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
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