Ritwik Baiju’s documentary on the unbreakable spirit of Jeevan Manoj

‘Jeevanulla Swapnangal’ salutes the spirit of Jeevan Manoj, who has Brittle Bone disease, and the people who ensure he lives life to the fullest

“My bones break, I don’t,” says Jeevan B Manoj, with that endearing smile of his. It was that positivity that filmmaker Ritwik Baiju wanted to capture in Jeevanulla Swapnangal, his documentary on the 28-year-old software engineer with Microsoft in Bengaluru.

“I have known him since the time we were children. And I have always wanted to make a film on the way he and his family have dealt with the fact that Jeevan has Osteogenesis Imperfecta (Brittle bone disease),” he explains.

Ritwik says of all the films he has shot till now, this is the one that is closest to his heart. He recalls how Jeevan’s family cooperated with the film crew and went out of their way to help them during the shooting at Jeevan’s parents home in Mayyanad in Kollam district, and in Bengaluru, where Jeevan stays.

Ritwik Baiju

Ritwik Baiju
 
| Photo Credit:
special arrangement

There were many who wanted to write about Jeevan or make a film on him but he was not all that keen, says psychologist and counsellor Tara Manoj, Jeevan’s mother. “It is now that he agreed to participate in a shoot. And that too because we wanted the film to be a motivation for viewers. In fact, recently, Jeevan went for a talk where he told the audience, ‘After I was born, doctors had told my parents that I would not survive, but here I am, talking to you about living life on my own terms’,” recalls Tara.

Negating reports that claimed that a scan, when Tara was seven months into her pregnancy, had revealed that her first born would have problems, she says that the family came to know that there might be a problem only a month before she was due. “My gynaecologist suspected that there might be a problem and that is when I went for a scan. It looked as if one of his legs was missing. It was a moment of turmoil for all of us. But two days later, I went into labour. Jeevan was born on April 24, 1991,” recalls Tara.

She was relieved when she saw that her newborn had both his legs but he had managed to tuck one of his legs next to his chest. “It remained like that for a few months till he let go of it on his own,” she laughs.

Jeevanulla Swapnangal has Tara and Manoj, an engineer, talking about their decision to ensure that, as much as possible, their son would have a normal life as any other boy.

“Even as a baby, Jeevan has always had a smile on his face. His determination to excel in whatever he set his mind on was evident to us. Jeevan has always surprised us with his abilities,” she says.

Tara Manoj with Jeevan Manoj

Tara Manoj with Jeevan Manoj  
| Photo Credit:
special arrangement

Her happiness is evident when she recalls her surprise one day when she found Jeevan at her doorstep, having travelled all the way on his own from his office. “Bengaluru is more inclusive than many places in Kerala and so Jeevan is more or less independent. I am waiting for the day when public spaces, restaurants and theatres in Kerala become inclusive,” she says.

Directed by Ritwik, the film zooms into Jeevan’s world and that of his parents, brother, friends and colleagues as they talk about their life with Jeevan. So, there are frames of Jeevan’s school at Mayyanad, TKM College of Engineering, Kollam, where Jeevan did his graduation in computer sciences, and also of his office in Bengaluru.

“This is no sob story but an ode to Jeevan and to his family and friends who continue to make sure that Jeevan lives life to the fullest,” adds Ritwick.

An associate of several leading filmmakers, Ritwik cut his teeth on Shyamaprasad’s Ritu. Ritwik’s short films on various themes have also helped him make his mark. But Jeevanulla Swapnangal, his 29-minute film, is quite a milestone for the aspiring feature filmmaker. Filmed by Aswin Nandakumar and edited by Aravind Manmadhan, the documentary has music by Sidhartha Pradeep and sound design by Anand Babu.

‘I DON’T COMPARE MYSELF WITH OTHERS’

Positivity is Jeevan Manoj’s middle name. In a candid interview, the software engineer talks about living independently and how he does not let his physical ailments hamper his myriad interests. Edited excerpts.

Reaching out

I felt that if a film on my life makes a positive impact on the lives of someone, that would be great. After I started working in Bengaluru, I had spoken at a few places about disability and inclusivity. I got the impression that my listeners were able to get a positive vibe after that. So I thought a film would garner a broader audience!

The reason for my smile

Certainly, the wonderful support system I have is a reason. I do have physical problems and there was pain but I had a lot of support in the best doctors and the best of care. So, I don’t have many sorrows in life. Moreover, I was born with this disability. So this is what I am used to. I don’t think I am missing anything. I don’t compare myself with others. And Amma’s influence is there. She always has a smile on her face. Maybe, I got it from her. There is no conscious effort on my part. This is who I am.

Accessibility and inclusivity

A lot of changes are needed all over India to make it inclusive. But Bengaluru, I think, is one of the most inclusive places in India because of the influence of a large number of IT firms that play an important role. They are very conscious and go out of their way to make their work spaces inclusive and disabled-friendly. For instance, in my office, there is no nook or corner I can’t go to on my wheelchair. If I point out any thing, before the end of the day, it would have been done. Those kind of international standards are missing in Kerala. However, even in Bengaluru, not all restaurants and public spaces are wheelchair-friendly but the difference is that they make an effort. Even if there is a ramp missing at a hotel, as soon as they see me or I make a request, they will immediately bring a makeshift one to place it over the steps or passers-by and staff lift me up and place me inside. Fortunately, at 25 kg, I am not all that heavy. In cities in Kerala, I don’t think there are all that many differently-abled people going out with friends to theatres or hangouts. Uber Access, which is disabled friendly, is there in Bengaluru. Hopefully, it will come to Kerala soon.

Biggest challenge

Moving away from Kerala to Bengaluru was the biggest challenge. Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam are my comfort zones because I have doctors and family to support me. So when I said I would like to move to Bengaluru and take up my campus placement, there were some who told me I would be troubling my parents who would have to shift to Bengaluru with me. Obviously, it was possible because they did not ever see it as trouble. We did not know the place or people there. We just moved there and started from scratch. It was a leap of faith. It was very scary when I look back.

Bangalore Days

Never regretted the decision to move there, so far. I really enjoy it because I can go out on my own. My apartment is completely accessible to me. It has been a dream to be independent and that has become possible now. I hangout with friends, go to pubs, concerts and restaurants. PVR has now kept apart a few seats for the disabled.

Weight training

It started when I was preparing for my engineering. Those heavy guides I had to heft around set me on that path. I know my limits when I exercise, I really enjoy that. One of the keys to a healthy mind is a healthy body. It is a positive feeling.

Playing the guitar

I don’t think I have that natural inclination for music but it is out of interest that I am learning the guitar. But I am happy when I am able to play a number.

The message

‘If he can, I can also do it…’ I hope that is what people will take away from this film. I asked that during a talk organised by ‘One step at a time’, an NGO that supports amputees. I said: “If I can do it, what is your excuse?’

The documentary will be premiered at 9 am today at Kalabhavan, Vazhuthacaud.

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