Re-visiting Rupert Brooke Through South Indian Cinema

When we were studying literature in the middle of the 1960s at the University College, Thiruvananthapuram, Rupert Brooke was just a speck on our literary horizon, never close enough to warrant serious study or be the subject of adulation as in the case of the Nature poets, the Romantics or Victorians, or the all time great, Shakespeare.

He was just one of the ‘War Poets,’ where too he was not in commanding heights as there were other war poets whose poems better brought out the perils and the pathos of war. The only poem by Brooke that found a mention in our class was the sonnet he was famous for, The Soldier, which in a way extolled sacrifice for the sake of the motherland. (Incidentally, unlike many other war poets who died or were injured in action, Brooke died of illness contacted while in a troop ship on the way to Greece).

After the 1960s Rupert Brooke had never entered my mind, till last fortnight. He came up suddenly through a Malayalam film, which was based on or was simultaneously produced with a Tamil film, which again was based on an original Kannada film which had its base in a Kannada one-act play which was based on Brooke’s one-act play, 'Lithuania,' written in the year of his death, 1915.

It was indeed a circuitous route to his genius, a genius of thriller story telling that, perhaps, excelled his poetics.

When I saw on OTT the Malayalam film Pakalum Pathiravum, a Kunchacko Boban- Rajisha Vijayan starrer, I never had an inkling of the distant man behind the story. I found the storyline good, the picturisation better and the acting the best. But the ending sequence, a little contrived, left something to be desired.

It was a few days after watching this that I saw the ad on the Tamil film Kondral Pavam (The Sin of Killing), giving me the feeling of déjà vu. Was it a copy of the Malayalam film? But I found that it was the other way round, though both films came out a week apart in March 2023.

The director of the Tamil film, Dayal Padmanabhan, had the honesty to acknowledge his indebtedness to Rupert Brooke through an audio message at the beginning.

The film, he said, was a remake of his own Kannada film Aa Karaala Rathri (That Sombre Night) which won the Kannada State Award for the Best Film for 2018. The Kannada film itself, he said, was based on a Kannada one-act play by Mohan Habbu, which was a translation of Brooke’s 'Lithuania.'

Dayal Padmanabhan also directed a Telugu remake in 2020, titled 'Anaganaga O Athidhi.'

This meant that all the four south Indian languages had a film based on Brooke’s 'Lithuania.' What is so special about the story that made it a hot favourite of south Indian film makers?

'Lithuania,' indeed, is a vintage thriller, the story of a colossal human tragedy that Brooke unveiled through seven characters and fifty-two pages.

One of the Baltic states, Lithuania was once part of the Russian empire. The story takes place in a small house in a remote borderland, occupied by a poverty stricken family, consisting of father, mother and daughter. The even tenor of the house is ruffled when a good looking young man walks in, requesting for permission to stay for a night.

The young man is obviously rich and shows the family a lot of money he is carrying. This arouses the greed of the family who think that all their problems can be solved with such riches.

When greed takes over good sense, they conspire to kill him, but the father develops cold feet and goes to the tavern for a drink to boost his courage. As he takes a long time to return the wife and daughter go ahead to finish off the stranger as planned. The daughter axes him to death and the duo wait for the father’s return.

But they had the shock of their lives when an inebriated father is brought home by the tavern keeper who discloses the fact that the stranger is none other than the couple’s long lost son who has come back with immense riches to be with the family.

The drama ends with the wails of the mother and the desolate cry of the daughter ‘They will put me in prison.’

Adapting this story to suit local conditions, the director of the Tamil and Kannada versions took it to logical conclusions while the director of the Malayalam version went for a vastly different climax. Both the Kannada and Tamil films show the intense remorse of the family over their ghastly act. They take poisoned food originally intended for the stranger even as the father sets fire to the house in a fiery expiation of their macabre sin. Tamil film’s Varalaxmi Sarathkumar as sister, Charlie as father and Easwari Rao as mother are at their poignant best in the end scene.

On the contrary, the climax of the Malayalam film is rather laboured. When the truth dawns on them, the father and mother, played by Manoj K U and Seetha, are remorse- stricken and want to die along with their son. The daughter, played by Rajisha Vijayan, has other ideas. She takes out a revolver from the stranger’s bag, shoots her father and mother and goes away in a bus, only to be apprehended by the police who shoot her down.

It is uncertain for what purpose the director of the Malayalam version, Ajai Vasudev, made the end so unbearably different.

Whatever be the way the south Indian filmmakers handled the story, it goes without saying that the four films constitute a great memorial on celluloid for the genius of Rupert Brooke.

Brooke in fact enjoyed a reputation that was far in excess of his poetic output. He was a handsome youth and that was something many people had commented on.

W B Yeats for instance was quoted to have described him as the ‘handsomest young man in England.’ Another literary figure called him an Adonis, a favourite of goddess Aphrodite.

Brooke begins his signature sonnet The Soldier with the lines:

'If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.'

Brooke died when he was just 27 and his body was buried in the Greek island of Skyros, a foreign field as he mentioned in the sonnet.

It is great that nearly a century and a decade after his death, his memory is being kept alive in celluloid creations like these in this corner of a foreign field.


More by :  P. Ravindran Nayar

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