A couple living in defiance of society, trying to make ends meet; a rootless, rustic simpleton unaware of his responsibilities; a selfish, middle-aged man clinging to old feudal ways; an ex-revolutionary wasting himself, sleeping and eating and drinking, much to the disgust of his old comrades; a writer who finds the true meaning of love and freedom in prison; and a prostitute discovering love only to be separated from her lover by the guardians of society.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s characters are drawn from real people, real lives. His cinema manages to frame details that often escape our everyday glance, turning the mundane into the magical, the commonplace into the starling. Yet, very little is known about the auteur.
In Adoor Gopalakrishnan: a Life in Cinema, the first authorized biography of the Dada Saheb Phalke Award winner, Gautaman Bhaskaran traces the ebbs and flows of the life of this enigmatic director. From his birth during the Quit India movement to his lonely childhood at his uncles’ house; from life at Gandhigram, where Adoor studied economics and politics, to his days and nights at the Pune Film Institute; and from his first film, Swayamvaram, to his latest, Oru Pennum Rantaamum, Bhaskaran’s lucid narrative tracks the twists and turns of Gopalakrishnan’s life, finding an uncommon man and a rare auteur.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is journalist and writer, having worked in two of India’s best regarded daily newspapers, The Statesman and The Hindu, for thirty-five years. Now Editor South Asia for South Korea’s The Seoul Times, he also writes for a variety of other publications across the globe; Hindustan Times and The Week in India, Gulf Times and Gulf News in West Asia, The Japan Times in Japan, and Sight and Sound and Screen International in Britain. He covers major international film festivals, including Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Tokyo, Deauville, Marrakech, Dubai and several in India. He teaches cinema at Manipal University and English at Chennai’s Loyola College. He lives in Chennai with his wife, and has a son.
A journalist is turning a biographer with this book. Not an easy proposition, though many may think otherwise. In fact, there is nothing in common with the professional demands of a journalist’s pursuit here. A newspaper ‘story’ is for quick and casual consumption. One’s skills are directed towards filling the allotted columns as a deadline hangs like a threat and a test. With the day’s newspaper on the stands, yesterday’s hot story is already old and cold.
A book, on the other hand, can make claims to a permanence of sorts. Once bought (even borrowed), it enjoys a special space on the reading table, as well as your travel bag, and before long it gets elevated to the shelf rubbing covers with others in seemingly safe preservation.
A book, no wonder, saddles the author with multiple responsibilities. Most importantly, its significance should survive the publication of another book on the same subject. In fact, a good biography should stand the scrutiny of authenticity, be rich in its material, and original in its observations, providing a firm ground for further study and analysis.
Even a detailed and painstakingly written book on an author or artist can fall short of being complete in every respect as there is always scope for further probe and understanding.
Articulation is not always the gift an artist has, as he or she reveals mostly through his or her art. While being a good listener, I must admit, I am a reluctant talker. In writing this book, Mr Gautaman Bhaskaran has mostly depended on my talk. Never before have I talked so much in my life, definitely not about myself.
The second part of this book deals with my films individually. It gives vital information about the making of each film along with some important details.
Gautaman has done well in not trying to be analytical about the films. It needs to be conceded that most of my films do not lend themselves to simple paraphrasing. Their ambition extends beyond mere storytelling. A wrong stress on any aspect of its thematic concerns can lead the reader astray. For instance, to approach Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill) as a film against capital punishment would be too simplistic.
This book, I believe, will throw some light on my life and work. And I am happy it does as much.
It was many years ago that I met Gopalakrishnan from Adoor. It was so long ago that I do not remember when. I do not even recollect my first meeting with this auteur— director. But it was not at Adoor, where he was born. No, certainly not.
There is one meeting I remember distinctly. On a cold winter morning at New Delhi’s Sin Fort, I ran into him. Literally. I was rushing in to catch the first movie of the day during the International Film Festival of India, which that year had returned to the capital, an alternate year stop for this gypsy event that has since then found a permanent home in Panaji.
Gopalakrishnan was beaming, his face lit up by the shy warmth of the early morning sun. As we exchanged greetings, he looked at me and asked, ‘Gautaman, how come you look younger every time I see you?’ I did not even pause to think before the words flew out of me. ‘The magic of cinema, sir,’ I said. And we laughed, ‘both of us enslaved by the same overwhelming passion.
Years later, Gopalakrishnan has still not lost his sense of humour or the tinkle in his laughter. He can laugh like a child, oblivious of the world. In a Chennai hotel months ago, during one of my innumerable sessions with him for this biography, a telephone call from his wife interrupted our conversation. A few minutes later, I saw him burst out laughing, and he continued laughing for what seemed like a long time. He told me later that a prank by his grandson, Tashi—who is living with his police-officer parents in Maharashtra—had virtually tickled him out of shape. The two-year-old boy had jumped off a table and bruised his knee, and when the doctor came to take a look at him, Tashi was all set to re-enact his feat! The lad was already into his first movie takes!
Gopalakrishnan’s cinema is often filled with humour that is neither lurid nor loud. Narayanan in Naalu Pennungal (Four Women) is such a glutton that we cannot help laughing at his undivided attention to his food-filled banana leaf, and the wit is so subtle and British I would think. Above all, it can be an effective way of building a character. At France’s Deauville, where this film was screened in March 2008, 1 saw an essentially French audience enjoy Narayanan’s tryst with food even as they empathized with Kumari’s and Kamakshi’s plight in the same work.
His work draws universal appreciation. Whether it is his native Kerala, where he was born and where he grew up to make his first movies or Europe or America, his work is loved. For it talks about you and me. Often his hero is an ordinary man, like Sankarankutty in Kodiyettam (The Ascent), balding and shabbily attired. A simpleton, whom one writer called ‘Peter Pan’. Or, it can be Ajayan in Anantaram (Monologue), defeated by an illness, or it may even be Kaliyappan in Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill), reluctant to execute and guilt- ridden. These are men who do not exactly fit into the general celluloid concept of a hero, and they can be there out on the streets, one among the millions, faceless and maybe fractured, not flawed. When they are transported to the screen, they get a name, a face, a personality, and they help spin a yarn.
But the yarn can be a mere excuse to probe the complexities of the larger community. Kathapurushan (The Man of the
Story) documents the history of the period it is set in, and we see social and political developments through the eyes of the film’s protagonist. Mathilukal (The Walls) takes us into a jail during the British Raj, and a canvas of relationships between the prisoners and the police and among the inmates themselves is presented in its stark reality. No grease paint and artifice here.
One of the most critically acclaimed directors after Satyajit Ray, Gopalakrishan’s cinema is rooted in the Kerala milieu and often mirrors the community’s concerns. He goes into its history—though usually not beyond the 1940s, the period he understands best for that is the one he has lived through—to elaborate social situations and orders. To explain these, he examines the individual minutely: his pains and pleasures are laid bare. Gopalakrishnan saw the decline of feudalism, and he showed us how clinging to its vestiges could ruin men like Unni in Elippathayam (The Rat-Trap) and Bhaskara Patelar in Vidheyan (The Servile).
Many of his male characters are weak, typical of this transitional period, when men were unsure of themselves, and just did not know what lay ahead. Unni is a good example of this. So is Sankarankutty in Kodiyettam (The Ascent). However, he moves from being a listless and lazy wastrel to a responsible and aware husband and father. Again, Mukhamukham’s (Face to Face) Sreedharan turns from a revered hero to a despicable drunkard.
Gopalakrishnan’s cinema is subtle, yet forceful. Adoor has told me several times that he is a reluctant speaker, and this unwillingness to speak much is apparent in his work. A lot is left unsaid. We do now know why the couple in Swayamvaram (One’s Own Choice) had to elope. Do they not have friends who could have helped them with money in their troubled days? Whom does Sridevi in Elippathayam run away with? We can only guess.
The Marxists were very uncomfortable with Gopalakrishnan’s silence when he was shooting MukhaMukham. They read meanings into it. However, this turned out to be his most widely commented work, and the director talked and gave detailed explanations, telling his critics that it was not a political movie. Rather, it was a story of a human being. But not everybody was convinced, and the noted film critic, the late Iqbal Masud, wrote: ‘He (Sreedharan) is an individual in the process of disintegrating, and this is conveyed so powerfully that one sees in his ruined face and body, the ruins of a once- bright Communism.’
In Vidheyan, Saroja could have so easily raved and ranted at her husband’s philandering and monstrous ways. But she does nothing of the sort. Instead, she is seen as her husband Patelar’s quiet conscience. The effect of this is delicate yet telling, and even a brute like Patelar is agonized over the possibility of his wife having seen him as he kills her. Interestingly, such subtlety comes from a man who spent all his youth dreaming of the stage—writing plays, performing in them and reading about them for a whole year when he was supposed to be learning cinema!
Added to this, Gopalakrishan’s family was a patron of Kathakali. The family supported and maintained troupes. Yet, his cinema turned out to be a sheer visual experience, shorn of dramatic exaggeration that we see in many Indian films. Understated and multi-layered, his movies may appear simple at first. Often intricately woven, his stories cover a wide gamut of plots from unconventional relationships to schizophrenia to guilt to crime and sexual mores.
And when accolades came to him, including France’s Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2004, the Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 2005 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2006, they only seconded what every common man and woman, who has seen Gopalakrishnan’s cinema, has long known. The man’s work is fascinating.
It has been my endeavour to illuminate all this in this hook. I have tried to make it descriptive and informative work. As the first full-length biography of Adoor Gopalakrishnan in English, the book’s reach would hopefully extend beyond the Kerala borders and whet the appetite for his cinema.
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