Reinforcing the inextricable bond between Kamala Das and controversy, two rival biopics offering differing perspectives on the renowned writer and poet are in progress.

Aami, by veteran Malayali director Kamal, has declared itself to be a family-oriented film that will be respectful of Das’s unconventional work and life choices. Tamil director Leena Manimekalai’s Kamala Das will be in English and will be an uninhibited take on an unorthodox literary figure who wrote in Malayalam and English.

Neither biopic has gone on the floors yet, but only one of them has the blessings of the poet’s family. Kamal has been given the rights to make Aami and dub it in English, said Jaisurya Das, one of the writer’s three sons. “The permission was given by the Estate of Kamala Das, a legal entity formed by the legal heirs of the late Kamala Das,” he said.

Aami will not be a cradle-to-grave account. “The movie will show all facets of Kamala Das,” Jaisurya Das said. “There will be a lot of fiction. That is how movies work. But it is a genuine attempt to show all the controversies she faced.” Das didn’t know about Manimekalai’s proposed rival biopic. “No one has so far obtained permission from the estate to make the film,” he said. “Those who are using the name of Kamala Das without permission are doing it at their own peril.”

Kamal did not return requests from Scroll.in for an interview. The director said at a press conference in Thrissur on March 15 that shooting will begin with the lead actress, Manju Warrier, at Punnayurkkulam, the writer’s native town, on March 24. “The first schedule will be completed in two weeks,” Kamal said at the press conference. There will be a two-month break, which was “necessitated as Manju Warrier needed time to put on weight,” Kamal added.

Kamal has also asserted in previous interviews that Aami will not be a conventional or realistic biopic. “It will be a mixture of real-life and fictional situations,” he told a Malayalam television channel. The movie will not present a controversial image of Kamala Das in any way, Kamal promised.

Manimekalai, director of the arthouse film Sengadal, has declared that she will not sanitise Kamala Das’s image. Taking a dig at Kamal, Manimekalai declared, “I want to portray the writer honestly. For me, she is a bundle of contradictions. It is not made for the market. Unlike Kamal, I don’t have to please anyone.” The film will start shooting later in 2017, Manimekalai said.

There’s a further twist to the tale of the two biopics. Manimekalai claims that Kamal originally cast her as Das. “Kamal had told me that I resembled the poet and asked whether I could act in the biopic on her,” Manimekalai said. Kamal has roundly refuted this claim. “I have noticed the discussion in social media, but Manimekalai’s claims are not true,” he told the press conference in Thrissur.

Kamal’s movie had initially run into trouble when Vidya Balan, who was supposed to play the protagonist, dropped out of the project. In an interview with Scroll.in, Balan said that she had “creative differences” with the director. Kamal replaced Balan with acclaimed actress Manju Warrier.

Manju Warrier in and as Aami. Courtesy Facebook.
Manju Warrier in and as Aami. Courtesy Facebook.

Few Indian literary icons have the power to evoke such interest and controversy all these years later. Kamala Das, also known as Madhavikutty, led a rich and colourful life, characterised by bold and confessional poetry and prose that spoke of love and sexual desire. Her autobiography, My Story, created waves for its sexual frankness. Das embraced Islam a decade before her death in 2009 and renamed herself Kamala Surayya. Aami was her nickname.

Manimekalai acknowledged that Das’s views on sexuality will make for tough and demanding cinema. “She had written on lesbianism and polyamory, and it is a huge challenge to portray it on the celluloid,” the filmmaker said.

Everybody has developed their own opinions about the iconoclastic writer. “But I am not going to satisfy them,” Manimekalai said. Her film will present Kamala Das as “a poet of the universe”, she promised.

Kamal’s entry point into Kamala Das’s story was through her works. The biopic has been three years in the making, and will be “about Madhavikkutty, whom I befriended through her works”, the filmmaker said in a previously published interview. “Aami will cover all phases of her life,” Kamal said. “It will help Malayalis learn about a Madhavikkutty they do not know.”

Kamal’s production might be the official version, but at least one of Kamala Das’s sons thinks that the treatment of the subject matter is irrelevant. “Directors have the creative freedom to add cinematic elements to a movie,” said Madhav Das Nalapat, the eldest of Das’s three sons. “If it is a biopic, it should remain factual. I hope Kamal’s movie will show Kamala Das as a strong, self-sufficient and independent lady.”

Both movies are likely to address Kamala Das’s contentious conversion to Islam in 1999. Plenty of stories were circulated about Das’s decision, including the theory propounded in Canadian author Merrily Weisbord’s The Love Queen of Malabar: Memoir of a Friendship with Kamala Das that the writer was influenced by a man.

“It might be Weisbord’s ploy to sell her book, and hence I won’t blame her,” Nalapat said. “I knew my mother’s mind. Those with a patriarchal mind spread rumours that she converted to Islam after being influenced by a man. They forgot that Das was an independent lady who took decisions of her own will.”