a third person. But the film has no appearances of a novice’s work. The actors, including young Daya, play their roles without the least bit of exaggeration, subdued, and as children would be.
A still from Sundari
In the film, the children going to a beach (shot at Kuzhippilly in Kochi) meet an older girl selling groundnuts. She says her name is Pennu (girl), that’s how everyone calls her; she wears the same shirt every day, and when Santhi (the character) asks about her parents, she simply says there’s nothing like that, a few of them live together. What’s refreshing is how none of this is said pitifully, with the overly done sentimental music that films often fall upon when stories of orphans come on screen. It’s just an exchange between two children.
Santhi Bijibal’s (as Santhi Mohandas later came to be known) story had been lying in their cupboard back home for long. But it’s when a friend from Mathrubhumi – Ravi Menon – sent a picture of the old story that they published, that Bijibal thought he should make a film of it. “The original story was more autobiographical. For the film, we took a few liberties that come in fiction. In the original, Santhi is old enough to understand something terrible must have happened to Sundari chechi. But Daya, a fourth grader playing Santhi, wouldn’t understand that. She would only think direct thoughts, like Sundari chechi is beautiful, why hurt her.”
Santhi and Bijibal
Sundari, meaning beautiful, is a name Daya gives Pennu, who comes without a real name. The character is played by Rose Sherin Ansary, a student at Lokadharmi Theatre. It’s mostly non-actors who are in the cast. Unnimaya S Menon, a trained dancer, plays the mother of the children, more convincingly than Bijibal expected her to. Singer Sangeetha Srikanth plays the mother’s friend. Nandhu Kartha, another musician becomes the father.
The film is produced and published by Bodhi Silent Scape, Biji’s and Nandhu’s attempt to give a platform for making and encouraging independent music and art work.
On Bodhi, Bijibal had also released a music video recently, called Ayyan. It was December and the Sabarimala controversy, of allowing women in the menstrual age-group into the Ayyappa temple, had been at its peak. Bijibal wanted to express his stance and he did it in the best way he knew – through music. He asked his friend Hari Narayanan about making a song, that could be enjoyed by both believers and non-believers, and put forward his thoughts. Hari sent the lyrics back in ten minutes. Bijibal composed a tune in another ten minutes. With a simple percussion instrument like Udukkum that Hari holds, both of them in black attire – the preferred one for Ayyappa devotees – sing of an Ayyan who does not trap menstruating women in the walls of tradition (rithumathiye acharamathilal thadanjidum aarya vedassallithayyan).
He did get abusive messages, as expected, but there were a lot of positive comments coming to Bijibal, especially from women. There were also some who said they liked the song though they didn’t appreciate the ideology.
Bijibal took it all in his stride. But when work for Bodhi became so much – and it was work that he dearly loved – Bijibal reduced his compositions for movies. There were just so many films in the previous years that he barely had time for Bodhi or himself. “Now I take on films of people I am close to, and films which I believe are artistically worth, and films of new directors,” he says. And so, there is one by Salim Ahamed coming, another by Jibu Jacob, and a third by a new director.
Watch Sundari here: