From the cold winter chill of Moscow to the sunlit, watery paradise of Kuttanad did a 130-year-old story find its way, translated between languages and mediums as it went from the small page to the big screen. Anton Chekov’s short story, Vanka, one among the author’s many works that outlived his expectations for them to become modern classics, was adapted into a Malayalam film by director Jayaraj as Ottal. The film went on to win awards for Best Movie on Environment Conservation and Preservation, and Best Screenplay at the 62nd National Film Awards.
Joshy Mangalath, the debutant scriptwriter who transported the dark tale of an orphan boy forced into child labour from 1800s Russia to modern day Kerala, feels that both environment conservation and child labour are still relevant issues today. “Nature is very close to my heart, and it is a topic that is not taken seriously enough. Society is very casual in its attitude towards the environment, which is a dangerous trend. And the fact that child labour is still an issue today so many years after Vanka’s publication speaks for itself,” says Joshy, who is now based in Dubai as HR and Admin Manager for Harman Middle East.
A native of Korani, near Attingal in Thiruvananthapuram district, Joshy was exposed to literature and theatre at a young age, and the interest stayed with him even after he left for West Asia 20 years ago. “My father was a voracious reader and my mother taught me a lot about nature. Growing up, I used to get books as gifts instead of toys, and we had to help out around the house, even if it included shovelling cowdung in the yard. The theatre performances during temple festivals were another fascination of mine, with the depth of their dialogue and their subtle modulations.”
It was in 2011, after toying with different mediums with which to get his thoughts on environment conservation out to public that he finally wrote his first script, Kuthirachandran, based on a man from his wife’s hometown who Joshy felt represented how man should connect with nature. He took this script to Jayaraj, who expressed interest in the project, but it had to be put on the back burner due to unforeseen circumstances. “It was then that he told me about his idea to adapt Vanka,” says Joshy, admitting that the thought of adapting such a popular work was daunting initially. “Jayaraj told me to do what I am good at and root the narrative in nature, which is how Kuttanad became our setting.”
Joshy explains that subtle environmental cues and realism in film have always been the stand-out point for him in films. “I’ve watched a lot of Iranian films by directors like Majid Majidi and Abbas Kiarostami. Their works feel like a slice of life torn out and displayed on screen. Even in local cinema, Adoor Gopalakrishnanan’s Elippathayam influenced me in the way it portrayed nature. I love the way rain is shown in that film. It’s those details, like a dog barking or a temple bell ringing in the background ,that make movies real, and I have tried to incorporate that.”
Bagging a National Award for his maiden project has him elated, but Joshy wants to tread carefully. “To be elevated into the company of such greats by getting this award means I have to be responsible with my work in future. While I did my best to make the story seem alive with the script, Ottal’s success must also be attributed to the way Jayaraj and cinematographer M.J. Radhakrishnan translated it to screen, and Kavalam Narayana Panicker’s melodies backed them up.”
Joshy is now in the process of kickstarting Kuthirachandran to be adapted to screen, as he is not done telling stories about nature. “My work will always have the environment as a theme, but that is not to say they are documentaries or that they lack a plot. People have a misconception about ‘award’ films, that they are dull and dreary. Even with this film, which deals with serious issues, we have tried to highlight the positives more, like the innocent joy of a childhood spent in the lap of nature.”
On a parting note, Joshy reaffirms that he has many more themes he wants to draw society’s attention to, and cinema is the best medium. “Nature is a finely tuned thing, and we are upsetting that balance. What I want to do is make good, watchable cinema that also leaves an impression on people and makes them rethink the way they treat their surroundings.”