Making of Asvagosh, the documentary: An interview with Vamsi & Uma Kathir

19 min read

Rajendra Cholan is a writer who has written fiction, plays, and essays on philosophy, science, and sociology. Active in Tamil literary circles since the early seventies, he is also known by his pen name Asvagosh. Fifty of his short stories have been published under the name Rajendra Cholan Kathaikal [Rajendra Cholan Stories] and 41 have been compiled under the name Savari [Passenger]. He has been in charge of magazines Udayam and Prechanai, and was the publisher of Mannmozhi for many years. He has devoted much of his life to society, ranging from artistic and literary contributions to active involvement in political struggles.

He is an inspiration to literary writers who write stories in regional dialects. He is known for the brevity of his fiction and for the simple language of his essays that effectively communicate complex philosophical, political and scientific concepts.

Last year, Vamsi and Uma Kathir made a documentary on his life, titled Asvagosh. Vamsi is pursuing his third year in English Literature at Madras Christian College. Uma Kathir, an avid reader, resides in Singapore. He has written a few short stories in Tamil and actively participates in literary events.

Trailer of Asvagosh

Asvagosh the documentary is a collection of conversations with writer Rajendra Cholan, his family, many Tamil writers and socio-political activists. Through their accounts, Asvagosh portrays the personality and life of Rajendra Cholan, the struggles and challenges he faced.

We spoke to Vamsi and Uma Kathir on what sparked the creation of this documentary, its production, Asvagosh’s prolific literary career, the importance and relevance of his work, and the need for documentaries on writers.

TwoA: Which documentary or docufiction on a writer do you admire the most?

Uma Kathir: Prior to Asvagosh, I liked the documentary on Tamil writer Jayakanthan (directed by Ravi Subramaniyan). It stood out with its excellence in all departments—cinematography, sound, direction. It was made with contributions from top-notch artists, it required lots of resources. Our documentary Asvagosh cannot be compared with it. Ours has been made with sparse funding, with our team’s hard work, most of whom come from humble backgrounds. But both films are close to my heart.

Documentary on Tamil writer Jayakanthan, directed by Ravi Subramaniyan and cinematographed by Chezhiyan

Vamsi: I’ve watched documentaries, right from my childhood. But I have not watched any about a writer. I have always felt that a documentary must be made freestyle, with the creator giving it a unique shape. I would point to the docufiction on writer Manto, by Nandita Das, as my favorite in recent times. Manto is a writer I like very much. In that film, some of Manto’s noteworthy short stories were interlaced with his life story. Nandita did a brilliant job of showcasing his stories along with his motivations for writing them. Those sections have the potential to be individual short films if you take them out of the movie. I liked Manto because the life of the writer and his stories were so closely entwined.

TwoA: How did you get introduced to Asvagosh and his works?

Uma Kathir: I was actually introduced to Asvagosh as a personality much before I read his works. I remember seeing him for the first time while I was hunting for a job after my graduation. It was at a book launch in Chennai Film Chambers. Maybe I heard about it through word of mouth… or some pamphlet. I was not an avid reader or very interested in literature. Since I had nothing else to do, I decided to go. I was impressed by his speech that day. I didn’t know that he was Asvagosh and that he was an eminent writer. I simply saw a six feet tall man wearing a blue-white kurta speak fluently in a captivating voice. In fact, I went there thinking it was some movie-related event, only to realise later that it was a book launch. I really enjoyed watching him and his speech that day.

Writer Rajendra Cholan

Fifteen years later, I discovered the greatness of Asvagosh through his writing. During this period, I was exposed to contemporary Tamil literature, which brought in many new friends and introduced many writers to me. Then I started working in Singapore. On one of my trips back to India, I had planned to meet few writers whom I knew through their works. During one such meeting, writer Kanmani Gunasekaran presented me a book titled Rajendra Cholan Kathaigal [Rajendra Cholan’s Stories].

He said, “My writing is not that great, I write from my limited knowledge. It is Asvagosh’s writing that inspired me to write. He is the first writer who has truly captured the lives of people and culture of nadu naadu [‘middle region’ referring to Villupuram, Cuddalore and Pondicherry districts in Southern India]. He is the hero of nadu naadu and my teacher. You must read his works.”

TwoA: Which among Asvagosh’s publications do you hold close to your heart and why?

Vamsi: I liked his Ettu Kathaigal [Eight Stories] short story collection a lot. All his stories are set in the regions I was born and brought up in—Mailam, Villupuram, Tindivanam, Tiruvannamalai. I used to accompany my father on his visits to our fields in these areas. Asvagosh has documented the dialects of the people working in the fields. That book is a colossal documentation of that land and its people. (In the documentary) Writer Konangi spoke a lot about Asvagosh’s use of language. I see that book as a creation by someone who loved his soil and has captured its essence. I was amazed to read conversations in the book that sounded exactly like the people in my village. And that made it close to my heart.

The period in which a book is written is crucial to evaluate its significance. Many Tamil writers like Kanmani Gunasekaran and Imayam use regional dialect in their fiction. Asvagosh was their forerunner. This makes me respect Ettu Kathaigal even more. It assumes greater importance in Tamil literary history too.

Uma Kathir: If I were to categorise his stories under one tag, it would be psychology. That’s how I interpret his stories. It is not easy to bring out the psychology behind the interactions between humans as accurately as he has done. Most readers mention his short story Putril Uraiyum Pambugal [Snakes That Dwell in Pits] as their favorite. The entire story is a monologue by a wife that ends with the husband uttering a single phrase—”Shut up and stop pretending to be chaste!”

After reading through all of his works, I found that he has written many such conversational short stories—Rusippu [Taste], Izhai [Thread] and Vivasthai [Nicety] to name a few. Each one of these stories feel complete.

I can see that the way he wields the language has inspired many writers. He spearheaded the movement to bring regional dialects into Tamil literature. Literary works from kongu, naanjil, nellai and kovai regions reflect the dialects of people from their respective regions. I was longing for such a writer from the nadu naadu region, until I read Asvagosh. I felt bad that I got to know his works quite late.

TwoA: How would you introduce Asvagosh to someone who has never read him?

Uma Kathir: We read many writers and come across various styles of writing. However, we usually get strongly drawn only to one writer, who feels like an intimate friend. It could be due to the writing style or oration or for political reasons. Asvagosh is a complete writer in all of these aspects. This is a rare phenomenon, which I found impressive.

His short stories are very unique in the sense that they have the right form, the right ideation, and simple conversations that move the story forward. Not a single word steers the reader away from the story. He conveys the thoughts of characters not through elaborate descriptions but via simple conversations. Most of his stories hide a surprise behind the last word. It is spectacular that none of these endings seem superficial.

TwoA: Vamsi, when did you become interested in movies?

Vamsi: I’m unable to pinpoint the exact moment. My parents used to sell CDs of world cinema at the Vamsi bookstore, that they owned. Mom never allowed me to watch Hollywood movies, which were popular at that time. In fact, our bookstore only had CDs of Iranian, Spanish and French movies, and I started watching them. Many Tamil filmmakers would visit us and I used to chat with them. The spark may have been triggered during any one of those moments. It happened organically, I didn’t go chasing after it. We can hardly tell the exact moment when a flower blooms. My interest in cinema blossomed likewise. Looking back I can safely say that my passion for cinema received the right nourishment it needed.

Vamsi

TwoA: Tell us about the journey of making this documentary from the moment you conceived till completion.

Uma Kathir: As I mentioned earlier, I love the documentary on writer Jayakanthan, directed by Ravi Subramaniyan, with cinematography by Chezhiyan. I have seen it many, many times and never get bored of it. I wanted to make one such documentary on Asvagosh. But I soon realised that it is no easy job. I decided to manage only the funding and leave everything else to Kanmani Gunasekaran. But he was a bit hesitant as he did not have prior experience in filmmaking.

That was when I happened to watch Vali [Pain], a short film by Vamsi. It was adapted from a short story by Prapanchan and was shot during his school holidays. I knew Vamsi right from childhood. I was pleasantly surprised to see such a creation from him. I asked him if he could help in making a documentary. He also felt it was too big for him to handle. Later, when I met writer Prapanchan, I spoke to him about this. He became excited and said, “It is our duty to do this. Asvagosh was my idol when I started writing. We need to honor him.”

He immediately called up Vamsi and requested him to work on this. That’s how the journey began. It is a pity that we could not feature Prapanchan’s interview in this documentary. He fell sick when we began production and couldn’t talk much. And then he talked no more. (Prapanchan passed away on December 21st, 2018 at the age of 73.) Another big loss was the demise of Asvagosh’s wife. That kind soul should have been the most important part of this documentary. Unfortunately we could not have both of them in the documentary.

This reiterates the importance of making documentaries at the right time. There is no documentary on Prapanchan, a winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award. The state government should have made one. Kanmani and Prapanchan gave us the impetus to do something that ideally a state government ought to have done.

We started with a list of people to be interviewed in this documentary. Vamsi went around with a rented camera during college holidays. He met many writers and recorded their interviews. The list grew longer. Initially we only had people from the literary sphere. Later we included Asvagosh’s political friends, even those with opposing ideologies.

The truth is that this documentary began by chance, progressed at its own pace and found its destination. I played a part only during the beginning and towards its end. It was Vamsi who was part of the entire process. The journey was dotted with confusions, stagnation, temporary halts. Many have worked to make this documentary possible. I am thankful to all those who funded us when we requested.

TwoA: Tell us a little more about meeting Asvagosh.

Uma Kathir: Asvagosh was on my list of writers to meet when I travelled to India. When I went looking for his house, none of his neighbours in the street he lived knew him. I kept going around in circles. I called up Kanmani once to confirm the address, and asked around, but to no avail. When I thought of giving up, Asvagosh himself stepped out into the street, held me by my hand and led me to his house. The harsh reality is that nobody who lives on that street knows about him.

When I met Asvagosh, I felt as anybody would feel when they meet someone they have known only through words. I did not have any questions to ask him. So I was relaxed. It was a casual meeting. He made it easy. We talked about his work and his mental state during the period they were written. I remember asking him how he managed to effectively portray sex in his writing without the use of explicit words.

Rajendra Cholan and Uma Kathir

However, when I met him, he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. His speech was unclear. He kept forgetting things while speaking. But he was happy that someone had travelled so far to meet him. We spoke about his stories. I was eager to know more about the period in which they were written. Most of them had been written during the 1970s and 80s. But they continue to hold within them so many treasures for a reader, beyond decades.

After I returned from my trip, I vented my frustration to Kanmani. I could not understand why society had ignored such a great writer. Political reasons aside, we ought to have honored his writing. The idea of making a documentary on him came up during that discussion.

TwoA: Vamsi, your father (Bava Chelladurai) is a writer, your mother (KV Shylaja) is a translator. You’ve grown up surrounded by literature. How has this shaped your relationship with writing and reading?

Vamsi: Many writers and artists used to visit us. I always noticed my parents become more ecstatic when we were visited by writers, as compared to other guests. There was an air of mystery around writers. I used to observe their conversations. They would sit at the dining table long after dinner, forgetting to wash their hands and keep talking into the night. All of these writers had known me as a kid. When I interviewed some of them for this documentary, they fondly recollected seeing me as a kid. I felt like I became part of an extended family with ease. None of the writers I interviewed were strangers to me. It was like talking to my uncles and cousins, natural and informal.

TwoA: How did you select the writers to be interviewed for this documentary?

Uma Kathir: We selected them based on the documentaries we had seen earlier, and people who were active in the literary domain. But the list grew during the making as we felt we needed to include more voices. Charu Nivedita and S. Ramakrishnan were on our list too. But it was quite difficult to reach them. We were unhappy that they were not keen to register their views in a documentary on a contemporary writer.

TwoA: You have interviewed many people for this documentary over a period of two years. What pushed you to keep going and get it done? Did you send everyone the questions beforehand? Or did you just let them speak out?

Vamsi: We didn’t spend the whole of two years on this documentary. I had just joined college when we started work on Asvagosh. I had to study too! Also, life in college was a new experience. I didn’t want to lose that. And I didn’t want to lose this work too. In these two years, we did work whenever we got some funds and camera on rent. We met writers whenever they were available for interview. It took two years because I had to travel to every place by public transport, due to insufficient funds. Uma Kathir made it happen. Often he spoke to me over the phone and encouraged me.

I kept telling the editor, “I am sleepless at nights. I wake up suddenly thinking what if something happens to Asvagosh before we complete this? We need to finish this soon.” That fear kept pushing us. We wanted Asvagosh to be seated in the first row when the documentary is released. This documentary is special because when we finished it, the writer was there to see it.

During editing, we worked a lot to shape this documentary’s story arc. We locked ourselves inside a room and watched the footage multiple times to decide what to cut and how to stitch them together. The biggest challenge before us was to convey seventy years of a life to an audience within one hour.

When we first met Asvagosh, we had prepared ten questions for him. Most of the answers he gave to those questions are not part of the final edit. They were meant to be ice breakers. With those questions as the base, we asked him about his life, right from birth. Those ten questions were the roots, later, many more questions branched out.

For the other writers featured in Asvagosh, we didn’t prepare any questions. We only mentioned that we are making a documentary on Asvagosh and asked them to speak whatever they knew about him first. Once they finished talking, we asked a few questions off camera, keeping in mind the documentary’s trajectory. Some writers anticipated our questions and answered them upfront. It was an experience to be cherished.

TwoA: What is one important lesson you have learnt from Asvagosh’s life?

Vamsi: I’m reminded of Dostoevsky’s quote, “Above all don’t lie to yourself.” I saw Asvagosh as one such man, who was extremely true to himself. His writing, his ideologies and his life are in perfect sync. Many people voice out their support for love marriages and inter-caste marriages. But they change their stance at home and stick to endogamy. Asvagosh stood by what he said in his personal life as well. He collated a list of castes in his family and picked his daughter-in-law from a caste that wasn’t on the list. Nobody is going to question him even if he did not do so. He walked his talk. I was awestruck by this quality.

He did not write and sit back thinking that to be the end of his social responsibility. He became an activist on the ground to fight for the people. Whenever I meet Asvagosh, I feel encouraged to do something for the people, to bring about some change for them. In a time when it is rare to find an artist being true to art, we learnt from him to appreciate and recognise fellow artists, and to be constructively critical of any writing even if it is by a friend. He celebrates good writing even if written by his worst enemy. He is an artist who is very neutral when it comes to art.

TwoA: Did your perception of Asvagosh change during the course of making this documentary?

Vamsi: I didn’t know much about him before we started. I only knew him as an old writer. Approaching him and getting to understand his life feels like a journey now. I realised his greatness only when I sat down at the editing table. Thereafter, I worked sincerely to give the documentary a proper shape. Had I known much about him earlier, then there’s a possibility for my perception to change. I started off having known him only as a writer. I came to know later that he was actively involved in politics too. At the end I realised that he is a person whose life ought to be documented. My respect for him only increased as I got to know more about him. I love him even more.

TwoA: Were you unable to do anything you planned in this documentary for lack of funds? Are you satisfied with the final output?

Vamsi: With more funds, we could have used better audio recording equipment. We could have done colour correction. But the documentary is not impacted due to these. A documentary is the documentation of a person, a region or a way of living using available resources. There is absolutely no need to make cosmetic improvements using an expensive camera or colouring. I attend the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK) in July every year. Many documentaries I see there are made with a mobile phone camera and audio that’s decent enough for everyone to understand. To get rid of the unnecessaries is the first step in making a documentary. Documentation is the primary goal. The voice of an old man or a sick man is bound to be unclear. But we can definitely comprehend if we pay attention.

I’m completely satisfied with the documentary on Asvagosh. If I were not satisfied, I would have continued to work on it and not released it. There could be some shortcomings. But I’m content that we made this before anyone else did. At least a few people will read his work after watching this documentary. Many of my friends who came to the release function in Chennai were not aware of Asvagosh or his writing or Tamil literature in general. They bought Ettu Kathaigal [Eight Stories] and read it overnight. This felt most satisfying. Beyond technical glitches, a creation gains value only when it is beneficial to others. Many creations are made with the best available technology but have zero benefit to society. Nothing could be more gratifying for a creator than a film made with an inexpensive camera and a collar mic that made someone read literature. I feel so happy about it. At this young age, this joy is more than enough for me.

Vamsi at the launch of Asvagosh

Uma Kathir: The documentary did not demand a huge fund that we needed to ‘gather’. I wanted to fund it on my own as far as possible. Many of my friends volunteered to help when I told them about it. I wrote about it on Facebook but didn’t get much response.

We had a humble start. We availed public buses, shared auto rickshaws, rented camera… not very expensive. About ten friends helped in its making. Some of them helped us more than once. Before every college holiday, I spoke to Vamsi over phone and gathered funds based on how much he needed. We have tried to meet every need that came up during the two years of making. If at all there is something we couldn’t do due to lack of funds, it is better audio recording. I can’t think of anything else.

This documentary has given us the feeling of having done much with so less. Prapanchan once said that he could have written some more if he had managed three meals a day. This holds good for any art related activity. With some more funds and time, we could have enhanced this documentary with better technology. But we are completely satisfied with what we have done.

TwoA: Do you have plans to make short films based on short stories of Asvagosh? If you get a chance, which story would you select?

Uma Kathir: People involved in filmmaking are the right ones to make this decision. Given a chance, I would love to adapt his short story Madarasum Mannarsamiyum [Madras and Mannarsamy] as a short film. I’m not sure if it’s feasible though. The story describes the travails of a father and son who come to the city from a village to get a recommendation letter from a minister. The story reflects Madras of the 70s. It shows us a face of the city that we have not seen.

Vamsi: More than his stories, I would like to make a film on his life. His life itself is a terrific story. His interest in literature began when he visited a small library near his home, then he wrote a short story, received an award from his idol Jayakanthan, got noticed, read a book that changed his mind, took up a revolutionary path based on socialist thought, continued the journey to reach the pinnacle, learning hard lessons on the way and fighting back… everything about his life is beautiful. I would like to make a movie on this life of Asvagosh. It is just an idea and yet to take proper shape. Many dramatic incidents from his political life were not included in this documentary for want of time. These incidents have strengthened my desire to make a film on the life of this brave and flawless man.

The theme of Asvagosh, the documentary

TwoA: Vamsi, do you have plans to make more documentaries or short films?

Vamsi: Rather than making another biography, I want to make a documentary on a political issue. There are many reasons behind farmer suicides. I want to focus on one. I need to do a lot of research. You can only depict truth in a documentary. No information should be false, else it loses credibility. It demands in-depth research and interviews with many people. It will be time consuming. I’m preparing for it while I continue my regular photography and videography work.

TwoA: Which aspect of documentaries on Tamil writers do you like or dislike?

Vamsi: I can’t think of anything that I like or dislike. There is something to learn from every documentary. Someone somewhere benefits from each documentary. Each documentary wants to tell us something. We feel like having lived a life that is not ours. Every documentary brings out something new and they are all important.

Uma Kathir: It is foolish to make a list of what we like or hate, because unlike commercial movies, there are no attempts at all being made to document the life of Tamil writers. Writers stand as a testimony to the language of a certain period. We do not have a single good photograph of the much admired Tamil writer P. Singaram. We don’t have photos of many such writers. We are living in an era where we have easy access to technology. Documentaries are a must for historically significant writers so that subsequent generations get to know them. More documentaries should be made with new approaches. They need to reach out to a larger audience.

TwoA: There were two different views expressed in the documentary on Asvagosh’s decision to get actively involved in politics. What is your stand on his decision?

Uma Kathir: He made it clear on stage at the documentary release function. He felt that there was a need to democratise knowledge. We can make out from his actions that his vision of politics was entirely different. In his writing, he digressed from the usual topics and ventured into science, Marxism, stage plays, Tamil nationalism, postmodernism… he felt that people should be made aware of all this. For instance, he wrote about Kudankulam nuclear plant. There were no books in Tamil in those days on nuclear science and nuclear energy. But society needed one. He researched on nuclear energy and wrote books in Tamil, much to the chagrin of many. It is the right of a writer to decide what to write for the society. We need to respect that decision.

Rajendra Cholan’s speech at the launch of Asvagosh

It is more a coincidence that his life after entering politics is part of this documentary. It was not planned. When we made a script to document his life, we felt the necessity to showcase his strength and expose his weakness too. Vamsi decided this trajectory for the documentary.

TwoA: Have any works of Asvagosh been translated into English? Why should readers of other languages read Asvagosh?

Uma Kathir: I am not sure if any of his works have been translated into English. But there is no doubt that he is a writer whose works need to be translated. Many writers of other Indian languages have been translated into Tamil—Bengali and Malayalam in particular. Without these translations we would not have access to Tagore or Basheer or Gangopadhyay or Manto. There is a need for the Tamil literary landscape to be made known to readers of other languages.

[Note: There is no complete English translation of Asvagosh’s works, there have only been a few translations on and off. The Key is one such English translation of his short story Saavi published in the anthology The Tamil Story, edited by Dilip Kumar.]

TwoA: Why do you think it is necessary to make documentaries on contemporary writers while they are alive?

Vamsi: Van Gogh is a great painter. The whole world celebrates him today. But he was known as a lunatic when he died at the age of 36, an insane person who wandered aimlessly and scribbled stuff. Van Gogh never knew he would be known to the world as a great painter and that his paintings would be lauded by all. What is the point in celebrating him and discussing his art after his death? It is a pity. This has happened to many such great artists.

There is a sense of content when a writer or an artist is celebrated while he or she is alive. Many writers or artists die wondering if they have wasted their whole life. Would they have been happier spending more time for family? Have they been lauded for giving up a materialistic life and making contributions to art? More than appreciation, many have departed with a feeling that their works have been wasted. When they are honoured during their lifetime, artists accept it with pride and it is more fulfilling. It is important for an artist to feel that his or her work has changed the life of someone somewhere in the world.

There is a need for us to celebrate our artists. In our society, for so long, we have been celebrating those who are unwanted and completely unrelated to us. The society has continued to ignore the ones who fought for them and lived for the sake of art. Celebrating an artist will encourage him to write a few more stories, to make a few more paintings. It will help keep their love of art alive and propel them to come up with many better works, with a childlike enthusiasm.

Uma Kathir: I’m reminded of what Asvagosh said at the release function of this documentary. He said, “It gives great joy to an artist when his works continue to be read and discussed. Just when I felt sad that I have been washed away by the tides of time, this documentary has revived me.” I consider those words to be this documentary’s victory. Imagine how good it would have been, if there were documentaries on writers like Prapanchan, Ma. Aranganathan, Sundara Ramasamy, Si. Su. Sellappa, who are not with us anymore. Documentaries should not be for the departed. Writers must be honoured while they are alive.


For more

An interview with Rajendra Cholan in Thadam, a Tamil literary magazine – https://www.vikatan.com/arts/literature/interview-with-writer-rajendra-cholan-2

About the translator

Mahesh Kumar comes from Udumalpet, a small town in western Tamil Nadu. He holds a Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering, and a Masters in Sociology. He now works at a bank. He is an avid reader, and he writes in Tamil as well as English. He also translates poems from Hindi/Urdu into Tamil. He is the editor-in-charge for the monthly Tamil literature magazine Serangoon Times.

இந்த நேர்காணலை தமிழில் இங்கு வாசிக்கலாம்.

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