An autobiography is meant to be a reflection on a life lived. At its best, an autobiography moves beyond the individual and becomes a record of a society, a culture, a community. An Unlikely Chemistry, an autobiography of a couple, is the story of one of the best known documentary filmmakers and media personalities in India—S Krishnaswamy and his partner and soul mate, Mohana.
The book is a loving tribute to the deep bond between the filmmaker and his scientist wife. He says: “I am writing the biography of the person dearest to me—my life”. Rarely does one encounter such magnanimity and generosity of spirit in male authors. Krishnaswamy and Mohana together created more than 200 non-fiction films and innumerable television serials, raised a family, supported each other through personal struggles and societal prejudice, and shared their fame and failures.
The book gives a detailed, chronological record of Krishnaswamy’s family background and Mohana’s struggle as a scientist till caste prejudice compels her to abandon her ambitions. Krishnaswamy comes from a family of filmmakers, and artists and his early influences were both spiritual and creative. He remains uncompromising in his commitment to political non-partisanship in his work, and as a husband never loses sight of his partner’s ambitions and personal needs.
Krishnaswamy shot to fame with his mammoth four-hour film Indus Valley to India Gandhi (released in 1976) that attempted to narrate 5,000 years of Indian history and culture. The film is considered a classic in the genre in terms of its scale, scholarship and creativity. As the film was released during the Emergency, it received its share of criticism and high praise.
A peek into such a life could have made an inspiring narrative, but the book is a dull record of a very interesting personal history. The internal conflicts, when mentioned, display dispassionate reflection. While the author constantly claims a politically balanced world-view, the strain of conservatism and brahminical assertion is unmistakable. Krishnaswamy talks about reverse casteism in Tamil Nadu that destroys his wife’s career as a scientist, he does not demonstrate an insightful understanding of how caste works (his vision is largely provincial) and remains the single most exploitative structure in India. The book clearly hints at the author’s Hindu bias.
In the final section of the book, reflecting on his commitment to what he calls ‘citizen thinking’, he says: “I was getting drawn to the BJP as being closest to my thinking”. Again, “Both Mohana and I don’t subscribe to the idea of secularism, because some of them equate secularism with atheism or agnosticism…”. Enough said.