Early in the 1980s, director Shankar Nag handed John Devraj a sheet of paper. It was the script for Malgudi Days, based on R.K. Narayan’s stories set in a fictional town in Karnataka. From the words on that page, Devraj, a sculptor, musician, art director and town planner, was asked to create Malgudi in Agumbe, a village in the Western Ghats, roughly 400km from Bangalore, with a population of about 180 families.
Devraj began to fabricate carts, statues, trains, avenues, shops and temples. “I had to conceptualize everything from scratch,” he says. “I had to then make everything by hand—often working 20 hours a day.” Twenty-one years after Doordarshan took it off the air, Devraj’s handiwork is now available for viewing in Big Home Video’s two-volume DVD pack.
Big Home Video: Rs599 per pack.
The task of building Malgudi was made even more daunting by Agumbe’s isolation and by Nag’s obsession with detail, note Devraj and several members of the crew. Production controller Jagadish Malnad recalls how one bright day, when everything was in place for a shot, a cloud suddenly floated in front of the sun. “Shankar motioned to me and asked me to move the cloud,” he says.
Nag, who was killed in a car accident near Bangalore in September 1990 at the age of 36, invested loads of energy and enterprise into imagining the minutiae of life in Malgudi. “Nothing you see on screen was a result of an accident or chance,” says Arundhati Nag, his wife, who also acted in the series. “He went about things with precision. He once asked Malnad to bring in a donkey (accompanied by its master) from Theerthahalli, 20km from Agumbe.”
Arundhati says the cast practically lived in the village “in fits and starts” over the three years it took to make the serial. “Agumbe was not accustomed to film crews, so they just let us into their homes,” she says. “The village became such a huge part of our lives that my daughter Kavya, who was a year old, went to school there.”
Like most of Narayan’s works, Malgudi Days is woven with ordinary concerns: the financial worries of a goat-herder, the glee with which a long-awaited letter is received. Nag was intent on preserving Narayan’s vision, says Ashok Mandanna, who played the role of a postman in the episode ‘The Missing Mail’. “We made the serial at a time when it was possible to take over an entire village and transform it into a fictitious place,” says Mandanna. “The logistics and cost of such an enterprise now would prevent people from remaking it.”
Arundhati agrees with Mandanna. “If Shankar were to make it today, I don’t know if he would try it,” she says. “I don’t think you can recreate what he did in 1987.” That became obvious when director Kavita Lankesh remade the series in 2006. Those episodes, which are also included in this package, lacked the full original cast and were shot in a bustling Agumbe that was twice removed from the sleepy village of Nag’s time. No wonder they failed to impress audiences when they aired on Doordarshan.
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