SP Jananathan: A revolutionary filmmaker
The writer pays homage to the late SP Jananathan, a brave directorial voice that shone with courage while it lasted
The late SP Jananathan was an unlikely filmmaker. He identified himself as a socialist first, one who used cinema as his weapon. Even his least political film, Iyarkai, contained subtle commentary on the working class. In his later films like the medical thriller, E, or the action-adventure, Peranmai, communism occupied centrestage.
Though his films could be seen as placards bearing important messages, they were by no means devoid of cinematic finesse. Yet, it was clear what his priority was. He clarified as much in my interaction with him a few months ago, when he said that he always aimed to educate, not entice. “I don’t mind if someone behaves out of character in my films, so long as they are communicating something important to the people.” This was his calculated bargain. He would rather that his films be remembered for their hardhitting social commentary rather than for their craft.
He often designed his protagonists as ‘sons of the soil’. If not for him, it’s hard to imagine that an NCC master (Peranmai) or a hangman (Purampokku) might have become protagonists in mainstream cinema. While he was careful not to repeat genres in his five-film-old filmography, you could still not shake off the feeling that you were getting retellings of the same important story, that you were being taken along the journey of the same important hero. Easwaran in E, the five girls in Peranmai, Yemalingam in Purampokku… they were all the same people, even if they looked different. All their journeys commence at selfishness and political naivete, and end at enlightenment and sacrifice. Jananathan seemed to use these principal characters as metaphors for us, the common folk. With each film, he encouraged us to shed our political ignorance and rise as leaders… of ourselves.
While his heroes fought against international conspiracies, Jananathan’s biggest battles as a filmmaker were often with the censor board. His daring political views were not always taken kindly by the powers that be. His ambitious projects, Peranmai and Purampokku, were both heavily censored before making it to the theatres. The courageous filmmaker battled censorship and hate, once even receiving a death threat during a live TV interaction. But nothing could silence him, or the potency of his messaging.
During our last conversation, Jananthan referred to himself as a filmmaker in the making and believed that he had a long way to go. He expressed that the mind and craft of a creator achieves fruition only during the late 50s and was confident that his best work was yet to come. The director completed the final portion of Laabam after this conversation and while he, sadly, is not with us anymore, I will be looking forward to the release of this film, which no doubt will speak, his important politics.
Let us remember once again that death cannot kill a creator like Jananathan, for his voice will continue to echo through his cinema. The real tragedy is that we will never know what other plans he had, what filmmaking goals he set for himself. We have lost a rare filmmaking voice that bravely spoke the sort of politics that is usually restricted only to books of revolution. It is safe to say that he made revolutionary films, literally. Let’s hope that his cinema has sparked a new generation of filmmakers to bravely take on problems of the establishment. Let us hope that the baton has been passed.