Clasping his walking stick in one frail hand, 85-year-old writer Ashokamitran only laughed when his writing was unreservedly criticised at a book reading event. “What can I do about it now, anyway?” he smiled.

The award-winning bilingual writer, who died on March 23, 2017, was hardly one to be rattled. “He never had any problem with people saying things about his work,” said Prasanna Ramaswamy, a documentary filmmaker. “He was an extraordinarily balanced person.”

For four years, Ramaswamy had been working on tje documentary Writer Ashokamitran. “I have been reading his work since the ’80s, and his writing is very close to my heart,” she said. From 2013, along with cinematographer and filmmaker RV Ramani, she began shooting at the meetings he addressed, following him to his regular haunts and revisiting places from his past. “The idea was to open up his universe, to reveal what kind of a person he was, what kind of a thought process he had, and the kind of books he wrote,” she said.

On and off the pages

Born in 1931, Ashokamitran wrote over 60 books in fiction, non-fiction and literary criticism in both Tamil and English. He was known for his descriptive simplicity yet evocative style, and his books were mostly based in big Indian cities. Ashokamitran’s work is close to that of the Tamil verse tradition in its sparseness and brevity of expression, writer Perumal Murugan says in the beginning of the documentary.

Ramaswamy’s 90-minute film plunges straight into a literary critique of Ashokamitran’s works. Apart from exploring his philosophical and literary influences, including Mahatma Gandhi and Subramaniya Bharati, Ramasamy also explores the physical spaces that Ashokamitran engaged with while writing – be it his little room with photographs or his walks around the Natesan Park in Thyagaraya Nagar.

The documentary is packed with interviews of writers and playwrights, each describing how they engage with Ashokamitran’s work. While some openly admit that the subtlety of his writing is not to their liking, others relish Ashokamitran’s economy of words and the fact that much is left open to interpretation.

In the few brief interviews with Ashokamitran, Ramaswamy attempted to bring out the underlying philosophy of the writer’s stories, his religious beliefs, his idea of marriage and his thoughts about his own writing.

“I cannot say I am an unambitious person,” he says in his characteristically mild way. “I want to write well and communicate with lots of people in many languages. But I always want to keep in check what is possible or not.”

Filmmaker Prasanna Ramaswamy with Ashokamitran. Credit: Mohandas Vadakara.
Filmmaker Prasanna Ramaswamy with Ashokamitran. Credit: Mohandas Vadakara.

Making a documentary on a writer is particularly challenging, Ramaswamy said. “You have both written words and spoken words. How do you find legitimate visuals without exactly translating written words into visuals?”

But Ramaswamy strove to overcome this handicap. While exploring Ashokamitran’s novel The Eighteenth Parallel, which deals with adolescence and growing up amid political turmoil and communal tensions in Secunderabad in 1948, the documentary moves through visuals of children playing cricket and through students at Ashokamitran’s alma mater, Nizam College.

Over the four years, Ramaswamy and her team managed to shoot only for 20-22 days. But it took her four-and-a-half months to edit the documentary. “Much as you write a script, mull over ideas, prepare questions, documentary film-making is more like a practice in which the film grows and reveals itself both during the shoot and at the edit table,” she said. “In a documentary, it is about finding the film through different processes. This vastly differentiates it from the feature film.”

Much like Ashokamitran’s writing, Ramaswamy’s documentary adopts a subtle yet realistic approach as she weaves a comprehensive picture of his personality and work. The final say, however, is left to the man himself. With his usual measured brevity, Ashokamitran sums up his response to the criticism and praise he has received over the years for his stories.

  “A writer tends to have an intention that they wish to convey, but often the story doesn’t necessarily fulfil the intention. Anna Karenina was intended to be a critique of adultery but now it is viewed as a work of art. The intention may not be realised in a work of fiction. That is a cardinal truth. The writer may write, but ultimately, you should trust the tale, and not the teller.”