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Mainstream, VOL LX No 30, New Delhi, July 16, 2022

Justice, Poetry and Good Looks | Papri Sri Raman

Friday 15 July 2022, by Papri Sri Raman

They say, cinema is a reflection of society. Now, it is a cliched phrase, but it continues to be true. And at a time when ‘history’ is a conflicted word, perhaps it is cinema that can be best used to tell stories of the past. Like, all the bitter truths about Allied ‘victories’ are best read through the Hollywood series on WWII. Indians are not known as great recordkeepers of the past and even to research stories of India’s freedom fight is a Herculean task. However, this decade has seen several films by a younger generation of directors, that delve into the contemporary past. And these have come,

not from Bollywood but the southern film industry. The latest that has topped the OTT chart and Netflix is Virata Parvam.

In recent weeks, just after release, Sai Pallavi, the lead actor, has been advised by the media, she is making the wrong choice of films. Is she, really? What is significant about Virata Parvam is its storyline based on a real episode in Naxal history. The reason the film found appreciation is because it lets one introspect. It tells the viewer, how easy it is, and always has been, to infiltrate even deeply ideologically entrenched groups with falsities. Especially, when the word ‘revolution’ is prefixed to a group.

The Bollywood blockbuster Lagaan is more than 20 years old; it grossed about $13 million, nearly three times its production cost. It may be based on a real incident, but it is ‘filmy’, as directors and producers at the time thought audiences in India were not ready to ‘consume’ reality. It is sport history though, and the film continues to be popular even today and needs to be recognised as part of a process, a process where Indian audiences are moving towards appreciating reading history through films. What the OTT platform has done is, it has brought home history, liberating it from the pages of the textbook.

In 2021, there was a low-profile but interesting Bangla film, Golondaaj, based on the life of Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari, who first set up a football club playing against the British in Raj Kolkata. Directed by Dhrubo Banarjee, it gives an interesting glimpse of life in the 1880s, and the inherent discrimination in the colonial club culture. In December 2021, one had another interesting film, Shyam Singha Roy, which took me by surprise, as it was billed as ‘light romance’ and as a Telugu film. However, the story, as director Rahul Sankrityan (not the Marxist writer) claims, is entirely a product of his imagination.

It is a beautifully presented work, with all the appropriate jargonistic purity like ‘Amar Bari, Tomar Bari, Naxalbari’ that make Bengali viewers nostalgic. I first noticed Sai Pallavi in this film, playing the role of a Devadasi from Bangladesh, Maitreyi, who crosses the river every year with a performance troupe, to sing at a temple in West Bengal during Durga Puja. It is 1969. And Shyam Singha Roy is a young influential social reformer and revolutionary writer with communist ideologies. His family is conservative and disapproves of his pro-poor, anti-caste campaigns. He falls in love with Maitreyi and the couple come to Kolkata, and run a small press that publishes the first Naxal literature. While the film starts in Hyderabad and in Telugu, it soon turns into a Bangla film, telling us how smoothly linguist migrations can be made in what can be described as a truly ‘bilingual film’. It is also a pointer to a liberal feminist social outlook that the story points at, as an indication of what a left idealist should ideally be.

The reception Shyam Singha Roy, a total fiction,had, also tells us how little we know about Naxal history. I was reading two interviews given in 2010 byK Venu and Philip M Prasad, two Naxal ideologues from Kerala, who describe their separate meetings with Charu Majumdar in the late ’60s, that is, then 40 years ago. Both describe Majumdar as ailing; the meetings took place in Kolkata and both men, at the time student leaders, talk of the presence of a doctor (and Kanu Sanyal, another leader) during the meetings. There is just one book on Majumdar, Charu Majumdar: The Dreamer Rebel, written by Ashoke Mukhopadhyay.

The Naxal movement is still a very shadowy movement in general perception, though called a ‘left’ movement. Magazines like The Caravan have in issues many years ago reported how unequal and exploitative the movement has been to women. How they lived in near starvation, carried loads and loads of arms and provisions, beyond their strength; how the movement saw men and women as equal soldiers of revolution, and how the leadership came from upper caste men. Looking back at the history of Maoist movements in India, one is almost tempted to mutter under one’s breadth, ‘even revolution is so patriarchal’.

 We know almost nothing about the Salwa Judum militia set up against the Naxals, not that the Naxals were holier than all others. In her 2016 book, The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar,Nandini Sundar quotes a police officer to say, ‘The whole system is driven by distrust — the police distrust people, the people distrust the police, there is distrust within the system’. It continues to be like that even today. Sitting before our television sets, we often forget that nothing has changed. But, once in a while, a throwback film shakes us. We remember, we have a poet called Varavara Rao, one of the most persecuted poets in independent India. A man who wrote:

Watch carefully, Poetry burns quickly/ Spreading like a forest fire.

Watch more carefully, Poetry can stir people.

Fling your deadly bait/ And wait and see — Before your very eyes It will swim
The river of consciousness.

The film Virata Parvam takes its name from the epic Mahabharata; that period of mythology (itihasa, as the scholar Iravaty Karve would say) where the Pandavas disguise themselves, and take shelter in the kingdom of Virat, in a forested region. It is not a psychologic journey like the 1998 film, Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa. It is an action film.

Director Venu Udugula begins the film with a lot of revolutionary poetry, calling for equality and justice. This poetry ‘spreads like a forest fire’ in the heart of a young woman, that drives her into the forests of Telengana in search of the poet. The film is set in the 1990s, the peak of the Naxal movement in that part of the country. Unlike lead actors Dev and Nani, Rana Daggubati is a high-profile powerhouse who gave us Bahubali and several sequels. Sai Pallavi’s character, Vennala, is fashioned on a real incident — in 1992, a 16-year-old school girl, Thumu Sarala, from Warangal joined the PWG. The PWG executed her, misinformed and mistaking her as a police spy. This, as a result of a deliberate covert operation mounted by the police. Sarala is said to have been influenced by revolutionary poetry and the idea of ‘revolution’ itself. Daggubati gives a stellar performance, showing us that he is not just a handsome hulk but given the opportunity, he can be a powerful and sensitive actor. Sai Pallavi manages well her role as a wide-eyed school dropout. However, it is the story line, director Venu Udugula’s ending, that creates the ‘river of consciousness’ in viewers of a chapter of India’s history that is almost never talked about. Revolution. Closure and Justice. Poetry and passion, pan-India.

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