Wednesday, December 02, 2015

When KPAC Lalitha Came to the Rescue


Director Ranjith Sankar talks about his experiences on the film, ‘Su.. Su... Sudhi Vathmeekam’

Photos: Ranjith Sankar; a scene from ‘Su.. Su... Sudhi Vathmeekam’ 

By Shevlin Sebastian

On the morning of September 13, director Ranjith Sankar was going through moments of agony. The next day was the last one of the shoot of ‘Su.. Su... Sudhi Vathmeekam’ at a house in Alathur. But a crisis had cropped up. A day earlier, Sidharth Bharatan, the son of veteran actor KPAC Lalitha, had been critically injured in a car accident and had been admitted to the Medical Trust Hospital in Kochi. Lalitha was now at the hospital.

The last day’s shoot consisted of an engagement scene between Jayasurya’s character, Sudhi Vathmeekan, and Sshivada Nair’s Kalyani. As Jayasurya’s mother, in the film, Lalitha had to be present.

And the shoot could not be extended, as Jayasurya, and the others, like Aju Varghese and Sunil Sukhada, had other commitments.

I did not know what to do,” says Ranjith. “I could not imagine calling Lalitha Maam on the phone.”

So, he had a discussion with his team, about whether the shooting could be done without the presence of Lalitha. “We could say that the mother was not well, and hence could not come for the ceremony,” says Ranjith. “But, somehow, we felt that the audience would not be convinced. We concluded that it would not make sense without the presence of Lalitha Maam.”

However, at night, on September 13, Ranjith got a call. It was from Lalitha. She said that she would come for the shoot the next day. “I immediately said there was no need, especially at such a moment of crisis,” says Ranjith.

But Lalitha said that Sidharth was in the intensive care unit. And she was sitting outside. “There is nothing I can do,” she said. “I know my presence is very necessary in this scene. 
My only request is if you can send me back soon.”

The next day, Lalitha arrived in the morning. And when during the scene, Jayasurya and Ssivada put rings on each other's second finger, a poignant Lalitha said, “During Sidharth's engagement, he did the same thing.”

Ranjith was moved, as were the other actors and the crew. “No matter the tragedy that had taken place, Lalitha Maam was calm and retained presence of mind,” he says. “For me, this is professionalism of a high standard. That is why she is regarded as a legend. And has lasted so long.”

But there were happy moments, too. During Jayasurya’s birthday celebration, on August 30, at Alathur, the crew had gathered around. Among them were Jayasurya’s wife, Saritha, and children Adwaith and Veda, as well as Ranjith’s wife Smitha, and their children Tara and Tarun. “There was a lucky dip,” says Ranjith. “And of all the prizes, the one which Lalitha Maam won was a case of beer.”

The crew had a big laugh, and shared the cans, but not before Lalitha, sportingly enough, shared a can.

In the end, by the grace of God, everything has turned out so well,” says Ranjith. “Sidharth has recovered and my film is doing well at the box office.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram) 

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Exploring the Darkness Within

Alejandro Cortes's film, 'Refuges', focuses on the secrets in families

Photo of the couple by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

Spanish director Alejandro Cortes was in a spot of bother. The interview was originally fixed for noon, on a recent Saturday, but then it got shifted to 11 a.m. “I was in the midst of packing,” he says, at the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Kochi. “We are flying out today. But I am so glad to meet you.”

Alejandro is accompanied by the lead actress Salome Jimenez. A couple of days earlier, they had the world premiere of their 89-minute film, 'Refuges' at the All Lights India International Film Festival at the Cinepolis.

The story is about the relationship between a brother, Pablo, and his sister Julieta and their closest friend Alberto. In between, there are images from the childhood of Pablo and Julieta which shows them playing and studying together and having the occasional quarrel.

Julieta is torn between the love for her brother and Alberto,” says Salome. “When they grow up, Alberto and Julieta become a couple. Pablo does not like the relationship, because he loves his sister in a different way.”

Indeed, the relation between Pablo and Julieta is incestuous, at least, on Pablo's part. In fact, one of the stunning images of the film is when Pablo gives vent to his feelings and makes love to a still and shocked Julieta, while she is standing naked in the shower.

There are many forbidden things that happen within families,” says Alejandro. “It can be called taboos or family secrets. People don't talk about it.”

Meanwhile, Alberto, an art professor, is shown giving an audio-visual lecture to students about the career of Italian painter Caravaggio (1571-1610). In the background, one of his famous paintings, 'The Head Of Medusa' can be seen.

Occasionally, Alberto gets voice mails from Julieta asking him to come home. She is pregnant by him, lonely and bored. But he does not do so. Instead, he meets a woman and goes to a party. Later, they make love in a bathtub.

The movie moves very slowly, almost at the pace of ordinary life. Yet, it is disturbing. “The subject that I am most interested in is human weakness,” says Alejandro. “I like to focus on the darkness of life, because it explains the light. I want to tell the audience that there is a shadow inside every human being.”

Alejandro is quick to agree that his films are for an esoteric audience. “It is difficult for my movies to be popular,” says Alejandro. “Unless it is shown regularly at international film festivals, it will not enjoy commercial success.”

This was confirmed by the audience at Kochi. “Some told me it was not an easy film to see,” says Alejandro. “But many praised the symbolism, as well as the cinematography. Anyway, I am hoping that viewers will like my focus on the family.”

Today, Europe is going through fundamental changes regarding the family. “It is not only man, woman and child,” says Alejandro. “Now it is Man-Man and child. Or Woman-Woman and child, too.”

Salome says that it will take a few years before people fully accept these new tie-ups. “But what is clear is that the traditional family model is breaking down,” she says. “Fifty years ago, when a couple got married, they stayed together for life. But that is no longer the case. A couple might divorce within five years of marriage. The different has become the normal. But many in my parents' generation are finding this difficult to handle.”

This is more so, because Spain is a Catholic country. And the church has not accepted same-sex marriage, as yet. “But then Christianity is going down in Spain,” says Salome. “Spain has so many different cultures now. We have people from Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America. And they are creating their own influences. It is a very good thing.”

Nevertheless, there is a deep-down desire for spirituality. “But people are no longer using conventional methods,” says Salome. “Spain, like the whole of Europe, is in the throes of change.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Monday, November 30, 2015

Going To The Top

Daniel and Aakriti Wahal run the only artificial rock climbing centre in Kochi, as well as Kerala

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 4 p.m., on June 27, Daniel and Aakriti Wahal started to go up a rock climbing wall at the Regional Sports Centre at Kochi.

Even though Daniel, 24, had done this thousands of times, his heart was beating fast. Soon, they reached the top, at a height of 50 feet. Daniel and Aakriti, 20, smiled at each other. Then they began their descent. But at 40 feet, Daniel gestured to Aakriti to stop.

The Malayali looked into her eyes and said, “Will you marry me?”

A beaming Aakriti, a Kannadiga, said, “Yes.”

Then Daniel reached into his tracksuit pocket and took out a box. He opened it, took out a diamond platinum ring, and slid it into the ring finger of Aakriti.

She smiled radiantly. A four-year courtship was finally heading towards marriage.

Not surprisingly, Daniel first met Aakriti when he went to do climbing one weekend at Bangalore. The Kochi native was doing his B. Com from the Institute of Finance and International Management Business School at Electronics City. He had heard that people were doing climbing inside an empty shipping container. 

When he went there he saw people going up and down the inside of the roof. “Like spiders,” says Daniel. “That was the first time I met Aakriti. She was moving so fast.” Soon, they became friends.

Now the married couple run 'The Rock', Kerala's only artificial rock climbing wall. “All types of people come,” says Daniel. “From five-year olds to middle-aged professionals, all the way to a sixty-year-old.” 

The rates are affordable: Rs 160 for three climbs inside an hour. Or Rs 250 an hour for as many climbs as possible. Then there is a monthly package of Rs 2000.

There is only technique to follow. “At all times, there should be a three-point contact with the wall,” says Aakriti. “Either it is two feet and one arm. Or two arms and one foot. This ensures that you have strength and endurance.” And there is one rule. “Once you slip off, you have to go all the way down and start again,” says Aakriti.

And contrary to what most people think, it is an intense workout. “After ten climbs you will feel exhausted,” says Daniel.

Despite the exhaustion, many parents can see evident benefits in this sport. “They have told me their children have improved in their studies, because rock-climbing helps develop focus and concentration,” says Daniel. “And you feel a sense of achievement when you reach the top. That confidence rubs off in their performance at school.”

One such child is Rosh George John. On a breezy evening, he stood at the bottom and looked up with an expectant look. After the safety harness is put on, the ten-year-old goes up. He looks confident and climbs steadily. At the 40 ft mark, the wall becomes an incline. But Rosh moves slowly and carefully. Once past that, he heads easily to the top. Later, he says, “I love climbing. I feel great whenever I reach the top.”

Daniel and Aakriti are also feeling great. Because, on October 30, they took the first-ever team, from Kerala, comprising seven boys and two girls, to take part in the South Zone Rock Climbing Championships in Bangalore conducted by the Indian Mountaineering Federation.

And the over-all performance turned out to be good. “Two girls came sixth and seventh in their category, while one boy came sixth out of 40 participants,” says Daniel.

But the surprise package was Daniel's senior in school, Lakshman Dev Das Varma. One day, he called from Dehra Dun where he is studying, and told Daniel he wanted to try rock climbing. “So I told him to come to Kochi,” says Daniel.

When Lakshman came and tried it, he got hooked. And since he wanted proper climbing shoes, made of rubber, he sold his mobile phone and bought a pair at Rs 6000. “So imagine our surprise that at the Bangalore championships, after only ten days of training, he came 18th out of 40 participants,” says Aakriti. “He has a bright future.”

Meanwhile, to ensure a bright future for the couple, they are planning to open more rock-climbing centres in Kochi. 

(A slightly different version was published in Sunday Magazine, New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Shivering with Fear on a Bridge


Actor Joy Mathew talks about his experience in the upcoming film, 'Mohavalayam'

By Shevlin Sebastian

One morning in November, actor Joy Mathew stood on top of a box on the edge of a bridge at the King Fahd causeway which connects Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. This was a scene from the upcoming film, 'Mohavalayam' by director TV Chandran. Joy was playing a film-maker called Jose Sebastian. In the climax, Joy was supposed to jump from the bridge, which is at a height of 200 feet, into the water.

The camera crew wanted to take a long shot. So they stood 600 metres away. “It was not possible to hear what they were saying,” says Joy. “They called me on the mobile phone. It was in my shirt pocket. But I could not take it.”

One reason was because Joy was shivering with fear. The cars and trucks on the four-lane causeway behind him were zipping past at speeds of 150 kms per hour. “It was causing a vibration,” says Joy. “I was finding it difficult to keep my balance.”

Suddenly, one of the drivers pressed the brake. “He thought I was going to commit suicide,” says Joy. “But he could not stop because there were other speeding cars behind him. This background screeching caused even more tension in me.”

Another cause for worry was that Joy did not know swimming. “If I fell into the water, there was very little chance that I would survive,” he says.

Meanwhile, Chandran kept calling Joy on the mobile phone. “So I decided to start acting,” says Joy. “But there was no need to do so. I was genuinely afraid. The expressions in the scene were natural.”

After the shoot was over, a relieved Joy jumped down from the stool. Within a few minutes, the Bahraini police arrived. Somebody had informed them that a suicide attempt was taking place.

They asked me who had jumped,” says Joy. “I said, 'I am the person, but I did not jump. I am alive'.”

One of the officers said, “Are you mad?”

Joy said that he is an actor and the role demanded such an action.

One reason for the cops' worry was because it is a bridge where a lot of people had attempted suicide.

Then the police asked Chandran and Joy whether they had secured permission.

Indeed, permission had been taken. But it was to shoot near the bridge and not on it. “Since the police did not see me standing on the stool, it was okay,” says Joy.

That night, when Joy told his eldest son Mathew, about the incident, he said, “Please remember you have a wife and three children at home [in Kozhikode].”

'Mohavalayam', which will be released in January, 2016, is a story about the dreams and aspirations of Malayalees who reach Bahrain from Saudi Arabia, by crossing the causeway. The other actors include Maithili, Renji Panicker, Shine Tom Chacko, Siddique and Sudheesh.  

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Plight Of The Defeated

Israeli film-maker Claudia Levin focuses on the dispossessed in her documentary, ‘Bums – Go Home’ 

Photos: A still from the documentary; Claudia Levin

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2011, social activist Claudia Levin came across a camp in her hometown of Tel Aviv where 2000 people were living in poverty.

It was called the Lewinsky Garden Tent Camp,” says Claudia. “The media had ignored them, and many people in Tel Aviv did not know that such a place existed.”

Armed with a camera, Claudia spent several days there. And she was shocked to find that there were all sorts of people, ranging in age from 16 to 70.

There were drug addicts, people suffering from sexually transmitted diseases, sex workers, victims of domestic violence, and the homeless,” says Claudia. “Some of them had lived for 40 years on the streets. There were also asylum-seekers from Sudan and Ethiopia. But the most interesting aspect was they all enjoyed a sense of community, even though they had nothing.”

Nevertheless, the film is an honest and unflinching look at the defeated people of society. 

There is Rotem who had been a prostitute since the age of 11. She also takes drugs. And she walks around, with calipers, because of a damaged leg. She looks at the camera and says, “What can I do to get some peace of mind?”

Natan is pictured on a hospital bed where he tells the doctor that he had taken the drug cathinone for three days. “Then I threw myself into traffic at Levinsky Street,” he says. “I wanted to commit suicide.”

Meanwhile, the police think these are lazy and irresponsible people, who don't want to work.

I told them, 'Guys, they are not like you and me',” says Claudia. “They don't do what we do. If we get up in the morning, we will wash our face and brush our teeth. But they will not do that. Firstly, they are trying to get some money, so that they can buy something to eat. So their mind-set is different. It is a parallel world.”

In the end, the police dismantle the camp. As they were doing so, one woman shouted, “You destroyed the only good thing in our neighbourhood.” Another man said, “Eight cops to arrest one girl: shame on you.” Later, the group gathers in a park, and one of them says, “We have to be strong. If not, we will be lost.”

Claudia became an advisor and confidant. “I told them they should get off the streets,” she says, at the Cinepolis, Kochi, where her documentary was being shown. “They should be aware of their rights, and try to get help from the government.”

But that turned out to be disappointing. “Very quickly it became clear that the bureaucracy did not have the ability nor the sensitivity to take care of street people,” says Claudia.

That was also the case with municipal inspectors, police, and workers at mental-care clinics and hospitals. “All of them were working independently of each another,” says Claudia. “Not only is there no single organisation to coordinate the care of the needy, they tended to compete with each other.”

So, she went to the Knesset and showed her documentary, 'Bums – Go Home' to the law-makers, to make them aware of the situation. “But they only said that they did not have any money to provide help,” she says.

However, by the end of the 56-minute film there are a few who manage to get jobs and a place to stay. “So, there are some positive stories,” says a smiling Claudia. “I am happy that I played a small part in this.” 

(Published in The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Thursday, November 26, 2015

An Inter-Religious Love

American actress Constance Ejuma talks about her film, 'Ben & Ara', which was shown at the All Lights India International Film Festival in Kochi

Photo of Constance Ejuma by Albin Mathew 

By Shevlin Sebastian

When American actress Constance Ejuma walked down the red carpet at the All Lights India International Film Festival at the Cinepolis, Kochi, she immediately caught the eye. Tall and slim, in an off-the-shoulder patterned dress, and gold stillettos, she had a style and grace of her own. This was the first visit to India for the Los Angeles native.

And she had come to show her first film, 'Ben & Ara', which stars upcoming actor Joseph Baird and herself.

The story is about an African Muslim woman, Ara, who falls in love with an agnostic man, Ben Johnson, a struggling doctoral candidate. “The film explores the tensions that arise as a result of their conflicting philosophies,” says Constance.

So, when Ara says, “My faith in Allah has been a source of strength and peace for me,” Ben replies, “I am an agnostic. I don't have a religion.”

Nevertheless, there is a mutual attraction, which Ara's mother observes and issues a warning to her: “We only experience love through Allah. This is going to make you an outcaste. You know that.”

But like any young woman, Ara wants the freedom to live the life that she wants. “And so even though Ara believes whole-heartedly in Islam there is a part of her that has a desire to go out into the world and explore,” says Constance. “She wants to be open to Western culture.”

Interestingly, unlike Ara, in real life, Constance is a practicing Buddhist. “I walked away from Christianity because I had too many questions, which it could not answer,” says Constance. “I was not experiencing the spiritual fulfillment that believers seemed to be experiencing. So, I became disenchanted and stopped going to church.”

Six years ago, a friend introduced her to Buddhism. “Buddhism is more about humanism than about worshipping a deity,” says Constance. “It is more about connecting with other human beings, nature and the environment we live in, and having respect for them.”

When she is in a low mood, Constance chants the mantra, 'Nam Myoho Renge Kyo'. “I always get peace of mind when I say it,” she says.

In Kochi, Constance found the Malayalis peaceful, open, and kind-hearted. “The food was different and tasty, while the weather reminded me a lot about Yaounde, Cameroon, where I was born,” she says.

Constance migrated from Cameroon, as a child, with her mother to America. When she grew up, she studied theatre at the University of Toronto and got a master's degree in mass communication from Leicester University in the UK.

Thus far, Constance has acted in theatre and television, and worked with artistic greats like Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and Academy Award Nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo.

Incidentally, 'Ben & Ara' received an Honourable Mention in the 'Best Feature Film' section at the Kochi festival. Earlier, the film was screened at a women's festival in Los Angeles. “Very soon, it will be shown in Beijing, China, and Marbella, Spain,” says Constance. “Later, we will be doing the film festival circuit.” 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Different From The Rest

Charles Ma is perhaps the first, of Oriental origin, to become a Bharata Natyam dancer

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 2007, when Charles Ma entered the venue for the dance competition during the Saarang fest at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, it was overflowing with female participants. “There were 48 women and two males,” he says. “Many of the girls raised their eyebrows at me, wondering what I was doing there. A few cracked jokes.”

But there was a reason for their reaction. Charles has slanting eyes and is very fair. And that is because of his lineage. While his father is a mix of a Nepali Hindu and a Buddhist Chinese (the surname Ma is Chinese), his mother comes from Chinese and Naga origins. But Charles' parents have lived in Bangalore for several decades. “I am a South Indian by upbringing and influence,” he says. “I like my rice and sambar every day.”

At Chennai, Charles faced the mocking students with an impassive face. He took part and did get a round of applause from the audience.

The results were announced, in the usual order: first the third, then the second prize. “I realised that I stood no chance, but I was glad that I had participated, on behalf of Christ College, Bangalore, and did my best,” he says. “And then suddenly my name was announced. I had got the first place!”

Later, an excited Charles went up to the judge and asked why he had won. She gave a one-word reply: “Passion.”

In fact, passion also summed up Charles' performance at the recent Dharani Dance Festival at Kochi, as he moved across the stage in a fluid and elegant style, especially during the 30-minute varnam (a type of song).

One of Kochi's senior dance teachers and a former Kalashetra student, Girija Ravindranath says, “Charles is an extremely energetic and dedicated dancer. He was able to emote with his whole body rather than with just his face. He moved me and, I am sure, the audience as well."

Ever since he was 16 years old, Charles himself has been moved by the art form. “I don't know why I like Bharata Natyam,” he says. “But this passion burns inside me. I get up and sleep with the art form.”

Initially, he faced a lot of skepticism. “Somebody said, 'You have small eyes, how can you do Bharata Natyam?” says Charles. But one of his earlier teachers gave a fitting to reply to that. “It is not the size of the eyes that matters but the intention in it,” the teacher told Charles one day.

Indeed, Charles has a fighting spirit. “You can call me a white boy, you can say I have small eyes, you can say I cannot dance,” he says. “But I am not here to prove anything. I just want to show that I am as good as anybody else.”

Charles' life changed when he met Poornima Ashok who runs the Nrityanjali dance school. “She warmly welcomed me,” says Charles. “I have been training with her for the past nine years.”

But unlike most dancers, who perform at festivals and cultural institutions, Charles has been a favourite with the corporate crowd. “I do a dance performance as well as give a motivational talk,” he says. “I talk about failing and getting up, and how you can make impossible dreams come true. Like my own life: what was the possibility of me becoming a Bharata Natyam dancer? Through my talks, I want to make a difference in people's lives.”

In fact, Charles has giving rousing speeches at the highly-regarded TED India and Inktalks, as well as schools and colleges.

Once he went to Pesit College to give a performance. He did a theme based on Lord Shiva. “There is a mantra which I say, 'Om Namaha Shivaya',” says Charles. “It is a jaati (pattern) based on the panchakshara mantra.” 700 students clapped.

When he went home and opened his Facebook account, a student of the college wrote, “Namaskaram Sir, I never thought classical dance would bring tears to my eyes. Today your dancing did. And because of you, my life has been changed.”

Charles, 31, was moved by it. But he was not surprised by the reaction. “When I dance I am no longer Charles Ma,” he says. “Instead, I try to become a medium for the divine energy to flow through me.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Magic of the Man

Umesh Aggarwal has made an absorbing 85-minute documentary called 'Jai Ho', on double Oscar winner AR Rahman

Photo by Satish Yadav

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 8.30 p.m. on October 28, Umesh Aggarwal went to the Toho theatre during the Tokyo International Film Festival. His 85-minute documentary film, 'Jai Ho', on double Oscar winner AR Rahman was being screened. But Aggarwal had no illusions. He expected about 10 people to view the screening. So, he got a shock, when he found the hall nearly full.

The audience watched raptly and when the songs were played, the Japanese hummed along. The ensuing question-and-answer session, which normally lasts 20 minutes, continued for 50 minutes. “The organisers had to step in, since another screening was scheduled,” says Aggarwal. The next two screenings were also well-attended.

That's Rahman for you,” says Aggarwal. “He is a global icon.” Asked the reason why,Aggarwal says, “Rahman is able to mix Indian sensibility with Western technology. As a result, his songs have an international feel.”

Rahman has other qualities, too. Says British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber: “He is a most extraordinary melody writer. But he writes melodies in a way that a western composer can’t.”

The other talking heads, in this absorbing documentary, which is produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, in collaboration with the Ministry of External Affairs, include Rahman's mother, Kareema Begum, sisters Fathima and Reihana, lyricist Gulzar, actor Aamir Khan, singers Hariharan and Alka Yagnik, and directors Mani Ratnam, Danny Boyle and Ramgopal Verma.

Verma recounted that the first time he heard the theme song of his film, 'Rangeela', both he and his cousin felt it was rubbish. So did his driver. But on the sets of the film, when he played it on the loudspeaker, by lunch time, everybody was humming the tune. Verma smiles and says, “Rahman always does a slow-poison on his listeners.”

But Aggarwal has also focused on Rahman the person and the turning points in his life. One day, when he was studying in Class 4, at the Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan School, at Chennai, two teachers came up to him and said he had to go home. And when Rahman did, he received a jolt: his father RK Shekhar, a music composer, who had been ailing, had died, at the age of 43.

Because of his father's death, Rahman began working at the age of 12, to support his family, and, at age 14, he had to stop his education,” says Aggarwal. “So you can imagine the struggle he has faced in his life.”

In fact, there is a poignant section when Rahman says that when his three children complained that he did not spend enough time with them, he told them, “You have a Dad. I did not have a Dad. Your Dad keeps travelling, but he always comes back. You have to see what we are blessed with. And not what we are denied.”

Aggarwal portrays, with affection and respect, Rahman's change of religion, from Hinduism to Sufi Islam, thanks to his mother's devotion to a pir, Karimullah Shah Qadri, his relaxed way of life in Los Angeles, and the creativity behind many of the songs. And all along, Rahman comes across as a down-to-earth person. “I have met many celebrities, but he remains unaffected by stardom and wealth,” says Aggarwal. “I am so glad that I made this film.”

And Aggarwal is also happy that, on November 29, the documentary will be the closing film in the Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India at Goa.

Jai Ho!

(A slightly different version appeared in the Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Whole Lot Of Crosses

The St. Thomas Christian Museum, at Kochi, is a repository of 800 crosses, as well as historical items like drums, music instruments, and farming implements

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

One of the striking memories of Fr. George Alunkal's childhood was to see his great-grandfather, T. Ulahannan, walk about, with a large metal cross, around his neck. “Sometimes, it gleamed in the sunlight,” he says. “Whenever I looked at him, my eye would always go to the cross.”

When Ulahannan passed away, the cross was given to Fr. George's grandfather, who later gifted it to him when he decided to become a priest in 1972.

I have been fascinated by crosses ever since,” he says. And it was during his days at the seminary that he began collecting crosses. Soon, other priests came to know about his hobby. “When any of them went abroad, they would bring me crosses,” says Fr. George. “When I went abroad myself, I would always be on the lookout. Invariably, when I returned, my suitcase would be full of crosses. I received most of them as gifts, but did purchase some antique crosses.”

Over the years, Fr. George steadily built up his collection, till it reached the staggering number of 657. The crosses were stored in two large cupboards in his vicar's room at the Cathedral Church in Kanjirapally. “I am growing old,” says the 66-year-old. “So, last year, I decided to donate it all to the St. Thomas Christian Museum at Kochi.”

And, indeed, at the Museum, the crosses present a pleasing sight. “There are all types of crosses,” says Dr. Peter Kannampuzha, the museum director. “They are made of porcelain, wood, metal, glass and crystal.” And the crosses have been brought from countries like the USA, Germany, Italy, Greece, Ethiopia, Iran, China and Indonesia.

The majority of the crosses show Jesus Christ on the crucifix. “But He is depicted differently,” says Fr. Peter. “So there is a black, white, and brown Jesus. Usually, the face is modelled on a local person. In societies where there are a lot of poverty and suffering, like in Africa, Jesus is portrayed as having a tragic face. In India, Jesus is mostly depicted in a joyful way because after he died, he had a resurrection. So they wanted to focus on that.”

Some crosses are unusual. There is one cross in the form of a tree, with a flower. “The flower shows the blooming of the earth after the death of Jesus,” says Fr. Peter. There is another where Jesus has been portrayed as a skeleton on the cross.

The museum has also got crosses donated by a lawyer, Jacob Cherupallikattu. “These include Papal, Cardinal and Patriarchal Crosses,” says Fr. Peter. All the crosses have been neatly displayed in wooden glass-framed cupboards.

The museum has been set up by the Syro-Malabar church, the largest branch of Christians in Kerala. “The aim of the museum is to promote, preserve and exhibit the heritage of the Thomas Christians in India,” says Cardinal George Alencherry. “It provides us with a sense of identity.”

So, apart from the crosses, there are 300-year-old farming implements, a traditional press, large clay jars, candlesticks, several types of lamps, old music instruments, traditional paintings and icons, as well as a huge Royal drum.

This was placed on a bullock cart, and four people would bang on it,” says Bishop Pauly Kannookadan, chairman of the museum. “It was used for grand festival processions in the northern part of Kerala. Just before the king made an announcement, the drums would be played, to draw the attention of the crowd.”

There is also an audio-visual programme which narrates the history, from St. Thomas's arrival at Kodungallur, in 52 AD, all the way to the present. There are rare coins and books. One book is the 'Varthamanappusthakam', a Malayalam travelogue written by a priest called Paremmakkal Thoma Kathanar. “It is regarded as the first travelogue in an Indian language,” says guide Sr. Mereena. “It tells the story of a journey made by the author, along with Archbishop Mar Joseph Kariattil, to Rome and back.”

Nevertheless, it is the crosses which are the museum's most attractive feature. Ironically, Fr. George is yet to view the collection in the museum. “I am hoping to do so in the near future,” says the priest.  

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Chilled to the Bone and Scared

COLUMN: Location Diary

Director Amal Neerad talks about his experiences in the film, 'Anwar'

Photos: Amal Neerad; A still from the film, 'Anwar', starring Prithviraj and Mamta Mohandas

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 9 p.m. on a day in August, 2010, director Amal Neerad was travelling, with stars Prithviraj and Mamta Mohandas, in an Innova from the Rohtang Pass towards the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh.

Amal wanted to shoot a song in a 'cold desert' at the town of Kaza, which is at a height of 11,000 feet. Behind their car were a few other Scorpios and Innovas carrying the rest of the 20-member crew.

It was cold. The temperature was 11 degrees Celsius. So they huddled in their pullovers and thick jackets. The cars were steadily going up a mountainside. However, a few minutes later, the convoy came to a shuddering halt.

It was an untarred road, consisting of sand, small rocky pebbles and stones. And a steady stream of water was flowing down the mountain, across the road and down the slope. “This flow is famous in the region,” says Amal. “It is called a 'paagal nala' and could become a raging torrent at any time. Many people had lost their lives because of this.”

What made matters worse was that the vehicles could not move. So they waited, not knowing what to do. “But the driver told us that the longer we waited, it would get worse,” says Amal. “So he advised us to walk.” And so the crew got down from their cars. It was dark all around, except for the headlights of the cars.

We could not take the road,” says Amal. “So we walked on the shoulder, which was covered with snow. On the other side, was a steep drop.”

These were tense moments. There were fears that a flood could start at any moment. So they had to walk quickly. “Despite all this, Prithviraj and Mamta took it in a graceful manner,” says Amal.

After 25 minutes, they reached a place where the road became clear. “We were chilled to the bone,” says Amal. They managed to get a car and reached the town of Chhatru. Unfortunately, it was a small place. There were no hotels. So they had to settle down in dormitories.

Next morning, Amal decided he would picturise the song in and around Chhatru, rather than go to Raza. “The locations were picturesque enough,” he says.

However, while shooting in the cold, Mamta felt weak. “But not once did she complain,” says Amal. “She was a true sport.” Offering companionship to her was choreographer Gayatri Raghuram and her assistant.

It took three days before the song, 'Kanninima Nille', with music by Gopi Sundar, was picturised.

When I look back, it was one of my most memorable experiences,” says Amal. And what might have warmed the director was that, after all the difficulties, the film did reasonably well at the box office. 

(The New Indian Express, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode)