Theatre, film and TV personality, Prakash Belawadi is a bold voice in contemporary Indian storytelling. He is # 14 in our list of Bangalore’s Global Icons. In this free-flowing interview with CSP, he talks about Indian cinema steering a new course and about the need to write stories which reflect a new, vibrant India. Here is Prakash Belawadi, in his own words.
On Cinema: ‘The film industry defies the logic of one India. It is a multi-centric India.’
I think we should have a script bank and a bank of films and every year you should do an Indic film festival that actually looks at and interrogates Indian history reimagined in creative work today. Every year you must do that. Without showcasing these works, people will not be familiar with our real history and this must be in all the languages.
There is already a tendency in India now to look at India’s immediate history. We never had the courage to do this so far. That is why you had a biopic on the most famous person of the 20th century to be done by Richard Attenborough. You did that because you did not have the courage to give it to any Indian. Today such a thing will be unbelievable. First of all we have moved so far away from that kind of an India. The Government of India giving money to somebody else to make a film doesn’t exist. A Kannada film dubbed and released in Bombay – KGF- beat a Shahrukh Khan film released that week in Bombay. This is a changed India with films like Bahubali, KGF.
I acted in Madras Café which looks at the assassination of a former Prime Minister. You have Neerja, the heroic tale of an airhostess saving lives. I acted in Raja Krishna Menon’s Airlift which documents the largest air evacuation in history carried out by Air India. In Malayalam, I acted in a film called Take Off which talks about the release of nurses from the ISIS.
In our times we didn’t have this. We had a Garam Hawa, an art film which was like a lament on beautiful India lost. While doing my latest film with actor Surya, I told him: ‘If a star of your stature can come and do contemporary history film like this, it will lift Indian cinema.’ He said ‘it is time we all did this.’” That sensibility has come. Maybe that stream needs to be strengthened.
I acted in ‘Accidental Prime Minister’ which was based on Sanjaya Baru book on Manmohan Singh’s tenure. The film did not have the profundity that you see in a film like The Post (which depicts the true story of attempts by journalists to publish the Pentagon Papers) for example. However, you have films from directors like Shoojit Sircar (director of Yahaan, Vicky Donor, Madras Cafe, Piku, and October. He also produced the 2012 film Aparajita Tumi) that are remarkable.
The Tashkent Files, which is such a low budget film, has such high quality research. And its power lies in the imagination of the director to frame the story in such a way so as to be able to investigate the past with such contemporary or modern angst. All this is very interesting. These narratives have to be strengthened. It is happening across India.
Once I did the story of Punyakoti as a puppet show and children were weeping. In Punyakoti, when the cow tells the tiger, I will feed my calf and return, the tiger asks how can I believe that you will come back, the cow says, ‘Truth is our community, Truth is my father, mother. Truth is my everything. If I don’t agree to abide what I have given in contract, Achuta Srihari will not forgive me.’ The tiger is taken aback and lets her go. When the calf asks ‘When you go away, who will look after me,’ the cow pleads with the community, ‘look after this child as your own.’ When the cow is asked if she will not stay back, she says ‘I will not break my promise, I will not think bad, and the commitment I have made, whatever comes, I will meet it.’ What a profound value to give children. The meaning keeps coming as a refrain - that you are bound to the Truth and the truth here is Dharma. The cow is conflicted, it wants to live for the child. But it has given its word. In the conflict of Dharma it is interpreted in a way we understand.
On Content: “We need to give people genuine avenues to understand what India was”.
We are dependent on the media which is compromised by ownership, not just by politics. Owners come with agendas and that has so grossly interfered with the traditions of media freedom that you can no longer trust mainstream media alone. There are better India narratives. Somebody goes to Kashi or Kashmir and writes a blog, you should be able to fact check it, showcase it, and maybe commission these storytellers to make small projects, make documentaries, give talks.
It is the casual patriotism of the Indian people that is in the margins. I don’t use the word ‘nationalism’ as it is a bogus word and has no resonance in India. The Indian intellectual is a Western intellectual. In India, it is not enough to be an intellectual. You have to be a ‘viveki’. We should stand above the intellectual tradition, western educated people are spouting. They don’t know anything. What they know is what they have been told. I am sympathetic to the casually patriotic Indian who has not even gone to college. A person who has not even gone to high-school. You talk to auto-drivers, lift operators, they are far more concerned about India than all these people. You need to take the responsibility to reach this to them.
India, I can tell you has not been destroyed. It has seen much. All kind of stuff has happened. We have somehow survived, and this Liberal front that is projected in India is the swan song. This is the last stand. I feel after this we will settle into a sane debate. Where extremists on this side and extremists on that side will become irrelevant. So that we can talk. But for that to be enabled, you, we, can play a catalyst and it is a great role.
You need to do a sufficient amount of push messaging before you have a critical mass of aware people, so that a pull model can operate and they can do it themselves. I am not sure we need to spend money to do a ‘Shankara TV or Aastha channel’. We don’t need anyone to teach us bhakti, we need them to teach us viveka. We need to give people genuine avenues to understand what India was.
On Translation and vernacular narratives: You need to revalorise people who genuinely did good in this country
Your history books, your best books are not translated into Indian languages. You should have a great translation project and a dubbing project for great works in audio-visual media. Invest in one radio channel or one frequency across the states and run an Indic series. Radio is your most powerful medium. Forget print. Second you should have a translation center, where great works are translated, digitalised, kept in a library, create an app where people can easily access the library. Just like the Gita and the Veda are now available easily, we should be able to access what our great gurus and leaders said. I don’t know what Bankim said. I would call him the father of the Bengal renaissance, but we Indians don’t what he said. I don’t know what Madan Mohan Malaviya said. I don’t know what Krishnaraja Wodeyar said - he was the Vice-Chancellor of Benaras Hindu University. You need to revalorise people who genuinely did good in this country and that should reach out not in a pious way but as knowledge, as annotated notes, you should find ways to do it through a TV channel, a translation center, and a series of radio channels.
Don’t try to start a university. This is India, you just give them a little bit of self-awareness and their self-respect will automatically flower. Indic culture is now a bonsai culture, it is hidden in the ground, cramped, dormant, terrified, and covered in mud. If you give them the sunlight of awareness, they will grow big.
There is a movement around the world where people are saying, ‘human beings need not go and regenerate nature, just leave it be, don’t go there, nature will heal itself.’ I don’t know if that is true and if we have done too much damage. However, India, I can tell you has not been destroyed. It has seen much. All kind of stuff has happened. We have somehow survived, and this Liberal front that is projected in India is the swan song. This is the last stand. I feel after this we will settle into a sane debate. Where extremists on this side and extremists on that side will become irrelevant. So that we can talk. But for that to be enabled, you, we, can play a catalyst and it is a great role.
As city dwellers we know about Indian history because of Amar Chitra Kathas. Even when I was reading Shakespearean plays, I was still reading ACKs. Because that is all we had. So if you do quality literature people will be receptive. When Ramayana and Mahabarata series were running on TV, wedding invitations would come saying that TV sets had been arranged in wedding halls. The Indian narrative does not need push. Where it needs a push is access to it.
One way of doing it is by reviving traditions that we had in magazines like Chandamama, Ananda Vigadan, Sindhura, Mayura. Exploit opportunities where children can be exposed to things more profound rather than just film songs through shows like Sa Re Ga Ma where their cuteness is exploited. You can do a classical music event for children. Do a 40-day event for children during holidays. Plug-in with the Ramotsav of the Ram Seva Mandali which is going on for 80 years.
Look at the wealth of this country. Now students are doing Panchatantra instead of Aesop’s fables. The idea that we can turn to our own culture has already come into this country. In a population of 1.63 billion, if you can get one 1 million writers, and give them one year to write a story which has the quality of a fable or parable which has an Indic, complex, moral value, we have enough, we have the narrative. We must do a one million story project and promote our own stories.
(As told to Aparna Sridhar)