Gifted Brothers - Left: Shankar Nag - Director and Actor. Right: Ananth Nag - Actor
"Vendor of Sweets" - 1986 T.V serial . Back-to-back 8 episodes may be viewed as an extended movie. Crafted from the collection of stories in R.K.Narayan’s "Malgudi Days".
Director : Shankar Nag.
Main Thespian : Anant Nag.
Cumulative Runtime- 140 mins approx. The version viewed, was recorded in chaste Hindi.
Rating : 5 stars out of 5 (Masterpiece, subtly powered by Shankar Nag's performance, guided by his brother Shankar Nag)
Written in March 2012.
As the story unfolds, we are introduced to Jagan , the aged eponymous protagonist. His shop ,which vends sweets, has a turnover of Rs.1000/- per month- a hefty amount in the 1970s -the period when this story presumably transpires. Jagan assiduously stores his savings with no major investments planned. He is the soul of austerity, wears simple attire and proudly subscribes to Gandhian ideals of self-sufficiency simple living and high thinking. He cooks his own food, reveals that he has given up rice and sugar years ago and soon intends to abjure salt as well. For worldly aspirations it seems Jagan has little affiliation except for the fact that he is a prosperous business man who isn’t too keen to cough up the requisite due on sales tax as Gandhi had not explicitly expressed his views on this matter!
He has a son - Malli - for whom he has high hopes. For his ally, there is a rotund bald-except-for-the-pigtail well-meaning man who deals in cheeky banter roams all around town doing odd jobs, collects hot news, and often dives into his older pal’s shop for a free munching of sweets. This then is the initial tapestry which which the Vendor of Sweets unspools its yarn. It is an excellent example of the storytelling of R.K.Narayan- one of India’s earliest and truest literary luminaries in English. Narayan’s oeuvre is deceptively simple,packed with the deep flavour of life in an Indian town ,with inimitable characters making their memorable mark. The ordinary is the template on which he crafts extraordinary narratives.
As this tale proceeds into its sunset stages, there seems to be no resolution of conflict, no tidying up of loose ends.By the time Vendor of Sweets winds to a close, the sweetness seems to have dissipated ,but what handsomely remains is an eclectic flavour distilled by the past, tempered by the present, and hoping to weather the future.
Right off the bat,it is shown that Malli is training himself to fit the role of a thoughtless scoundrel. His mother’s influence has long ceased to exist, and now he spurns his father’s kind overtures, and soon professes ambition to be a writer . Given how capricious and shallow he seems, it is interesting to wonder what his quill will churn out. Soon it seems that the homeland is not fertile enough for Malli to cultivate literary gold, so he filches Dad’s money to go the U.S of A. Daddy dear is consternated to hear this especially when his portly pal saucliy paints a depraved picture of the Land of the Free. "What?!" Jagan exclaims, "He’s going to America to learn the art of storytelling when he could have learnt the same from our village’s grandmothers?! Did Valmiki, before writing Ramayana ,go to the U.S or Germany?!"
Amusing incidents ensue as the adventures of Malli in USA are read by the father in various missives. Jagan’s mental strength and beliefs are put to severe test when he sees who Malli has brought back from his innings abroad. Malli goes onto to plumb his nadir by producing a cock-’n’-bull story-writing machine that gravely brings into question his psychiatric fitness. Jagan endures these jolts often with a gentlemanly largeness of heart which among other contexts, exemplifies how our nation has altruistically tolerated the currents of change down the ages. In sepia-tinted flashback ,Jagan’s youth is depicted- the protocol of marriage, playful shenanigans with his young wife and brave forays into the struggle for Indian independence from the British.
Malgudi Days has been rightly hailed as as one of the best Indian T.V serials to air in the 1980s. Its director -noted Kannada actor Shankar Nag who suffered a premature demise-shows accomplished skill at transcribing the written work. For starring in the featured role, he brings in his brother Anath Nag- a famous Kannada film actor with natural thespain finesse and ample charm. A.N slips into this role of an elderly man with endearing pizzazz and poignancy. Vignettes of his youth, shown in flashback, convincingly come across as a phase at least three decades removed from the present. Be it portraying the stoical but kind-hearted mind of an aging man, or essaying the chutzpah and cheek of a youngster, Anant Nag is superb in fulfilling the requirements of the role.
The lack of complexity in Malli’s character is perhaps a questionable aspect. There is only one woman in the story whose emotional dynamics are relevant to the narrative- thankfully she is not reduced to a wooden stereotype, but a more competent actress would have succeeded better in conveying the disconnected dysphoria of her situation.
Though the cinematography is not extraordinary, it is of a respectable standard. As for the reduced definiton in pictoral acuity, one may contend that it serves well in sketching a mofussil Indian town. Sound design,evoking the milieu of streets and the wistful calls of birds in the verdure,is another asset. The dialogue is highly literate and chaste- an adeptly Sanskritised form of Hindi that is a joy to listen to.
R.K Narayan has been criticized by some for having too simple a style (he once joked that he was denied the Nobel prize because everybody understood his writing!) and for not adequately tackling issues like sex. Sexual matters no doubt make for juicy reading but must every author adorn his oeuvre with this carnal feather? As for the former complaint, one notes that beneath many of Narayan’s stories’ simple surfaces, there are exquisite currents of perspective humour and wisdom that are unwittingly deficient in the the works of those who get lost in the thickets of literary stunts. Narayan owes gratitude here to Shankar Nag who has keenly understood and projected the essence and nuance of Malgudi Days.
Vendor of Sweets as a T.V serial, is consummately effective in gathering empathy for its protagonist. Past is contrasted with the present to show how different the nature and motivations of father and son are. The flow of Malli’s life is precluded by its eddies,while his father’s course mirrors a lake wherein repeated ripples eventually subside into composure . Arduous academics, ill-fated personal life, rancour from his son and family all conspire to rob the happiness from Jagan’s life, yet through all this he remains virtuous and disciplined. He is neither pusillanimous nor a giant, just a good man whose inner life will withstand the climate of the outer one.
As he sets out towards the end of this story, on a liberating walk, his well-wisher tumbles into his path with another batch of dark tidings...Jagan is crestfallen upon receipt of this intelligence but only momentarily... There seems to be no end to the worldly tribulations and ongoing vexations, but there is an emerging sense of balance in him, a ray of enlightened poise which appears to to be the best hope for restoring peace of mind.
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