G Prabha, a retired Chennai-based professor, managed a rather unusual distinction for himself at the Bengaluru International Film Festival. Amidst the cornucopia of languages and dialects represented at the global film festival, Prabha’s Ishti was the only film in Sanskrit to find a place.
Speaking on the sidelines of the festival, Prabha claims that his film is doubly unique because it is the first film to deal with a progressive social issue in the Sanskrit language. While there have been other filmmakers who’ve made films in Sanskrit like GV Iyer, he points out that they have mainly stayed with religious and mythological films.
Prabha’s Ishti tells the story of a Namboothiri household of the 1940s, at a time when polygamy and denial of women’s education and freedom were prevalent. It centres on Sridevi, a 17-year-old girl, the third wife of the 72-year-old patriarch, who sparks rebellion in the household.
“They are vedic scholars and pundits, but they denied common education for women, and propagated polygamy among them. The women are called antharjanam, those who live inside. I showed a certain light on the darkness,” says Prabha, at a news conference during the festival.
For Prabha, the injustice perpetrated on women in the name of tradition was one of the greatest ills of that way of life, particularly the repression of their sexual needs. “What can a 72-year-old man provide for a 17-year-old girl?” he asks in an interview after the conference, pointing out that in many cases these women became widows without ever having a sexual experience.
At the news conference, the question of language inevitably arises, of why he chose Sanskrit rather than more familiar vehicles like Malayalam or Tamil, which he is familiar with as a long-time resident of Chennai. And Prabha is emphatic, if a tad defensive.
“What is wrong if I am making a movie in Sanskrit? I am a Sanskrit professor, I studied Sanskrit from the beginning. I teach Sanskrit, I live with Sanskrit. For me Sanskrit is not a dead language, it is a living language. It nourishes me. And I am also conveying this. Moreover there is some thought that it is a Brahminical language. It is not like that,” he says.
In the later interview, though, he’s calmer and more measured in his response, pointing out that what drew him to making the film in Sanskrit was the richness of aesthetic value in the language.
“I am basically a writer in Malayalam and I am a connoisseur of art. Along with that, I got the richness of aesthetic values from Sanskrit, especially from Bharatanatyam. So many books are there in Sanskrit which deal with the art and music. Those things inspired me to approach the media of art through the poetic approach.”
He takes the view that language is a tool much like any other. “We can use a knife for rescuing a person and killing a person. Like that, whatever knowledge we acquire from a particular language, it depends on the particular person, how they make use of it. In Sanskrit a rich treasure is there about aesthetic language.”
Prabha wavers on whether he’s been able to overcome the popular discontent with Sanskrit. On the one hand, he says he has faced little opposition and received much appreciation by those who have bothered to see the film. “Without seeing the movie, some corners abuse me, that because of the government he is supporting Sanskrit,” he says, presumably referring to the rise of the BJP.
On the other hand, he points out that the film had not been shown in Kerala till last week, because it did not feature at the International Film Festival of Kerala. “In the rest of India, in all the film festivals it has been shown, but they ignored it in Kerala IFFK. Because of Sanskrit, they think that Sanskrit means only ‘that language’, so better to keep it away. They have not seen the movie I feel, they must have seen the first 10 minutes or something and felt he is only going to talk about rituals, etc.,” he says.
Prabha is very emphatic that the film is a progressive narrative, a trenchant critique of tradition, showing its younger characters taking the radical step of completely cutting themselves away from oppressive traditions to live independent lives. “Through this movie, I made a message that this language should be used. It is a language which is very conducive, very supportive for addressing radical, progressive subjects also,” he declares.
Prabha’s vehemence perhaps comes from the fact that this project has been one close to his heart for more than a decade. “I did a lot of research work for this film. Since the last 15 years, I have been keeping this project in my mind, and doing the work whenever I got the chance,” he says.
That research was possible, says Prabha, because there are some rare corners in Kerala, where individuals still strive to maintain traditional, vedic lives, even if some of the worst practices may now have disappeared.
What he found is a fascinating slice of history of women’s defiance amidst great oppression, says Prabha, bringing up the example of Thathri Kutty, a Brahmin woman who was made to undergo a chastity trial for having sexual relations outside the bonds of her marriage. In her trial, says Prabha, Thathri Kutty revealed sexual relations she had had with over 50 men, and her investigation had to be stopped at a point because the last name she held back referred to one of the investigators, himself.
In Prabha’s own film, the protagonist Sreedevi simply refuses to accept the patriarchal bonds that seek to tie her down with their judgments, and walks out of the household in rebellion. “I have tried to show a lady who very boldly fought against these practices and inequality, and stands for the empowerment of women,” he says.