Interview Malayalam

The spirit of PK Rosy took hold of me, says Vinu Abraham on Malayalam cinema’s first actress


The author and the translators of the new novel The Lost Heroine speak about the challenges of bringing to life the star of Malayalam cinema’s first talkie, Vighathakumaran (1928).

Vinu Abraham (Photos: Courtesy Speaking Tiger Books)

Sonal Pandya

A new English translation of Vinu Abraham’s Malayalam novel, Nashtanaika, details the unbelievable but forgotten story of PK Rosy, a young Dalit woman who landed the opportunity of a lifetime to star in Malayalam cinema’s first talkie, Vighathakumaran (1928).

The Lost Heroine takes us into the world of Rosy who, despite her pioneering portrayal of an affluent Nair young woman in the film, saw her life come tumbling down after word got out eventually about her caste identity.

We spoke to Vinu Abraham as well as translators CS Venkiteswaran and Arathy Ashok about the release of the English translation by Speaking Tiger Books. They shared their journey and the challenges of bringing to life the buried history of PK Rosy.

Excerpts:

What inspired you to first write a book on PK Rosy? What is it about her that is so fascinating?

Vinu Abraham: It was from a protest leaflet during the International Film Festival of Kerala in 2005 that I got the inspiration for this novel. The leaflet issued by a Dalit artistic fraternity strongly protested against the oblivion imposed on PK Rosy, the Dalit girl who was the first heroine of Malayalam cinema, by the cinema industry, mainstream Kerala culture and society at large. It was only then that I came to know of Rosy and the harrowing ordeals suffered by her and of Dr JC Daniel, the pioneering Kerala filmmaker after making Vighathakumaran, the first movie in Kerala. I was very much disturbed by this history and over time that anguish took the shape of a novel. Also, I felt that this poor girl who made history and yet forgotten should be restored to her rightful hallowed position.

What were the challenges in finding out information about her life and the emergence of Malayalam cinema in the late 1920s?

First of all, there was not even a single photograph of Rosy. All the information available on her would not amount to more than two pages. Even her living relatives had no idea of her film experiences. Thus it was a very painstaking effort to trace her life and make a novel out of it. However, with more information available on JC Daniel, the parts regarding the emergence of the film industry here were comparatively easier, though that too required much research.

How did you put together the pieces of PK Rosy, especially her spirit, which comes across strongly in the book?

Somehow from the very beginning of writing this novel, it was as if the spirit of Rosy took hold of me. It seemed that destiny had chosen me, who is not a native of Thiruvananthapuram, to write this saga which somehow eluded the eyes of many a great former writer who lived in this city. Somehow Rosy seemed to urge me to pen this chronicle. Certainly, I believe that it was only with such divine inspiration that I could enter the mind of this girl whom nobody knew in the present.

How did you create Rosy’s inner monologue for the book, especially her thoughts on life and her place in the world?

As I said now, it was really living with Rosy for about two and a half years. During that period, many a time she would reveal her personality, her thoughts and her behavioural patterns to me. This applied to both critical situations and mundane moments of her life. A blending of imagination and real facts guided me on the writing of The Lost Heroine.

The novel has been staged on theatre, there are an audio version and feature film as well. What do you hope readers will take away about Rosy and her struggles after reading this English translation?

I think the readers of The Lost Heroine could marvel at the struggles endured by a girl who dared pioneer an art form at a particular place. With Rosy being a victim of caste and gender inequities, it should resonate well in the present period too when such realities are very starkly facing us. Rosy and Daniel are abiding representations of daring human endeavours irrespective of their tragic fates.

CS Venkiteswaran and Arathy Ashok (Photos: Courtesy Speaking Tiger Books)

Was either of you aware of PK Rosy and her ties with Malayalam cinema before you began the translation? If not, did you read up on her life?

Arathy Ashok: I had already heard the name PK Rosy as one of the women pioneers in cinema. Her deed of taking up the lead role in Malayalam cinema was indeed a revolutionary act considering the socio-political circumstances of the times. She was from the Pulaya community, one of the grass sellers who hailed from Trivandrum. But she moved beyond the lines set for her by society by the sheer power of her artistic grace. I read up on more on Rosy and the historical circumstances of her coming to light after my first reading of the novel.

How did you approach the translation of the book from Malayalam to English?

CS Venkiteswaran: Firstly, being a film lover and critic, I was fascinated by the story. This novel brought to the surface the life of Rosy, who was relegated to oblivion by film history. Hers is a life that is linked to the history of cinema all over the world, in a way. So it called for a wider audience, which only a translation in English can provide. That is what prompted us to take up the translation.

Any translation is a kind of compromise between two languages: the local usages, idioms and expressions never get fully translated into another language. But what we have tried is to keep the local flavour intact, even while making it easy to read in English.

What were the difficulties you faced in getting across the feeling and sentiments of that time and era? What were you worried about getting lost in translation?

Arathy Ashok: Though we both worked independently on the chapters, we often communicated on the regional references in the story, for example, the Kakkarassi plays. It was important to know the various art forms and about how Rosy got initiated into the world of cinema. The historical period of the awakening Dalit consciousness had to be well highlighted. But the novel had narrative incidents which made it easy. Many of the Malayalam words have been retained in the original to keep the regional flavour.

Was there any place where you had to move away from the original translation owing to thematic reasons?

CS Venkiteswaran: We have stuck to the original (almost word by word) and tried to rewrite it in English so that a fine balance between local flavour and readability is attained.

The English book title works in both ways – the story of her life and career is not known to many. How was the title decided upon?

CS Venkiteswaran: Yes, it will remain a dark, horrid chapter in Malayalam cinema, the way she was hounded out of her life, career and art. The title was Vinu’s choice and we thought it really captured the spirit of Rosy.

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