SHOMA A. CHATTERJI | 25 MAY, 2019
Akka Vijaya Mulay - Mother, Activist, Filmmaker, Author (1921-2019)
I do not think Akka would have approved of this “tribute” after she has passed on. She was too grounded, too “ordinary” to wear her “celebrity” badge on her persona. In fact, she never put on the kind of airs one might expect in great intellectuals linked in some way, to cinema.
Yet, most of our filmmakers of yore such as Louis Malle, Satyajit Ray, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and anyone whose name everyone can recognize at once glance. Everyone called her “Akka” which means elder sister which, however, is not a Marathi word which is “Tai.”
Now, I will never know why we all called her Akka and not Tai. She was a beautiful woman and the word “beautiful” is not confined to physical looks alone. In fact, that may be the last in the ranking of the different meanings one attached to “beautiful.”
I have met her many times when I was a regular festival delegate and she would always flash her lovely, maternal smile and urge me to keep on writing. She was also very active in an e-group we all were members of and often responded to our mails promptly in a general way even when no question was addressed to her for a long time which included congratulatory messages whenever someone had won an award or had made a film she had liked.
When I saw Bhuvan Shome, I had no clue that the new and young heroine Suhasini Mulay had such an achiever of a mother who had been widowed very young with three daughters to bring up. I met her much later and was surprised that everyone, but everyone knew her and admired her and respected her and I did not know why.
Slowly, I heard of what she had really done as a true film enthusiast, lover, filmmaker, teacher and writer in her own right. But not everyone knows of the struggle she had to go through as a single woman with hardly any finances to fall back on yet not once heard of cribbing or crying like many ordinary women in her position would have done.
I was literally in awe of her and though she was very easy-going and warm and homely, I felt awestruck in her presence and did not know what to say to her except flash a shy smile. Vijaya Mulay, a founder member of the Film Society of India and a strong activist within the movement in independent and documentary films. Suhasini was born in Patna. She lost her father when she was only three and their mother brought up the three sisters single-handedly.
I unwittingly learnt a lot about this feisty lady through a detailed interview with her youngest daughter Suhasini Mulay some years ago for a cover story of a noted magazine. “My mother told me that my parents had decided to have only two children and I was an “accident.” I thank God for accidents like this! We left Patna when I was three and I have very few recollections of the house. There was an idol of the goddess Saraswati on the top of the house. I am told that my father was very fond of Hindustani classical music and that there would be many soirees with eminent musicians. It is a love handed down to us by my mother and my aunt Susheela Ambike. In fact, the great vocalist Gangubai Hangal would put up at our home in Patna whenever she came for a recital. She was present at my birth and I knew her as one of my ‘grandmothers.’”
She elaborated on her open upbringing. “My maternal grandmother was also widowed very young with three daughters to bring up. My grandmother, I am told, would buy vegetables in Badlapur, a suburb of Bombay and sell them in the city, at Dadar station. While they had to struggle to make ends meet, my grandmother wanted to ensure that her daughters would be independent enough to make a living.
All the three were outstanding students who studied entirely through scholarships. My mother and my aunt did their college education with support from my father who was a fierce believer in the women’s’ education. After my father’s death, my mother brought us up to be independent. She made sure we would not suffer in case something happened to her. We were never told that certain things were for boys to do and other things for girls.
I worked with the same ease with a screwdriver as I did with a doll. My mother was a government servant and in a transferable job. As my sisters were both in university, they stayed on in Delhi with my aunt, while I moved with my mother. After Delhi she was transferred to Bombay and Calcutta as a Film Censor officer. So I did my 7th – 9th standard in Bombay, 10th in Calcutta and 11th in Delhi. I was never a good student and this shifting from school to school did not help my marks in the Higher Secondary examinations.”
Suhasini adds that her interest in cinema was sparked off by her mother’s involvement with the film society movement. She remembers how her mother would keep calling people long distance, requesting them to send prints of films from one city to another during a film festival. As a child, she had to collect mail everyday from the film society office on her way back from school. Before a film festival, she had to put about 500 invitations into envelopes and stick stamps to mail them to all members before a screening.
The screenings were open only to adults which meant that she saw many films standing in the projection booth. She remembers being shaken by Federico Fellini’s La Strada and Louis Mall’s Le Quatre Cinq Coup (Four Hundred Blows). Then she got hooked to films when she saw S. Sukhdev’s And Miles to Go.
Akka saw to it that her three daughters were very highly educated. The eldest Dr. Daya Verma, worked as a research scientist in biomedicine and was also director of the Women’s Research and Teaching Centre at McGill University in Montreal where she had migrated in 1965. The middle sister Bharati Sharma is a garment exporter who settled down in Delhi. Suhasini completed her two-year diploma in agricultural technology at the McGill University but went on to do a degree in mass communications from the same university and studied under John Grierson who ran the allied campaign against the Germans during World War ll.
Writes Film Society activist, film journalist and author V.K. Cherian who has dedicated an entire chapter to Akka in his book, India's film society movement: Its Journey and Impact “Akka worked with Marie Seton to ensure the formation of DFS, FFSI and spread of film society movement, from the Ministry of Education, in 50s and 60s, Film censor board, University Grants Commission, SITE, the first Indian Satellite TV experiment. Along with Ray and Chidananda Dasgupta, Akka in Delhi paved the red carpet of the government ensuring all government patronage to the budding FS movement.
From the formation of two pioneering societies, in Delhi and Patna to the formation of FFSI and all important land marks of FFSI to the growth of the movement, there is nothing which does not have an imprint of Akka. After the death of Satyajit Ray, he was also a onetime President of FFSI and also Vice President of FFSI, Northern region.” Cherian goes on to inform us that Vijaya Mulay was a member of communist party from her UK days and left it after 1964 or just before that.
“Hers was truly a life worthy of celebration! A fiesty lady if ever there was one, and a passionate film buff! One who my parents and I immediately recognized as a kindred spirit!,” writes filmmaker and actor Aparna Sen. She adds that Akka was a close friend of her parents, her father being another founder-activist of the film society movement in India.
“Akka was an exceptional woman! She was an author, a filmmaker, researcher, winner of National Awards for both her writing and her cinema, and close friend of great filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Louis Malle and the like,” Sen sums up.
Akka, when she was 95 but hale and hearty and bubbling with energy, said,” We all ( the English educated) inspired by Panditji to make a difference to India and did what ever we can to honour the tryst with destiny.. We never thought it will bear fruit but it was a mission we all undertook.” Anjum Katyal, editor, writer, translator and scholar, who worked with Akka on a book she had written, says, “What a remarkable lady and what a rich life.
The film society movement, the start of Indian documentary film and educational NCERT work, the friendships with Jean Renoir, Rossellini, Malle, Ray and so many others - her life spanned all this and more. I was privileged to know her while we worked on her book 'From Rajahs and Yogis to Gandhi and Beyond.'
One of her most memorable works was a manually animated film produced by Films Division called Ek, Anek and Ekta, which through a couple of birds , sings how it is possible to achieve great work if we all work together. The film introduced children to the concept of unity in diversity in a way that was incredibly easy to understand. It had a running time of only seven minutes but for those who had seen it, the film remained etched in their memories of childhood. The film was made in 1974 and this example appears in many of the tributes paid to Akka who did not know her but remember the film fondly.
She was 98 and had lived a full life and when she passed away, her daughter says it was only old age and no sickness that befell her.