Interview: Adoor Gopalakrishnan

‘Cinema is my life’

Print edition : October 28, 2016

Adoor Gopalakrishnan during the celebration of his 50 years in Indian cinema with the national release of "Pinneyum", in Mumbai on August 16. Photo: Santosh Hirlekar /PTI

Interview with Adoor Gopalakrishnan, film-maker.

THE effect of an Adoor Gopalakrishnan film on the viewer is like ripples in a pond. The pebble that is dropped into the still waters disappears from view, but the ripples spread, course midstream and then kiss the shore. Not a word spoken, nothing uttered that would fail to improve upon the beauty of silence. Not for Adoor the mundane task of stating the obvious. Films, for him, are all about the art of the unstated. Never can a viewer accuse him of making his blood curdle with scenes of gore; symbolism is all that matters to Adoor.

Rather than saying it with guns and bullets, he uses the eyes of bystanders, the trembling fingers of the affected, the shadows of the vanquisher and the vanquished. Or maybe, a little red flag here to show communism or a sickle there to project labour unrest. A rocking chair left shaking denotes the passing away of the aged. Lights, shadows, even background music, all combine to relate the story he wants to tell. Interestingly, for all his perfectionism, he does not share his story with his characters, believing that actors are but clay in the hands of the director.

For 50 years, across 12 films, he has been wooing us with understatement that seems to come naturally to him. And, he is a remarkably fast film-maker: he wrapped up his latest, Pinneyum, in 23 days!

Unlike many of his contemporaries who have receded into the background, Adoor continues to go strong. Reason? His ability to move with the times and adopt the latest technology. For instance, Pinneyum is a work of digital technology, a novelty, Adoor concedes, which saves much labour and a lot of anxiety. Unlike many of his films that have graced the film festival circuit for long, this time he opted for the national release of the film. Despite the presence of the stars Dileep and Kavya Madhavan, Pinneyum was marketed as a quintessential director’s film.

“Films are my livelihood. That is all I do. These days, I am so busy with requests for screenings, special shows, interviews, etc.,” he said in a telephonic chat minutes before boarding the flight to Toronto where his film was screened to a rapturous response. A little after the trip, he took more questions and answered them in his inimitable style. Excerpts from the interview:

Pinneyum came almost eight years after your last film. What kept you away for so long?

Normally it takes a long time for me to wean myself away from the influence of a film I have completed. One is kept conscious of it as it gets screened around, talked about, reviewed, commented on, discussed and also criticised. It often becomes obligatory to answer questions from viewers while it is being shown around on festival circuits.

I live with each of my films for a long time—from the germination of the idea through its growth into a story, plot and then the introduction of characters and scenes and ultimately the final script with all the essential details like time, place, location, etc. The whole exercise takes a minimum of two to three years. The longest wait usually is for an idea that is exciting, topically relevant and one which holds within itself the potential to be developed into a challenging and worthwhile film. The idea should have the inner strength to keep me excited through the whole process of film-making.

Pinneyum got delayed further as I went through a very difficult and agonising period in my life. My life partner fell ill and left me last year.

In Pinneyum you work with the stars Dileep and Kavya Madhavan. How difficult is it for a director to help a star break the mould of his stardom and get into the character?

Fortunately, stars in Malayalam cinema are willing and even eager to do roles different from the stereotypical ones. Every one of them I have worked with understands the importance of being part of an offbeat film that will be remembered for a long time to come.

In fact, those who participate in these films get more mileage in the commercial industry as artistes who have reached a certain level of excellence. Lead players in important films particularly attract the attention of the erudite and the knowledgeable and stand a good chance of being recognised nationally and internationally.

How do you appraise Parthajit Baruah’s book Face-to-Face: The Cinema of Adoor Gopalakrishnan? The book is apparently making waves.

A couple of years back Parthajit visited Trivandrum [Thiruvananthapuram] with the sole aim of meeting me. He had taken an appointment to discuss my films and was seeking some clarifications. The queries were mostly in relation to the culture and life of Kerala. I was only happy to talk to him at length sensing his genuine interest in the subject.

What emerged from our meeting was a positive impression about the person who was keenly interested to learn and understand my work. While leaving, he said: “Sir, I am going to write a book on your films. It will be very different from anything that has been written by others.” I could see that his enthusiasm was strongly supported by tireless research and study.

And then, when one day I got an advance copy of the well-designed and beautifully printed book, I was quite pleased. This book should prove to be a good guide to my work and the milieu in which it is set.

There is an unpretentious air about the book that is beguilingly beautiful, much like your movies.

I agree. It lends itself to good reading, sounds very honest and sincere.

You have given your life to cinema. Yet you say cinema has given meaning to your life. How does one explain this seeming irony?

I will be nowhere without cinema. It is more than my profession, it’s my life. I had started off with plays. But ever since I came into contact with the best of world cinema, I got hooked and there has been no going back. I stand firm and rooted in cinema despite all its uncertainties and inadequacies. Most importantly, I have no regrets.

There is timelessness to your art. Yet it is rooted in a certain milieu and period of time. Is not your cinema independent of the relentless momentum of time?

Everything has to be seen with reference to time and the proper context. Nothing happens in a vacuum. The time frame is an essential reference. Timelessness, I think, is only a hope we wish to endow our art with.

Most of [Charlie] Chaplin’s great films were made at the time of the Great Depression in the United States. Just recall films like Gold Rush. Of course, it is timeless in its appeal.

The stillness of the moment is evocatively captured in your works. As Shyam Benegal once said, “they are like meditations on the human condition”. Please elaborate.

Cinema, in close analysis, is perhaps the only art form that is capable of meditation. We forget this possibility and often run after slickness and speed which are more often than not alien to the subject.

Look at popular cinema, its characters behave like automatons, no pausing, no thinking. It drives on action. So does the audience. It simply wishes to be carried around without being burdened with the task of applying its mind.

For a film-maker the sound of silence plays an important role. Do you think it has been utilised to the fullest in a nation where even the sound of the rain has a unique melody? Or even the stillness of river waters.

Silences are as important as sounds. One should be careful in bracketing silences between sounds for those sounds assume more meaning and importance than their normal content. Silence is again part of meditation.

Some of your film associates such as M.B. Sreenivasan, N. Sivan and Mankada Ravi Varma remain relatively under-celebrated geniuses. How do you look at their contribution to the making of Adoor Gopalakrishnan?

Their contributions have been integral to my work. We have always worked in tandem, not at cross purposes. I had the full and detailed scheme of the work and they all contributed to it. They are all great artistes in their own right.

You started your career, albeit in your student days, with a comedy. Can we see you making a full-fledged comedy some day? Or will you confine yourself to understated humour that is often there in many of your films?

I enjoy the comedy of situations. There is humour in our everyday life. You cannot call them comedy though. I do not think I can make a full-length comedy now.

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