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14. Film under Fire
     MG Radhakrishnan, India Today, April 12th 1999

The selection of Agnisakshi for eight state film awards sparks bitter accusations of religious and political bias

Unlike its southern neighbours, the Kerala film industry has largely kept aloof from he messy world of politics. But there's always a first time. Last week, the announcement of the state film awards triggered a major row, with senior leaders of the CPI (M) which heads the ruling left Democratic Front Government in Kerala seeing shades of saffron in the grating of eight wards to the film Agnisakshi; their grouse was that the film glorifies spiritualism and Hindutva.

The charge may not have stuck but for the fact that award winning film has been directed by R. Shyamaprasad, an acclaimed tele-film maker who also happens to be the son of O. Rajagopal, Rajya Sabha MP and all-India vice president of the BJP. The CPI(M) leaders are naturally seething with rage.

What rankles them further is that Gershome, the film that came second, was directed by P. T. Kunjumuhammed, a CPI(M) backed MLA, who has now charged Shaji N. Karun, renowned film maker and head of the state Chalachitra Akademi - which selects the jury - with bias. "Shaji has conspired to give Agnisakshi the awards to be in the good books of the BJP-led Government at the Centre," "My film is definitely spiritual but not in a parochial, religious sense" he claims. The soft-spoken Shaji, a national award winning cinematographer and director, has dismissed the allegations as "unfortunate."

Kunjumuhammed, however, has found support from CPI(M) leaders likeP.Govinda Pillai,the party's state committee member who is also chairman of the Kerala State Film Development Corporation. Stung by the attack from his own party colleagues, state Culture Minister T. K. Ramakrishnan clarified: "The Government has no complaints about the film."

Shyamaprasad, whose telefilms have won many laurels, including a special jury prize at the Golden Chest TV Fest held in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, has been forced to come out in defense of his film. "My film is definitely spiritual but not in the parochial, religious sense, he says. To compound matters further, Tapasya, a pro-Sangh Parivar cultural organization, too has jumped into the fray, training its guns on both Pillai and Shyamaprasad. "Pillai has once again betrayed his anti-Hindu position and Shyamaprasad his cowardice when he said that his film's spirituality has no religious content," it said in a statement.

Agnisakshi, which won awards for best film, direction, camera, best actor, supporting actress, sound, make-up and dubbing, is based on a celebrated and partly autobiographical novel of the same name by the late Lalithambika Antharjanam. Agnisakshi narrates the saga of Thethikutty, a girl from a liberal Namboodiri family who marries Unni, a conservative but good-at-heart person. Unable to bear life within the four walls of her home, Thethikutty runs away and joins the national movement. But after Independence, disillusionment sets in and she turns to spiritualism and becomes a sanyasin in Hardwar.

While the novel highlights the cloistered and ritual-ridden Namboodiri life in order to denounce it, critics of the film say that Agnisakshi uses these very scenes without being too critical. "Shyamaprasad has deliberately downplayed the radical portions of the novel and highlighted the alleged spirituality," maintains Pillai.

The flipside to the whole controversy is that it has evoked public interest in the film which distributors considered too "arty" and would not touch. However, it is the kind of publicity Shyamaprasad could do without. He has pleased that he should not be made to pay the price for his father's politics. But knowing the CPI (M)'s antipathy to anything and anyone even remotely linked to the BJP or its ideology, this appears unlikely.

 
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