In the visually appealing film, Devaki, the filmmaker’s grandmother, narrates her memories of outbreaks like cholera and smallpox.

Vinu Janardanans documentary Memoirs of Devika on past disease outbreaks like cholera small pox
Flix Documentary Thursday, June 11, 2020 - 17:00

A lush green coconut leaf fills the screen. As the camera moves from it to the courtyard of a countryside house, a familiar voice speaks in the background. “The central government has extended lockdown in the country for two more weeks. We cannot ignore the threat of community transmission of coronavirus... People above 65 years and children below 10 years must stay indoors,” Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan can be heard saying.

Just as this visual ends, 91-year-old Devaki walks into the frame. As we see visuals of the nonagenarian walking slowly around the courtyard, she begins to recount tales of living through other infectious and deadly disease outbreaks in the state.

These scenes are from a short Malayalam documentary, Memoirs of Devaki - Oru Amoomakaalam, made by Kollam native Vinu Janardanan. In this visually appealing film, Devaki, who is the grandmother of the filmmaker, Vinu Janardanan, recollects her childhood memories of outbreaks of diseases like cholera and smallpox. Kerala has witnessed recurrent cholera outbreaks over the last five decades though they have reduced in scale in recent years.

The film is less than five minutes long, and Vinu – who has shot the film himself – shows us candid moments from his grandmother’s daily life, as she narrates her experiences. It is edited by Karthik Jogesh. Vinu, who is the director of popular program The Happiness Project on Kappa TV, is also involved in the Malayalam film industry. He has also made other independent documentaries. The latest documentary, Memoirs of Devaki, which was released through YouTube channel Leafy Stories, has gained attention on social media. 

In the film, we see Devaki walking, reading religious scriptures, and even reminiscing through her old photographs. All this while, her narration of her experiences with smallpox and cholera continues. 

“Back then, it was cholera; it is also infectious like this (COVID-19). If one person gets the disease in a house, others will surely get affected. Even if one stays away from the house, one might get affected,” Devaki says in the documentary. “People even died from this disease,” she adds. Quoting her parents, she says, “Those who died were only cremated late in the night. Nobody dared to cremate them in the mornings.” She then recounts the time when the children of her neighbours contracted smallpox, and her family didn’t leave the house, not even for buying food.

“This (COVID-19) is just a contagious disease like those. But now, we are being very careful. It is good to have faith and confidence that we won’t get infected. But it is wrong to be careless and roam around. One needs to have slight fear to stay strong,” she says. 

Even as she recounts these dreadful memories, Devaki adds people have overcome disease outbreaks in the past. “We have seen all these, and I hope and believe that we will overcome this too,” says the 91-year-old, ending the documentary on a hopeful note. As the film ends, an evocative instrumental of rock band Linkin Park’s ‘Numb’ plays.

Speaking to TNM, Vinu says he felt it was important to make the documentary. “Though many are not too interested in lending an ear to aged people, we realise the value of their wisdom once we are away from them. I mostly stay away from home due to work. I cherish my grandmother’s stories and always thought it was important to document them.”

“When I came home during lockdown, I asked her about her experiences of living through disease outbreaks. She is very well updated about the present COVID-19 situation also. As she narrated about the past days of epidemics, I recorded her voice. The film happened just like that – by adding other candid shots to her narration. She was not even aware that I was making a film till I showed her the preview,” he adds.

Read: How a Kerala cemetery became the final resting place for victims of deadly diseases

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