A shattered dream: Past memories come to haunt Chendru’s present

Posted on November 18, 2007. Filed under: Article after shoot |

Chendru’s journey from Baster hinterland to international glory and back again to the confines of Baster is the ultimate story of short-lived fame.

 At 10 years of age, Chendru became a Celluloid star in Europe and now at 50, he toils as an on-today-off-tommorrow day labourer fighting for two square meals every day.

 A Muria tribal from the Bastar district of Madhya Pradesh, recalls memories of another day – of glitter and fame – which still come to haunt him. Chendru shot to international fame as a 10-year-old after starring in Oscar-winning movie the Jungle Saga by Swedish director Arne Sucksdorff’s – the very memories which nearly made him an outcast in his society and in turn making him a drunkard.

“These beads…necklaces…All gone now,” says a famished-looking Chendru sitting in front of his hut in Garh Bengal village of Bastar, looking fondly at a pictorial book on himself done by Arne’s then wife Astrid.

“I think I am bit like crazy,” Chendru, who became an overnight star in Sweden after acting in a lead role in the 90-minute film, says as he narrates the village folk’s reaction to his “star status” in a new documentary on him called Jungle Dreams made by Delhi-based film-maker couple Neelima and Pramod Mathur. 

Chendru, who brought back modern dresses and gadgets from Sweden to his village, where people still were “primitive” by European standards, became an object of curiosity among not only his own but also cityfolks who used to come to the village just to meet him. Chendru wanted to study too as once having seen “modern” life, he wanted to go out of his village existence. 

“I met Jawaharlal Nehru in Bombay, and he promised he would do something for me when I get educated. But my father did not allow me to,” reminisces the man who now either toils as a daily labourer or makes an effort to grow something on the small dry and hard patch of land he owns.

The Mathurs, veterans of nearly 30 years in documentary film-making, got to the subject quite accidentally when Pramod read an article about Chendru in a magazine, went to Chendru’s village and researched for one year before starting the project commissioned by German television network ZDF under a series titled 37 degrees

“When we went there, Chendru – wisened by the effects of short-lived glamour – interrogated us for three days to know our intentions, and only then relented. The film raises questions of humanism,” Pramod Mathur, who along with his wife made the famous Aisa Bhi Hota Hai series for Doordarshan once, said during the premier of Jungle Dreams recently in the Capital’s India International Centre.

“Chendru’s is a tragic character, but the tragedy is more as he is a living human being,” says tribal expert Niranjan Mahavir in the film which tells the viewers how the child star – constantly an object of curiosity for outsiders and of mockery for villagers due to his memories of the outside world – grew up to be an alcoholic escapist. 

“Many people used to come and see me…Even from Delhi during those days, but now it’s all gone,” says Chendru whom the villagers call a “Mandu” – a term used to loosely describe someone “lost in the dreams of drinks”.

According to the documentary, Chendru, whenever faced with the probability of coming face to face with a stranger from outside, would run in the opposite direction or climb on to a palm tree-top platform to hide – which is his mode of escaping the real world. 

However, young Chendru’s life, immediately after Jungle Saga – some excellent footage of which have been incorporated in Jungle Dreams – was released, was not as hard.

He was taken by the Sucksdorffs to Sweden where he stayed at their home for several months, touring the country, meeting people and enjoying the immense media attention.

“He was a very lovable kid and I decided on him for the main role. In fact, it was great…to direct them,” says Arne Sucksdorff, who had almost decided to adopt him.

“He was just like our child…I would have loved to have (adopted) him,” says Astrid, who photographed the boy during the shooting of her husband’s film to come out with a very popular pictorial docu-feature book named “Chendru”. 

However, as Arvind Shah – Sucksdorff’s assistant in the film – says, nothing came about from the move as the Swedish couple got divorced.

The tragedy of the dual existence in Chendru’s life – the memories of past glitter and the hard existence of the present, in fact, put the Mathurs in a bit of dilemma. 

“We had a post-production trauma – whether we were perpetrating what had happened to him 40 years ago. And we had to be careful in handling the theme, as the indigenous people are becoming cynical and even hostile (to film-makers etc) because now they know how they are used and projected in the media,” says Nilima Mathur.

Definitely, Chendru is not the only one in India, who bathed in a short spell of glamour only to go back to their origins shorn of all glitter.

Recent memory reminds one of at least two such cases, those of street child Shafique Siddique in Meera Nair’s Salaam Bombay and Raju in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha.

Published in Indian Express in 1998

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