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03. Southern Success
     Shyamaprasad's Nilavu Ariyunnu surprises the staples of Hindi TV
     by N Narendran, The Indian Express

"Television is turning out to be a temporary shelter for unsuccessful film-makers who have no genuine interest in the small screen. They make films of absolutely no artistic value", says Shyamaprasad. In his case it wasn't quite true. In his Malayalam tele-film Nilavu Ariyunnu (The Moonlight Knows It All), which won the Onida pinnacle Award for best Telefilm (apart from four others), commercial success and artistic excellence have never been better balanced.

Based on a short story written by Sara Joseph in the wake of the Bombay riots, the film pits an individual's psychological plight against the psyche of our socio-cultural structure. Fortunately, it is not yet another superficial interpretation of the sombre communal reality aided by technical virtuosity - sounds familiar?

Unnikrishnan, the protagonist (played by debutant actor and producer MG Sasi, is returning to his village from Bombay with his helpless wife. Alagappan's haunting camera work helps us witness Unnikrishnan in the act of cleansing all his possessions of imaginary blood: currency notes, the paper he writes on, his shirt, all are subconsciously related to violence and evil. He washes even the idol of Ram as his bewildered family and the superstitious but concerned villagers watch. The ancestral beliefs and engulfing paranoia throw Unnikrishnan into a fatal tailspin. He dies groping for water under a moonlit sky on the parched bed of the river Nila that once flowed by his home.

Shot on the banks of Bharatapuzha, in Deshamangalam and Thirumittakodu, Sara Joseph says the river is a central character in her short story. "As I watched Shyamaprasad shoot, the nature of each shot, the beauty of each frame told me that he himself was deeply moved by the river. It was like finding a kindred spirit," says Joseph.

But the director Shyamaprasad, finds the film depressing. "I do not want to watch the film again, nor do my friends and family" But it doesn't stop him from literary adaptations. Trained at the Pune Film Institute and Hull University in Lndon, Shyamaprasad, who has worked at Channel 4 and Yorkshire Television, is an ardent lover of Andrei Tarkovsky's films. His previous ventures have been based on works by writers ranging from Vaikkom Muhammad Basheer (Vishwavikhyatamay Mookku) to Kamal Das (Venalinte Ozhivu) to the French existentialist write Albert Camus (his film Uyirthezhunnelpu was based on Camus' play The Just).

In fact the director of the Thiruvananthapuram Doordarshan Kendra banned Shyamaprasad (who is production assistant there) and his team from receiving teh State Government awards ostensibly because they were Central Government employees. Shyamaprasad received the award by defying the order and it is now awaiting disciplinary action.

"Doordarshan initially rejected the script for Uyirthezhunnelpu on typical box office grounds. The authorities rejected the script as it tells the story of a group of tormented revolutionaries. They were not ready to accept a theme which was hitherto not attempted in mainstream media", says Shyamaprasad. Finally he submitted several scripts of the same film, each written from a different angle, and waited patiently for over six years to start production.

When the tele-film was ready for telecast, the Doordarshan director suggested several changes in order to make it more 'patriotic'. Shyamaprasad did not budge. "Still I believe that only Doordarshan could have produced a tele-film like Uyirthezhunnelpu", says he.

He goes on to add, "Those who control television are only too anxious to preserve the idiot box identity of the media. Yet TV is the only alternative, with the art of film-making crumbling under the weight of money-mad film-makers." Though Doordarshan has produced a number of films by serious film-makers, Shyamaprasad cites only Govind Nihalani's Tamas as having done justice to the medium. All the others, he says have utilised Doordarshan funds for making self-conscious movies.

"I feel that I am incompetent to make a film based on a story written by me. If I depend on a story which is already familiar to me, I can concentrate my whole energy on filming it," he says. He refuses to conform to the view that literature is a constraint on good cinema. "It offers a better base for the film."

For Joseph, Shyamaprasad's interpretation has been done with great care. "In lesser hands my story would have lost its strength and beauty. Of course, MG Sasi's extraordinarily sensitive depiction of Unni (fr which he too won an Onida Award) and Alagappan's haunting camera work have also contributed to making the film an immensely rich experience. I was always confident that Shyam would never fail me for I had viewed his two earlier works, Venalinte Ozhivu and Uyirthezhunnelpu."

Joseph says Unnikrishnan's tragedy is the fate of every honest youth doomed to suffer in the knowledge of the rot around us. Says she, "My attempt in the short story was to explore the different planes of that torment. Unni's delirium and suffering are two different perspectives offered by my story. His delirium is a problem that concerns himself; he has to be exorcised of the devil or be treated by a psychiatrist. As for his suffering, the problem lies entirely with an afflicted world."

A world depicted with detailed sensitivity in Nilavu Ariyunnu.
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