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The Writer Whose Biopic Vidya Balan Pulled Out Of Was A Fiery Feminist Who Embraced Islam

A woman of many parts.

12/01/2017 11:44 AM IST | Updated 12/01/2017 4:38 PM IST
Eric Gaillard / Reuters

She was totally badass but was also full of ambiguities. And we could just see Vidya Balan, with her intense stare and no-nonsense swag, transform into Kamala Das, the firebrand feminist writer, in the biopic that is being made about her.

But alas that's not meant to be, since the actor has walked out of the movie citing differences in opinion with the director, Kamaluddin Muhammed, also known as Kamal. It was speculated that the reason behind Balan's walkout is Kamal's recent brush with the Hindu rightwing. The actor wanted to avoid trouble — it's easy enough for it to erupt these days — but Balan's publicity team has denied any such rumour. With the leading lady gone, the fate of Aami now hangs uncertain.

But what made Kamala Das turned Kamala Surayya such a figure of controversy?

To be fair, it wasn't just her writing that made her notorious. The life that she lead, the several avatars she adopted and discarded, the political beliefs she held — all came together to turn her into a figure of extraordinary strength as well as vulnerability.

Born in 1934 to VM Nair, who worked with the daily Mathrubhumi, and Nalapat Balamani Amma, a Malayali poet of repute, Kamala was married to Madhava Das, who encouraged her writing career. She wrote in both Malayalam and English. Her poems, which were charged with an erotic energy not commonly found among her contemporaries, drew the attention of the public. One of the most popular, 'The Looking Glass', goes:

... Gift him all,
Gift him what makes you woman, the scent of
Long hair, the musk of sweat between the breasts,
The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your
Endless female hungers...

Das's literary legacy was at best mixed. She wrote too much, too hurriedly, often without letting raw emotions crystallise into finer feelings. Apart from poems and prose in English, she wrote in Malayalam under the pseudonym Madhavikutty, one of the several identities she embraced along the way.

But her most dramatic self-fashioning came with her conversion to Islam towards the end of her life. She changed her name to Kamala Surayya, started wearing the burqa, took the purdah and sang praises of Allah, having moved on from her one-beloved Lord Krishna. In a communally sensitive society like India, the uproar that followed her decision was not hard to guess.

In her late 60s, Das launched a political outfit called Lok Seva Party, travelled all over Kerala, canvassing for votes. "I have given truth a special status in my life. So it pains me when our political parties continue in the most degenerated forms," she said in an interview. She was inspired to start the party by "God. My Allah". "We all have some god within us. It is Allah for me. It may be Jesus Christ for you," she added. She lost the elections eventually.

Feisty till the end of her life in spite of nearly losing her eyesight due to diabetes, Kamala Das died in 2009 at the age of 75. For a more detailed exploration of her life and writings, go here.

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