`A constant process of discovery'

Print edition : October 07, 2005

Interview with Adoor Gopalakrishnan, winner of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award.

Swayamvaram Adoor Gopalakrishnan Swayamvaram

But right from his debut, Adoor showed that ethics were as important to him as aesthetics. Of course, he did not hammer them in. He was lucky to have a reliable lensman in Mangada Rama Varma. His work made a fascinating contrast to G. Aravindan's epic style. Elipatthayam (1981) and Mathilukkal (1989) had Adoor playing wholly different music.

The latter is his most heart-warming film, where viewers forget the star (Mammootty) and see the character: Kerala's loved and lionised writer, Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. Elipatthayam framed a feudal lord gone to seed, a rodent trapped in decadence. Dauntingly sophisticated in form, the film went on to win accolades for the director's command of the medium. Adoor found himself among international auteurs. National and regional awards came with every film, as did honours abroad, and retrospectives in numerous international festivals.

Adoor is yet to make a film with a woman protagonist, though women are not unimportant in his stories. In Vidheyan (1993), he places the emigrant settler Thommi, and his arrogant overlord Pattelar, between their wives. Sarojakka becomes Pattelar's conscience that must be stilled, while Omana becomes dearer to Thommi because she has slept with Pattelar.

Responsibility is an important theme in Adoor's work. The search for freedom and fraternity is another, though the journey does not end in utopia. This dream makes life worth living, its absence is stagnation. That is what Kathapurushan (1995) seems to say, as orphaned Kunjunni tries to find solutions in political ideologies, his disillusionment not without hope. In Nizhalkuthu (2003), Adoor weaves fantasy and fairy tale into a screeching reality in which the hangman's tale intersects with the hanged man's tale.

Adoor refuses to repeat himself. An unhurried filmmaker, he launches projects only when he is ready. Though he began to make documentaries as a means of survival in the lean years, his records of Kathakali and Koodiyattom are masterworks of their kind. They show his familiarity with the aesthetics and techniques of the classical genres and their gurus. The documentaries reflect Adoor's rootedness in his milieu. You also see humility, a valuable springboard for creativity. Excerpts from the interview he gave Gowri Ramnarayan:

Adoor Gopalakrishnan at his residence in Thiruvananthapuram.-SHAJU JOHN

Can we start with a conventional question? How do you feel about getting the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for lifetime achievement in cinema?

The other day a man came up to me at the airport and said "Congratulations for getting the Palkhiwala Award." I said thank you. Didn't correct him. Palkhiwala or Phalke, it didn't make a difference to him. Mind you, he was a well-dressed, educated person. We think that everybody knows everything about what concerns us. Need not be so. Anyway, for a lot of people the Phalke-Palkhiwala award is just a day's news, to be glanced at and forgotten.

You were a full-fledged theatre man who had written, directed, produced and published over a dozen plays. How did you make that switch from stage to screen?

When I look back at all that playwrighting now, I feel embarrassed. Somebody called me recently and said he wanted to produce one of those plays. I said no.

Why? Were they so bad?

I produced my last play in 1974, after making my first film Swayamvaram. No, they were not bad. They were strong plays, written with conviction. I read a whole range of plays in Malayalam and English. My understanding of the theatre was concentrated, focussed. They were all right at that time. I remember feeling very proud of them. When you're young and you write something you think the whole world is reading it, applauding it. Strange notions we all have...

When did you know that you wanted to be a filmmaker?

I landed up at the Pune Film and Television Institute by accident. When I left the Institute I knew that I wanted to make my living as a filmmaker. I slowly learnt this language of cinema by exposing myself to works both simple and complex, in every style. I attended international film festivals held in Delhi. I liked to look at everything, Indian cinema, world cinema, see how they were put together, what went into them.

A scene from Elipatthayam, which won the British Film Institute Award for the most original and imaginative film in 1982.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Elipatthayam You hate (Ingmar) Bergman don't you?

Who told you that? The idea of hating someone or something is not in my character. Right from childhood, when I had differences of opinion with others, I believed that they had a right to their point of view. It was Ritwick Ghatak who didn't like Bergman. He was a great admirer of that Spanish filmmaker, Luis Bunuel. Ghatak was my teacher at the film Institute, and no, I was not close to him.

Was he a difficult man?

(Laughing) No, I was too shy. I spent all my time out of class in the reading room.

I think you have that problem even now, don't you? But how can a filmmaker be shy? He has to interact with people all the time, cajole them to do their best.

Yes, I continue to be shy. I tell myself, you are an introvert struggling to become an extrovert. But there's another side to this... problem you called it. See, the real work of cinema is in the shooting. You always have to do it in the midst of a crowd. Outdoors, it can be a hundred onlookers. Indoors, you still have your technicians around. It's not a silent, private activity. But you have to forget the noise and bustle to do your work. Think of the concentration it demands. It's not just me; it's the nature of filmmaking itself. We have to be inward-turned but appear to be extroverts.

So shyness may be a virtue after all! Maybe it helps to absorb more, unobtrusively, and retain it.

I appreciate good films from anywhere. But ultimately you have to look at your own reality, your own ethos, assimilate that. Creation is fraught with problems anyhow. Unless your audience is familiar with the way life is lived in your part of the world, it is going to miss quite a lot in your films. Even for our own people the models are all from the West now.

Yes, you've talked about the disadvantages of being a south Indian filmmaker.

[British film critic] Derek Malcolm said that although he appreciated my films, he thought that the world saw north India as India, and was quite ignorant about the south.

But Elipatthayam, your most difficult film to date, won the British Film Institute Award for the most original and imaginative film (1982). You were the first Indian to get it after Satyajit Ray.

Yes, that's because of the sophistication in structure, which our people may not be aware of as much, though even in Kerala there are those who love it most among my films.

The casting was brilliant. The protagonist begins to look like a rat himself, trapped in the stasis of deadwood feudalism.

Casting is all. Get it right and everything goes right. The man (Janardhanan Nair) who played Unni was my friend. We had worked together in the theatre. He had prominent bulging eyes. We used lenses to enhance them; you get foreground distortion with a wide-angle lens close to the face. We shot the film in reverse order. I starved him. He was on liquids when we began shooting the last sequences, I gave him solid food by degrees, as we progressed.

In Anantaram, the theme of perception is dealt with through the protagonist, a youth who, like Adoor, is both an introvert and an extrovert at the same time.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Anantaram

So two babies to be mothered, the film and the actor. Were you not scared of alienating the viewer with the sluggish pace in Elipatthayam?

If you talk about a person who does nothing, it has to be slow-paced. I was not scared. [Laughing] I was very bold.

That film is set in the vanishing world of the landed gentry to which you belong. So you must have been scared of what you revealed of yourself. In fact, that fear must be there with every film.

Yes, every one of my films is autobiographical. Not fully, of course. But they take off from the real at some level. Then they observe their own aesthetic rules. Keep on [talking] about yourself and you'll bore people. You have to universalise that personal experience, make it different, vary it, change it, add to it. I insist on a simple experience in every one of my films, so that people can enter it easily. Storytelling can draw everyone in. After that, I build the layers which need more participation and attention. Filmmaking is a constant process of discovery as much as self-revelation, for you and for me. Ultimately, you are what you do.

So, with each film you become more introspective.

As you go on living, you learn through natural experience. Filmmaking speeds up this process of learning.

Yes, because you are learning about the fictional people you create and the real people you work with. It demands a double vision. Which film of yours has satisfied you most?

I don't assess my own work. I only know that I struggle to transcend the plasticity of the images, the concreteness of images and sounds.

This must call for detachment, difficult when you deal with human emotions in turmoil, which is what cinema is all about.

Yes, you are both attached and detached. You must feel the flux and also the stillness. It may sound philosophical, but a filmmaker must be like an actor. The actor is highly charged in the murder scene, but he can't actually stab anyone. So he lives his life and acts his role simultaneously. I too have to walk that tightrope.

Your Anantaram was poignant, but not too well received.

It was not rejected either. People got a bit confused when they saw there was more to come just when they thought the story was over. Anantaram is basically about perceptions. About a young, impressionable boy who is an introvert and an extrovert at the same time. You will say he's like me. My treatment was not very familiar, though I was searching for the familiar experience of growing up, struggling with life and relationships. What is in the frame and what is juxtaposed to it just outside the frame... or let us put it this way, it has to do with attuning to the reality just beyond perception. Actually this is part of daily experience though we don't analyse it.

All good cinema is engaged in this search...

Cinema is not completely worked out on the screen. It has devices to take us to a certain experience and leave us there. It is like literature, where the words on the page disappear after a point, leaving us with the experience itself. Of course, your relating to that experience depends on the level of understanding you have of life.

How did you react to controversies?

They did bother me. Much of it seems pointless, but it would have been worse if the films had not provoked strong response. In a way, the objections testify to the films' impact. Most people who attacked Mukhamukham did not understand what it was about. I expected healthy debate, not conditioned responses.

You must admit that Mukhamukham is a tricky film, especially for a State with a dominant Communist presence. Lost trade union leader and party hero Sreedharan turns up years later, under a different political climate, now an ineffectual drunkard. Murdered, he is resurrected through documents and personal memories. We never know how much of him is real, how much is imaginary. Did you?

In Elipatthayam the form is complex, but you know everything about the protagonist. After that I wanted to make a film to see how much you don't know about a character - a challenge. Even at the end you don't know much about Sreedharan. You suspect that even his name may not be real. The film is based on historical fact and social reality. When the Communist Party went underground, many changed their names and resurfaced as totally different persons. My film is about one such man. It's not about the party or politics, it's about an individual.

You had a tiff with Paul Zachariah over Vidheyan, your adaptation of his novella. He said you tainted his story with Hindutva.

Zachariah and I had no real difference of opinion. May be he wanted to kick up some controversy. [Smiling] I don't mind this kind of mischief in a very good writer.

Who is the `Kathapurushan' (hero) in Kathapurushan - Kunjunni or the director? Wasn't his longing for ideals - Gandhian or Maoist - to cure all social evils, part of your personal growth?

There's a part of me in the film, yes. It is an emotional journey into personal history going in and out of the socio-political milieu. The characters were not exactly modelled after family members. I'd say they are an amalgam of many persons I know. Even Kunjunni is not one person. He has elements pulled in from many sources. It is not enough to assemble ideas, the characters must be made credible on the screen.

Isn't it paradoxical that you keep harping on the need to communicate to people through your films, but don't make a single concession to popular taste?

I want to communicate to them on my own terms, not on theirs. I make no concessions because I respect their intelligence. They too should respect me.

Why did you not start making films as soon as you got out of the Film Institute? Did you give yourself a break because you were uncertain about your goals?

I knew that it would be difficult to make the kind of films I wanted to make. We had to abandon my first film project after 4-5 days of shooting. No funds. The script was not mine. Then there were problems because of my lack of understanding, I had to learn to make films as I went along, the hard way. It's not what you learn at the Institute. But those seven years before I made Swayamvaram were not wasted or inactive. I launched a film society movement, wrote plays, I was trying to make something happen, not waiting for a windfall. I said I'd allow myself five years of struggle. When they ended I said another five years... if nothing happened I'd change tracks. I had to make ends meet, make a living somehow.

But you came from a well-to-do family.

Not well-to-do enough for me not to do anything. My brother supported me through those six years. I was offered many jobs. I said no.

Your brother must be a remarkable man.

[Laughing] Yes. He is a wonderful person. The fact that I said no to every other job must be because I knew that I wanted to live as a filmmaker. I remembered how K.A. Abbas had seen the script I had written at the FTII and commented to my professor: "If a student can write such scripts, your institute must be a good one." I started making documentaries to get going.

You don't like using symbols in your work. But doesn't the Kathakali theatre that you grew up with thrive on them?

Traditional art forms cannot be transferred into cinema. I don't do it. Symbols are easy, commonplace, they stand for abstractions. This method is too direct for me. I want to get at ideas through what is palpable in terms of visuals and sounds. Experience is at the core of my filmmaking. Take my use of the colour red in Mukhamukham. It is not the party colour. It has other significances from revolt to a whole way of looking at life.

Has advertising changed the way films are made?

It has changed the way people look at films, yes, and what they expect on the screen. Even television has done that. Doesn't affect my work. I have discretion, my views have been formed already. It can affect young, unformed minds, make them think that on the screen everything has to be slick, look like silk. They say the attention span of the audience is vastly reduced... I still make my films in my way.

Why did you become a vegetarian?

Because I felt that the body does not require meat. I won't deny an element of renunciation.

Why do you avoid scenes of violence? In Mathilukkal the prisoner is hanged off screen. We only hear about it. In Vidheyan you show Bhaskara Pattelar's savagery by showing the reactions on the onlookers faces, rather than the act of thrashing itself.

At the start of this talk, I said I don't hate anything. Not true. I hate violence. Can't stand it. I'm too soft even to watch bloodshed on the screen.

What about sex? [Mischievously] Don't mind it.

Like Satyajit Ray, you too have avoided outright sex in your films.

It's beautiful when it's hinted at. What is good about anything explicit?

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