M.T. Vasudevan Nair is a legendary figure in Malayalam literature and cinema. A Jnanpith and Sahitya Akademi award-winning author, national award-winning film director, very successful screenplay writer and a reputed literary editor, his has been a vibrant presence as a writer, scenarist and director during the last six decades. A very popular writer and an auteur who is comfortable with, and highly successful in, both serious and the commercial streams of cinema, he was one of the first filmmakers in Malayalam to publish his film scripts. Recently, his screenplays have been collected and published in Malayalam in six volumes, running into over 6,000 pages. They are avidly read by lovers of literature as well as aspiring filmmakers, who consider them textbooks on screenplay writing.
Though many of MT’s stories have been translated into several languages, the uniqueness of this masterly translation by Gita Krishnankutty is that the film scripts are accompanied by the stories on which they are based. This book provides a rare opportunity to film students and scholars to follow the transformations of a story into a screenplay. In this journey from word to image, many additions and deletions are made to the original storyline. Even the thematic focus and relative importance of certain characters sometimes change, some characters and events get marginalised or magnified, the very sequence of events and the climax itself go through new twists and turns. For instance, in the story on which Nirmalyam is based, titled Sacred Sword and Anklets and originally published in 1954, most of the narrative unfolds through the experiences, thoughts and feelings of the central character, and the story ends with the heart-broken Velichapad deciding to sell the sword and the anklets. In the film script, the ending is totally different. The film ends with Velichapad’s final dance that climaxes with him spitting at the image of the goddess. In the film, the immediate provocation to his desperation and anger is his stumbling upon his wife’s secret rendezvous with the moneylender, which shatters him completely.
In Oppol, the story ends with Appu’s mother (who he thinks is his sister) suddenly leaving him after marriage; but in the film, the narrative extends to her married life and Appu’s oedipal confrontations with his mother’s new husband. Ennu Swantham Janakikutty closely follows the story, but the film narrative begins with the arrival of the old woman and her death. In all these, the narrative space, time, characters and events, all undergo transformation.
The selection of these three stories is also significant in representing the auteur’s huge body of work; they belong to three different periods in MT’s oeuvre and are directed by different filmmakers. Nirmalyam (1972) was directed by the author himself, while Oppol (1980) was by K.S. Sethumadhavan and Ennu Swantham Janakikutty (1998) by Hariharan. They span the most creative decades in MT’s career and exemplify his increasing mastery over the medium. The narrative modes too are different: if Nirmalyam focuses more on the outward actions, incidents and interactions between various characters, Oppol is narrated from the point of view of the boy and is a story of his coming of age. In the case of Ennu Swantham Janakikutty, at the centre of the story and the film is an adolescent girl traversing that thin line between fantasy and reality.
As one of the most influential figures who shaped the cinematic imagination, emotional terrains and thematic thrusts of Indian cinema, MT represents a certain narrative tradition that is backed by strong literary influences, deep understanding of the milieu, and most crucially, the art and craft of storytelling. Such rootedness poses several challenges before a translator, who has to choose between local words or their English equivalents. Gita Krishnankutty effortlessly mixes both to give the translated text a local flavour, without compromising its readability. But, here, one should keep in mind the fact that these are not scripts as they were written before the film was made; on the contrary, they are ‘post-scripts’ that narrate scene by scene the film in its final form. So, the film student should remember that the filmmaker did not go to the set with this script in hand to make the film. Instead, what we see as film in its final form is a text that started from the script and had later undergone several transformations—at the shooting location and editing table and also through the creative interventions and interpretations of the actors.
This book is a worthy addition to film literature in India, especially because such translations from non-Hindi film cultures are very rare.