It was before his Class X final examinations, filmmaker Anand Radhakrishnan recalls that his entire batch was taken into the meditation hall at his Hindu school, to seek Swamiji’s blessings for good grades. Every morning, Radhakrishnan’s school read the Bhagavad Gita for 45 minutes. Belonging to the majoritarian faith, Radhakrishnan enjoyed a sense of privilege. “The teachers won’t discriminate, but subconsciously would compare and tell students of other faiths that ‘this happens in our religion, whereas in yours…’,” he says.
“The film, though fictional, is literally my childhood on screen,” says Trivandrum-based Radhakrishnan, 31, who released his 27-minute Malayalam short Divider on YouTube recently. It’s from the perspective of a Muslim boy Ahaan’s experience in a Hindu school following his sunnath kalyanam (circumcision ceremony).
Divider, that went to South Asian Short Film Festival in Kolkata, Ponnani Short Film Fest, Island International Short Film Festival, started life as a diploma project in 2016 when Radhakrishnan was studying at Revathy Kalamandir Film Academy. The film didn’t get made for lack of budget. Later the filmmaker, who has acted in Himalayathile Kashmalan (2017) and Padayottam (2018), reached out to Dravida Entertainments to produce the film.
The young ones in the film are not actors. They were sourced from a childcare organisation, Chilla (a branch of the non-profit Anannia), which aids the academic and artistic growth of the children of marginalised and stigmatised communities. The Hindu boy character in the film is played by a Chilla boy, while the protagonist Ahaan — like many children from affluent families — often visited Chilla during vacations.
Ask him why make a film from the child’s worldview and out comes the usual suspects from the film-school graduate’s kitty. His inspiration: Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (1997) and Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). But, more importantly, he says, “Children make serious subjects lighter. I wanted to say it lightly. Children are our future, the next-generation looks up to us.”
After he had made his film, he watched Dileesh Pothan’s debut Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016), and was blown away by how beautifully a simple story can be told. It dimmed his excitement about his debut, for he felt he “could have made a far better film”. There are glitches, but the film’s heart is in the right place.
Ahaan rushes home to take a leak, for he couldn’t do that in school in front of the other boys who were making fun of him. As he flushes the toilet, there’s a close-up shot of water droplets dripping of a wall. “I would have ended the film there,” says Radhakrishnan, “to show the irony in the climax, but I wasn’t seeking cinematic effect. I wanted a commercial, positive ending, and partly educative too, because my audience is children.”
In Divider, childhood in all its hues are shown, that children are capable of violence — something that society has shown them — much like the world in De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946), and yet, unlike the corrupting and fatal severing of Giuseppe and Pasquale’s friendship, the two friends in Divider are capable of rising above pettiness and circumambulate towards their original philia (brotherly love).
The film’s trope is that least-used instrument in a geometry box, used literally and metaphorically: the divider. “Children, more often than not, use it to hurt others,” says the engineer-turned-filmmaker, “If our society is a geometry box, religion is the divider. It is useless, and used mostly as a weapon.” Ahaan uses the physical divider to take revenge for his humiliation, stuck in the wheel, it disbalances Ustad’s (the Muslim cleric’s) bike as he runs into the Swami — both of whom use it figuratively “to do some monkey business”.
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Ahaan (Siddhartha Shahjahan) is a Hindu boy in real life, and his father, who plays the Swami in the film, is Shahjahan Sukumaran. “Many of the names of people here (in Kerala) would tell you that they have no religious allegiance,” says Radhakrishnan. Which is why, he says, he wanted “to make a film with a message that would remain relevant even after, say, 15-20 years from now.”
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