Friday, 30 October 2009

A bridge across the Palk Strait

The simplicity of the storyline struck a deep chord in Sreekar Prasad when Prasanna Vithanage narrated its sequences to him ahead of his newest cinematic venture. So much so, Sreekar offered to co-produce it besides taking up what the Sri Lankan filmmaker originally wanted him to do: edit the movie, which is on the comeback of a star actress. After all, this wasn’t the first time the two had come together to complete a work on celluloid — their bond had been strong after Sreekar worked with Prasanna in the highly acclaimed Death on a Full Moon Day (1998). This time, it led the birth of Akasa Kusum (Flowers of the Sky).
If Death on a Full Moon Day received critical acclaim after its release a decade ago, the graph only leaped further skywards in the case of Akasa Kusum. The Chennai-Colombo co-production under the banner of Filmfreaks has gone on gain an official entry into the 2010 Oscars.
Veteran Sreekar is delighted, and attributes it all to the merits of the filmmaker. “Prasanna is extremely talented. Having gotten associated with the Akasa Kusum, we next pitched it at the Pusan Promotion Plan (a pre-market initiative where Asian filmmakers are introduced to potential producers and financiers) — and the script got selected.”
Sreekar recalls that the film thus received a good response in the international festival circuit and also in Sri Lanka. So, did he expect an Oscar nomination? Not exactly. “Well, it was a surprise,” Sreekar gushes about the communiqué he
received from the Sri Lankan government about a fortnight ago. “It’s a recognition for the work we did.”
It’s only nine weeks since the film’s commercial release, but Akasa Kusum has been doing the rounds at film festivals from last year. If at Cines del Sur in Grenada, Spain, it won the honour for the best Asian film, it won the special jury mention at the Vesoul Film Festival in France.
Malini Fonseka, who portrays the protagonist Sandhya Rani, has been nominated to the best actress at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards to be held at Gold Coast, Australia, and has won the Silver Peacock at the International Film Festival of India at Goa.
So would film buffs in India get to see Akasa Kusum? “Surely there is an effort to bring the film to India. In fact, the process is already on. Only that it’s too early to give a date as of now.” Sreekar isn’t apprehensive about the prospects of acclaim that a film made in Sri Lanka would receive in India. He places his faith in the universality of the subject of the film.
“Indeed, I’m confident that the Indian audience would relate better with its theme, given that the history and impact of cinema is vast and deeper in our country than in Sri Lanka,” he notes. “True, the characters in the film are fictional, but then the protagonist could be any of your old actresses. Bigger the industry, more are its chances of Sandhya Ranis popping up. As a creative person, an artiste goes through this phase of fame and neglect. Some people take it gracefully, some don’t — and others succumb to the pressures of being in the limelight. This could be anyone’s story in cinema. Not just an actor, but of a director or a technician.”
Akasa Kusum is the story of how a yesteryear actress Sandhya Rani (Malini Fonseka), who lives a life in oblivion after retirement, is brought back to the limelight. That’s when the police come to know about the sexual escapades of a young actress Shalika (Dilhani Ekanayake) in a rented accommodation that belongs to Sandhya Rani. The police smell a rat and skeletons start tumble out. The rest is how Sandhya Rani’s life changes when she hears about a child she had from a relationship in her heyday.
Andhra Pradesh-born Sreekar, with more than 300 films to his credit starting from Simhaswapnam (1983), reveals with a chuckle that he gets nervous before starting any new project, and Akasa Kusum was no exception. “The film was a challenge as the director had to be subtle in telling the story. I had to ensure my editing didn’t overplay the emotions.” So, he kept repetition of visuals to minimum. “We got over this general feature with off-beat films. We just cut at the high point of a scene; and in the process we were able to tell the story in 90 minutes.”
Another special aspect of the film was that the background music is “almost negligible”. “Here the visuals speak for themselves.” For all its trappings of being a “parallel” film, Akasa Kusum is doing well in Sri Lanka, mainly in the urban centres. When it comes to box-office success, the case isn’t different with Sreekar’s latest release. Mammootty-starrer Pazhassiraja, directed by Hariharan, is doing well in Kerala ahead of its worldwide release even as Sreekar has started working on his next ventures: Mani Rathnam’s Raavan and a yet-to-be-named Telugu project.

‘Telugu films have two-three formats’
With six national awards (yet to get one for a Telugu film), five state awards and several miscellaneous awards, Sreekar Prasad knows his cinema. Is it a reflection of the quality of Tollywood films? “I think, yes,” he says. “For one, Telugu movies are very region-specific. They have probably two or three formats which they switch between; they rarely go beyond that.”
Sreekar maintains they are finding it difficult to break out of the rut. “There is this effort to cater to a particular audience;
so it does not stand a chance at an all-India level. There may be attempts to break this pattern, but are very few and rare.
At one point, Bollywood was like this.”
Obviously, Sreekar speaks his mind — and that from his experience in the industry for more than a quarter century. Over the years, he has made a deliberate attempt to strike a balance between ‘masala’ films and ‘serious’ films. “Initially, I took any project that came my way, but now I am selective. I associate with a film if the story is interesting, and also the director and I need to have similar wavelengths. Only then can I complement the director in the job I undertake.”

Myopia in fighting poaching

That poaching is rampant in India is hardly news and it would be an understatement to say that the menace is on the rise. But a recent news about a one-horned rhinoceros being killed at the Rajiv Gandhi Orang Wildlife Sanctuary, on the northern banks of the Brahmaputra, 140 km from Guwahati, gives pause for thought. Two poachers were killed in a shootout with forest guards on October 19. One of them, Harmuj Ali, had been released from jail just 10 days earlier. He was nabbed last June after killing a 25-year-old female rhino in the same park. The number of rhinos killed so far this year in the park has risen to six, with two dying of ‘natural causes’, against the seven in 2008. For all the awareness camps conducted and hi-tech training provided to the guards, such incidents rob the sheen of the India Rhino Vision-2020 programme, a project aimed at the long-term conservation of rhinos in Assam.It would be a tall order to expect the government to curb the demand for rhino horn, ivory, tiger skin and rare reptiles in the international market, but it could certainly increase the quantum and severity of punishment for poaching. This should be backed by expediting the legal course. Punishment must be quick. Going by the Harmuj Ali experience, four months is small change for the lakhs of rupees a rhino horn fetches in the international market.The case of Harmuj Ali also throws light on the fact that our jails do little to reform a criminal, which is the purpose of these institutions. They serve more as a place for criminals to cool their heels for a while. After they are released they go on the hunt again.Though the government has grander plans for conservation and has tied up with the WWF and International Union for Conservation of Nature, it has failed to address the concerns of the forest guards. Reports say that many of the guards have been working as temporary staff more than two decades. Irregular salaries and non-regularisation of jobs certainly weigh down on the morale of the guards who have threatened suicide if the government fails to recognise their demands.Wildlife protection is a demanding task and the government seems to have realised the importance of it, but it cannot save the remaining endangered animals unless it wins the trust of all parties involved, because the enemy is focused. Greed is, after all, a great motivator.