Obedience Is Not A Quality Of A Good Student: Sharis Mohammad, Writer Of Jana Gana Mana, Film Companion

The guest lecturer turned screenwriter talks about the politics of the film, why he chose to set the film outside Kerala and the need for that long preview for the second part at the end of the film

Let me begin by asking you about the scene where Dijo Jose Antony, the film’s director, makes an appearance as a lecturer. It’s a meta scene where a director is teaching his audience to become more political. This is quite different from some of our makers who generally want students to stay in class and study.

It is the only scene set in Kerala. More than the scene itself, it’s the timing of the scene that is most important in the context of the film. I look at that scene as the last spark that lights the fire. Even generally, I believe that Kerala society does today what the rest of India does tomorrow. So I needed a scene that sets off the protest against the death of the teacher (played by Mamta Mohandas in the film) and it was important that it begins in a college like Maharajas in Kerala.

Back in the 70s or 80s, students from the Students’ Federation of India (SFI) and the Kerala Students Union (KSU) used to influence even the State elections in Kerala. But now I feel that politics can be relegated to online activities rather than offline. I too studied in a private college where I was not allowed to have a beard and that’s when I realised the importance of having a political opinion. Not being allowed to voice your politics on campus is the extreme end of fascism. That’s why I wanted a scene where a lecturer is asking his students to stop warming the benches and go out in protest against a just movement.

You are a lecturer yourself. Is this something you have told your students?

As a teacher, I find no value in a student being obedient. Obedience is the quality of a slave. Instead, I’m most fond of students who question you or the things you speak in class. At times, I have students who ask me something that I find a tad offensive. But when I go to the staff room, I find that they’ve made a valid point. It’s something I encourage.

Obedience Is Not A Quality Of A Good Student: Sharis Mohammad, Writer Of Jana Gana Mana, Film Companion
Sharis Mohammad, Writer Of Jana Gana Mana

What I found very interesting is how you’ve integrated real-life events into a mainstream film format. Can you talk about that process?

Right at the outset, I told Dijo that we should make this script into a complete entertainer. It shouldn’t be preachy and it has to be enjoyed. Like Prithviraj said, “A boran film with a lot of messages is still a boran film”. So we’ve always strived to make it an entertainer.

The structure of Jana Gana Mana is quite fascinating. At first, it plays out like it is supporting encounter killing. It even got the audience to celebrate the scene where Suraj’s character shoots those convicts. But then you get them to regret applauding…

For us, getting the audience to applaud that scene was our success criterion. That’s when we knew the film has worked. We were anyway sure of the second half but if that had to work, it needed a scene like this where you arrive at a particular notion about Suraj’s actions. It’s for this scene to work in the theatres that we were against an OTT release. No matter how great a scene, no one claps when you watch something on OTT. They have to root for the ACP and later when Arvind Swaminathan(Prithviraj) looks at the audience and asks them to clap, that’s the moment the film’s point is made.

What about the point the film makes about biases? Even the judge makes a mistake by “judging” the alleged convicts like we do…

That scene too is aimed to make a larger point about the times we live in. Even today, we find so many people forwarding a WhatsApp message without going deep into it. The second we align with an ideology, we stop thinking and take it as it is and think it is correct. We don’t care about the validity of the message or who sends it. With Jana Gana Mana, I wanted people to take a pause and not get carried away by this information overload on social media. There is something beyond black and white. There are more than two sides to stories too. The debate is what’s more important. No one today is willing to hear the other side speak.

You have staged this film outside Kerala in a place called Ramanagara. What was the idea behind that?

I wanted a juncture or a common point between all four southern States. In reality, there is no such place but that’s where I have set this story. People speak all four languages apart from Hindi and English. But the official records of this place are in Kannada. But I have to appreciate the audience for seeing this as an Indian movie. We too took the chance and it didn’t matter to us that every line is understood by everyone as long as they got the idea of what we were going for. We wanted that plurality to be conveyed strongly. And the audience got it. Even Prithviraj fans, who had started asking if the film was full of bomb blasts after seeing the trailer, realised the film was different from that and stood by us.

Do you think a film with such a message would have been possible in another industry? I can see it getting made in Tamil too but it would have been a lot more challenging to get made in many other languages…

I understand your question but I would have tried to make the same film there too. I feel the scene where Dijo appears underlines your question because that spark has to come from Kerala. But I want films like Jana Gana Mana to be made in all industries across all languages.

 

What do you have to say about the reading of the film where all its primary characters can be interpreted as from the privileged class or castes who are defending minorities?

Like I said, I welcome these discussions and readings. I’m more interested in listening to people who disagree with me. If you don’t like the film, we appreciate that too. Like Gandhi says, “In matters of conscience, the majority has no place”. I don’t myself know the caste of the characters I’ve written including Arvind Swaminathan’s. Even the casting decisions are all based on their performances and not the least because of their colour. But if caste and colour are so evident to a section, I can only submit that it hasn’t crossed my mind.

Of the many things I really appreciate about the film is how you’ve chosen to add a shot where even the students who support the ruling party in that world get a chance to reform or question their establishment. Usually, a character with an opposite ideology does not get that dignity.

What I believe is that even the apolitical person has his or her own politics. If they decide to not vote, that too speaks of a kind of politics of dissent. Instead, the voter I find most problematic is one who never changes their opinion from when they are 18 years old till they are 80. They are just a number…a statistic. They are not asking questions. My movie urges everyone to ask questions and not believe in one belief system or ideology without challenging it.

Finally, what was the idea behind inserting a long preface for the second part? Wouldn’t a smaller segment have conveyed the same emotions?

See it has become fashionable for big movies to tease the audience with the second part. But that’s not what we wanted to do. We needed to explain certain things about Arvind Swaminathan because we have to justify his motivation to defend such a case so emotionally. Even the reason he has a crutch shouldn’t come across as some sort of “fashion statement”. He has a past and we wanted that to be underlined so people are invested in his story. And when people come out asking for a second part, we know the characters have stuck.

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