Breaking the thaali (mangalsutra) around her neck, discarding the protective umbrella and clad in a simple white attire 17-year-old Sridevi walks out of her husband Ramavikraman Namboothiri’s house. This is the last scene of the Sanskrit film Ishti. It symbolises the revolt led by the Namboothiri youth, in the ’20s and ’30s, when the Yogakshemam movement was at its peak. It was against the dogmatic and patriarchal Namboothiri traditions in Kerala.
Arguably the country’s first Sanskrit film based on a social theme, Ishti revolves around 71-year-old Somayajippad Ramavikraman and his family, and follows their downfall due to the outdated traditions of the Namboothiri community. The 108-minute film is the debut feature film by Chennai-based G Prabha, former head of the department, Oriental Languages, Loyola College, Chennai.
“Sanskrit is the mother of all languages and till now there was no movie based on a social theme. As a Sanskrit professor, this haunted me. So when I got a good story and characters, I was inspired to make one,” says the self-taught director. He has also made the documentary Agnaye, which is on one of the oldest Vedic rituals, the athirathram yagna for purification.
Shot over 17 days last year, around Paduthol Mana at Piravom, Ernakulam, the ground work for Ishti (which means self discovery) began more than 30 years ago when Prabha read social reformer Namboothiri VT Bhattathiripad’s autobiography Kanneerum Kinavum in college. He was one of the pioneers of the Yogakshemam movement in Kerala.
Late Malayalam author and dramatist Kavalam Narayana Panikkar suggested veteran actor Nedumudi Venu for the role of Ramavikraman. In the film, Ramavikraman wants to perform the agniyaga to claim the title of an Akkithiri. The tradition requires him to preserve the fire, which will light his funeral pyre. To arrange funds for the ceremony, he gets married for the third time to Sridevi (played by debutant Athira Patel).
Ishti, which had its first public screening at IGNCA recently, shows the Namboothiri community which for centuries had been following the law of primogeniture. Only the eldest son was allowed to marry and was the sole inheritor of the family property. The younger brothers, the Apfan Namboothiris, were dependent on him and were expected to dedicate their lives for the preservation and propagation of the Vedas for the future generations. They were allowed to have alliances with women of the Nair community. But the children born out of these alliances were not considered Namboothiris and had no inheritance rights in the family property. As a result, polygamy was rampant with men taking girls young enough to be their daughters as their third or fourth wives.
Education was also neglected, and the eldest son could deny it to the other family members. Women, who were confined within the four walls of their homes, were the worst sufferers. Yogakshemam movement countered these conditions, with Bhattathiripad fighting for the emancipation of Namboothiri women. He stood for widow remarriage and conducted the first inter-caste marriage inthe community.
In the film, Sridevi represents the success of the movement. The educated Namboothiri girl constantly challenges the logic behind the patriarchal notions, and forces Raman, the eldest son of Ramavikraman with his first wife, to realise the folly of the system. Raman, like many of the Namboothiri youth of that time, could recite the Vedas but could not read or write because his father had denied him a normal education. His discontentment with the situation was what the Namboothiri youth felt at that time. When Raman is falsely accused of having an affair with Sridevi, and Ramavikraman agrees for an atonement ceremony to be conducted, Sridevi and he revolt and walk out of Ramavikraman’s house.
“The Vedas don’t teach any evil practises such as untouchability or polygamy.Yet, when those well versed in Vedic knowledge, and disciplined individuals do something which is not expected of them or the community, it haunts me,” says Prabha, who read the Vedas and interacted with many members of the community for the film.
With films such as GV Iyer’s Adi Shankaracharya (1983), and Bhagvad Gita: Song of the Lord (1993), and this year’s National award winner Priyamanasam by Vinod Mankara, until now Sanskrit movies have either been biopics or mythology-based features. Prabha’s Ishti breaks this trend to tell society to let go of regressive patriarchal traditions.