Breezy, illuminative narrative of a political era

Deccan Chronicle.  | M.R. Venkatesh

Lifestyle, Books and Art

It is an amazing medley of how despite their deep differences, they shared a lucky charm.

AN UNLIKELY CHEMISTRY, Autobiography of a Couple

CHENNAI: Their date of births may not have been exactly proximate to being midnight’s children of August 15, 1947, when India became free. Yet, they belong to a generation whom we could say were the first blooms of the national quest to creativity and freedom, the first post-Independent generation so to say.  
The principal speaker of this autobiography, S Krishnaswamy, a tireless and ardent film-maker in the subtle mould of his legendary father and a doyen of South Indian film industry, Director K Subrahmanyam and the other, a brilliant scientist and the story teller’s wife, Dr Mohana Krishnaswamy who missed formulating an anti-cancer drug by a whisker, are lamps to a bygone political era where values of science, liberal thought, freedom and inherent strengths of an ancient spiritual tradition crisscrosses at several junctions to produce sparks of cultural excellence.

In this candid and heartwarming autobiography that embraces a biography as well, Krishnaswamy tells his story, set in the backdrop of the socio-political economic conditions since the late 1930s’ and spanning into the new millennium, and that of his scientist wife, Mohana. It is an amazing medley of how despite their deep differences, they shared a lucky charm, an underlying unity of purpose to converge on a higher plain the forum, ‘Krishnaswamy Associates’, provided.
Born in 1938 within a year of “my father building his new palatial bungalow” in St. Thome area of old Madras, now Chennai, Krishnaswamy writes, “everyone pampered me, including my elder siblings; My sister, Padma Subrahmanyam, was born in 1943 and at a very young age she became a star dancer.” But reality was soon to bite into their family fortunes. The author admits: “While on the one side my father (Director Subrahmanyam) was not as shrewd a businessman as he was a creative person, on the other, some of his so-called close friends defrauded him by chicanery.”

Subrahmanyam belonged to the “socialist group within the Congress party” and after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1951, he was deeply impressed by its socialistic model of development. He was one of the founders of the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society, had a wide circle of friends, both in politics and business including stalwarts like the late Communist leader P Ramamurthy (PR) and C Subramaniam (CS), who decades later was lauded as “Father of India’s Green Revolution”.

Director Subrahmanyam himself would have become a Communist under Ramamurthy’s persuasion, but for what CS had then called the former’s “faith in God”. “My father dreamt of India’s ideal society as being a combination of the economic austerity and redistribution of wealth followed by the USSR on the one hand, with the social and political free institutions of Western democracy on the other – but rooted in the Indian ethos of spirituality,” writes Krishnaswamy.
Though PR and CS were “political rivals, they were personally great friends and that was possible in the political culture of that era,” recalls Krishnaswamy with a nostalgic touch of that bygone era, somewhat similar to the “great personal friendship” between Rajaji and Periyar even if they were ideologically poles apart. The author implies, sadly post-1975 Tamil Nadu politics was devoid of that ethos.

Despite his financial difficulties, director Subrahmanyam sent Krishnaswamy to the US for higher studies. It was so arduous to get foreign exchange released by the Reserve Bank of India those days, the author points out, taking us through his highs and lows of that grim period. Interestingly, the popular actor MGR, close to his father, offered his personal driver to drive four of them including Krishnaswamy in a small Fiat car those days to drive all the way to Delhi to get some RBI paper work done after the author got an admission at RCA Institute, a reputed polytechnic in Manhattan, for a course in radio and sound engineering.
However, after landing in the U.S. and after attending the RCA Institute for four days, by a quirk of fate and goodwill of some in America, Krishnaswamy joined a media course in the prestigious Columbia University. The course there, “dealt with both theoretical and practical aspects of media from the psychology of communication to the aesthetics and technology of film-making, besides world history of media, covering also advertising and public relations. There was a strong segment on the social impact of media and the responsibility of media persons,” recalls Krishnaswamy.

The Head of the Creative Communications department at Columbia University was Prof Erik Barnouw and ever since Krishnaswamy met him, “several things changed for me” and there was no looking back. With few dollars in hand, how as a student he made both ends meet, including taking up part-time jobs, how he almost got and did not get a temporary job at the UN, he witnessing at a special UN session how the Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev “removing his shoe and banging it on the desk” at the height of the ‘Cold War’- Khrushchev did not even check into a hotel in Manhattan but stayed on board the Soviet Ship and straight attended the UN General Assembly-, that class of high voltage political drama and et all until he got his Masters Degree from Columbia, have been lucidly retold.

It was during that stint in the US, during a film screening programme at the university, a documentary on India produced in the 1940s’, was so “disgusting and distasteful”, that impelled Krishnaswamy on his return to India to conceptualise, script and make that historic documentary, “Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi” which finally came out in 1976. As a passionate and critical student, Krishnaswamy then immediately went up the dais to “declare my criticism” about the 1940 half-baked documentary on India.

Erik Barnouw then took up the microphone and said, “this film would serve its purpose if only your anger motivates you to make a proper, well-informed, balanced film on Indian history and culture.” Krishnaswamy says, that challenge thrown by Barnouw, with whom later he was to co-author a serious work on Indian Cinema, fired his imagination to make ‘Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi”.

The making of that historic documentary, the political storm it weathered when released during the infamous Emergency, flavor of Tamil Nadu politics then, and the author’s subsequent years of tenuous balancing between making commercials and serious films and documentaries, after his wife due to caste prejudices in the Madras University gave up a brilliant career in academics to steer his firm, form a major part of their co-life saga of hard accomplishment amid binary suffering. Certainly, the life and times of Krishnaswamy and Mohana Krishnaswamy is instructive to all those who wish to contribute to humanity through Art.