Mapping themes in Adoor’s films

Print edition : April 29, 2016

Adoor Gopalakrishnan at a film festival in Bengaluru in January. Photo: G.P. Sampath Kumar

A panoramic and intense study of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s work in all its diversity and complexity.

One of the tragedies of contemporary film historiography and studies in India is its inability or refusal to accept Indian cinema as plural. If one goes through film literature in English produced during the last few decades, one gets the feeling that Indian cinema is, and was, Bollywood. Studies on other language cinemas of India that have an equally vibrant, diverse and long history are few and far between or, in many cases, non-existent. The books that have come out are mostly about the chronological, descriptive history of “regional” or “vernacular” (words which should be understood as “regionalised” and “vernacularised”). Very rarely do they dwell upon movements, auteurs or landmark works, which most often end up as “box items” alongside the historical narratives. Only Hindi cinema seems to demand and get attention to “details”, barring a few exceptions such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Guru Dutt and Mrinal Sen. In this situation, several great auteurs and their wonderful body of work in various language films in India are largely ignored or relegated to oblivion, a predicament that is further accentuated by the non-availability of high-quality, subtitled DVDs (digital versatile disc) or Bluray discs. The redemption and preservation of these works is a task that still requires many a P.K. Nair, even in the digital context.

Suranjan Ganguly’s book The Films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Cinema of Emancipation assumes great significance in this context, for it is one of the first attempts at a panoramic and intense study of the great auteur’s work in all its diversity and complexity. But how does one describe, assess and position a film-maker like Adoor whose career spans over five decades and encompasses a wide range of themes and concerns? The most common method is to follow his oeuvre chronologically and trace the director’s gradual evolution through his works by delineating their sociopolitical concerns and aesthetic styles, or the narrative structures that predominate and persist in them. Ganguly attempts a thematic, zigzag journey through Adoor’s films; he picks and links the major thematic strands and leitmotifs and traces their aesthetic and political trajectories. In the process, he illuminates surprising connections and excavates hidden linkages and liminal parallels at various levels: of protagonist figures and characters, enduring social and political overtones and undertones, aesthetic devices and strategies and audio visual patterns. It is like connecting seemingly random dots to create a complex but integral picture of a film-maker’s oeuvre that spans the last half century.

Philosophical investigation

“I follow the trajectory [by] focussing on the search for emancipation within a Kerala struggling to define itself between regressive forces and the advent of modernity,” states the author in the introductory chapter. He also maps the major thematic concerns and narrative terrains of Adoor’s work. “All but one of Gopalakrishnan’s films are set in Kerala, in southern India, where he has lived all his life. Kerala’s abrupt displacement from a princely feudal state into 20th-century modernity is the backdrop for most of Gopalakrishnan’s complex narratives about identity, selfhood and otherness. The films deal with eviction and dislocation, the precarious nature of space and the search for home. They are about power and its abuse and the abject conditions of servility it breeds. They focus on guilt and redemption and the possibility of transcendence that lies in choice and action as well as inner transformation. They also allude to the power of human subjectivity to invoke its own state of freedom and thereby transcend its materially circumscribed world. This generates, in turn, a whole other discourse on the role of the imaginary in our public and private lives and its ability to simulate realities that are more real than the real. It results in a philosophical investigation of the nature of reality itself, its perception and its representation.”

The analysis of the Adoor oeuvre of 11 feature films from Swayamvaram in 1972 to Oru Pennum Randaanum in 2008 is organised thematically in eight chapters. The first chapter is dedicated to the analysis of Mukhamukham (1984), “the most despairing of Adoor’s films”. Placing the film as one that deals with the crisis engulfing a society that is “paralysed by its own incapacity to live up to its cherished ideals [and] to forge new values and create a concrete agenda for change”, Ganguly’s analysis elaborates upon how an enigmatic revolutionary icon is constructed through various means. Fact and fiction, the real and the imaginary, all go into the making and unmaking of a myth, raising deeply political questions about the innate responsibility and agency of the people.

The next two chapters focus on Elipathayam (1981) and Vidheyan (1993), narratives featuring men from landowning families who grapple with the challenge of living in a post-feudal era where they must radically reconfigure their sense of the self, identity and home. While Elipathayam mercilessly documents the pathological symptoms of a self-destructive system in the contexts of power, sexuality and labour, Vidheyan deals with master-slave relationship that is more venal and sordid in its physical and mental abuse and oppression. According to Ganguly, theirs is a liminal existence as outsiders stuck between past and present, in an unreal in-between space that becomes “the site of their psychic dislocation, which takes the form of a neurotic obsession with power that they exercise either on their immediate family members or the community at large. And yet, officially, the men have no real access to power. This strange contradiction —power within powerlessness—only confirms their perverse otherness.”

Kodiyettam (1977) has been seen by many critics as a film about the attainment of adulthood of a childlike character totally immersed in infantile pleasures and his blase dependence on others. Ganguly follows an interesting tangent by looking at the narrative as an exegesis on a “culture of wasteful self-indulgence and degrading machismo” where men live suspended in a time warp, outside all norms of productive social living and engage in “mindless consumption and a demeaning corporeality”. Picking on the theme of food and the ritual of feeding, Ganguly elaborates upon it by linking various kinds of allusions to food and consumption in Kodiyettam, whose symbolic relevance extends to motherhood, sexuality, selfless love, conjugality, and power relationship within the family. Ganguly looks at all the three films mentioned above as “critiques of masculinity that is directed at an entire culture, a whole way of life” where people are “incapable of any collective form of redress”.

The next chapter is about Adoor’s debut film Swayamvaram, which Ganguly places along with Elipathayam and Vidheyan in its focus on “the politics of dislocation and survival (both physical and moral) in which the search for home, self and identity becomes a key issue”. Drawing from and connecting various visual and narrative details, the author essays the various nuances of the desperate and doomed journey of two lovers, subtly bringing to surface their disparate gender predicaments. “While the film upholds the modernity of their choice and bid for freedom, the couple eventually fails to live up to the expectations generated by that choice. The regressive forces win at the end, but Sita, despite her debilitating self-image, emerges stronger and more resilient.”

For Ganguly, if one dominant trope associated with women in Adoor Gopalakrishnan films is the act of food and feeding, the other is a recurring visual element: the doorways against which women are framed, which is what the chapter on Nalu Pennungal and Oru Pennum Randaanum focusses on. “It is the doorway that tends to assert itself both literally and metaphorically (when it is not invoked visually)... in which women seek voice and visibility within a society that often seeks to silence and marginalise them. The doorway embodies their sense of insecurity, exclusion and otherness.” Taking the doorway as a visual and political metaphor, the analysis explores the limits and the “immense possibilities that herald liberty and emancipation and its existential connotations outside the context of gender”.

The chapter titled “Making the Imaginary Real: Anantaram, Mathilukal and Nizhalkutthu” is an exploration into Adoor’s fascination with human interiority in the context of creativity. For Ganguly, these films mark a shift in the narrative terrain from the social and historical to an exclusively interior realm featuring as protagonists men who are “physically or psychically displaced but invent and inhabit a complex imaginary world, thus reconfiguring their sense of difference”. Mathilukal, based on an autobiographical story by Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, is about the inner workings of a writer’s mind, and at the centre of Anantharam is a schizophrenic young man. Both of them author and invent alternate realities for their own reasons. In Nizhalkuthu, it is the deep empathy of the hangman that prompts him to reinvent the story he listens to by implicating himself in its predicaments. In each case, the power of the human mind and its creative potential is affirmed and “engagement with the imaginary is equated with freedom and liberation”. All these films “make us reflect on the dividing line between art and life and between real and imaginary as well as the question about the nature of reality”.

Interrogating realism

Another interesting dimension of Ganguly’s critical analysis is his exploration about how Adoor employs complex multiple narrative structures to subvert the text and in the process interrogates the very nature of realism as a representational mode and its truth claims. “Such questioning of realism leads Gopalakrishnan to address what constitutes fiction and fiction-making as well as the role of the imaginary.” Such strategies, while foregrounding the inadequacies of realism, prompts the viewer to reflect on film itself as an artificial construct, which also explains the recurrence of storytelling and storytellers, references about narratives, and the acts of narration with in the films.

The last chapter dwells upon Kathapurushan (1995), “arguably Gopalakrishnan’s most ambitious film, epic in scale, intimate in tone and covering nearly forty-five years of Kerala’s history”. According to the author, it is “primarily a cinematic Bildungsroman that charts the emotional and psychological evolution of a man and his consciousness and is framed by some of the key events that have shaped Kerala’s modernity”. For Ganguly, it is the most “optimistic” of Gopalakrishnan’s films “where the dream of emancipation seems to be within our grasp”, thus placing it in contrast with Mukhamukham, which is “about the abject failure of that dream”. Ganguly is also circumspect about such “endorsement of a progressive agenda shaped by the modernity of choice and outlook”, which “seems too good to be true” in our times. According to him, “Like all proponents of humanist cinema, Gopalakrishnan faces the challenge of having to constantly reconfigure the grounds of his humanism in relation to a dynamic, ever-changing and unpredictable contemporaneity.” He also points out that Gopalakrishnan’s lack of engagement with larger contemporary realities within and outside Kerala and his immersion in the feudal past may suggest a regressive tendency. But Ganguly thinks that “to judge his legacy merely in terms of its contemporaneity is to do him a grave injustice. The idealism of Kathapurushan, however problematic for some, is based on life-affirming, real values that could be described as—to use those much maligned terms —timeless and universal. Such idealism enables us to understand the enduring quality of Gopalakrishnan’s cinema, which while embracing historical specificity also seeks to transcend it. Hence the emphasis on emancipation surpasses its political and social contexts and applies to the human condition in its totality.”

It is this overarching idea and concern about the human condition in all its complexity that provides the basic framework to Ganguly’s critical approach to Adoor films. It makes a close reading of the narratives, plot, characters, visual compositions, mise en scene and montage, while linking them across narratives and with socio-political horizons.

Shunning psychologising of characters to “fix” them into certain personality modes and behavioural patterns and thus “explain away” their actions and exhaust their possibilities, he considers them as complex, full-blooded individuals caught in the flux of specific time, space and culture. Such unreining of characters on the one, and the disavowal of narrow ideological preconceptions on the other allows the author to be open to surprising connections and fresh trajectories in his journey through these narratives, which is what makes the book an exciting journey for the reader too. In the process of weaving together externally enigmatic and diverse narratives into an internally coherent and wholesome picture, Ganguly refreshes the reader/viewer with new angles and theoretical leaps.

Most importantly, the study follows an exploratory and excavatory style that shuns closures and assertions, thus prompting the viewer towards further tangents and digressions, other resonances and connections.

C.S. Venkiteswaran is a National Award-winning film critic and documentary film-maker based in Thiruvananthapuram. He has published books and articles on visual media and cinema in Malayalam and English.

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