AUTEUR: Adoor Gopalakrishnan has made 11 features in 50 years and is currently writing his 12th.
By Gautaman Bhaskaran
When two legends of cinema meet through a viewfinder, the image can be electrifying. The celebrated Kannada director, Girish Kasaravalli, trained his camera on the extraordinarily perceptive auteur from Kerala, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, in recent months to capture the mood and moments of his fascinating cinema. Titled Images/Reflections: A Journey into the Images of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kasaravalli’s documentary is a string of memories of the master’s movies.
The genteel Kasaravalli — well known for films such as Mane, Ghatashraddha, Tabarana Kathe, Gulabi Talkies and Dweepa — has zeroed in on some of the most marvellous moments of Gopalakrishnan’s works to tell us the story of a man who is one of the few pioneers of the New Indian Cinema — which began its roll in 1969.
Bold and far ahead of his time, Gopalakrishnan’s first movie, Swayamvaram, presented the dilemma in stark black and white imagery of a couple living together without getting knotted into marriage. His second, Kodiyettam, had a protagonist in actor Gopi, who looked far, far from a hero. But he endeared as nobody else to the masses, beginning a career that soon sparkled.
Gopalakrishnan’s Elippathayam, which came in 1981, is often described as his most outstanding creation — which examines, through rich colourful visuals, an engrossing narrative style and striking performances, human relationships in a dying social order, feudalism. As Aswati, Gopalakrishnan’s daughter, an Indian Police Service officer in Mumbai, tells Kasaravalli in his documentary, Elippathayam’s protagonist, Unni, has been loosely modelled on one of her father’s uncles.
In fact, a strong autobiographical element is discernible in many of Gopalakrishnan’s films, Kathapurushan (1995) being a case in point. Kathapurushan, which translates as The Man of The Story, is about the very man that Gopalakrishnan is or just about. The movie was shot in his grandfather’s house at Pallickal in Adoor. This is where the auteur was born and spent most of his childhood. His birth was as difficult as Kunjunni’s (the hero of Kathapurushan), whose father, like Gopalakrishnan’s, was separated from his mother.
Kasaravalli, unlike some other documentarians of Gopalakrishnan, has been perceptive enough to pick the most important segments of his cinema — and the most fascinating scenes or sequences from them are highlighted. Beginning with a visually stunning shot of Gopalakrishnan lighting an oil lamp in the evening (This is the first light that is lit at dusk, and the people of the house stand around it with folded palms in silent prayer, he remarks), Kasaravalli’s work is divided into five chapters with catchy titles that takes us into Adoor’s world. Here are a few examples: Kathapurushan (The Man of the Story) of this film... Face to Face (Mukhamukham) with Adoor...Adoor Gopalakrishnan as Seen by Naalu Pennungal (Four Women)... and Making One’s Own Choices (Swayamvaram)...
Kasaravalli explores and elaborates on these titles. In Naalu Pennungal, for instance, he documents the impressions of four women, Aswati, actress Lalitha and so on. Making One’s Own Choices details Gopalakrishnan’s unique — and fiercely independent — tastes in background score and music.
Lalitha tells Kasaravalli that Gopalakrishnan seldom shared the story or script with his actors — afraid that such revelation might encourage them to interpret and enact the characters in a way that could be different from or detrimental to Adoor’s style and substance.
Some of Gopalakrishnan’s own observations in the documentary remain etched memory. Referring to Vidheyan or Servile (perhaps his only overly violent movie) with superstar Mammootty (portraying a brutish tax collector), Gopalakrishnan tells Kasaravalli that this film is a great illustration of how a human mind can be colonised, how a nation can be colonised, how a power can turn absolute and evil. Mammootty’s Bhaskara Patelar seems and sound almost devilish in his treatment of Thommi, a migrant labourer who comes with his wife to Kerala in search of work.
The same Gopalakrishnan can give us a work as mild as Nizhalkkuthu (2002) — the contrast admirably caught on camera by Kasaravalli. I do not think that there has been another work anywhere in the world that speaks about the guilt of a hangman. In Nizhalkkuthu, Adoor’s man of the gallows, so to say, is a frail and docile human being living with his family on the outskirts of a village in the erstwhile State of Travancore in pre-Independent India. When he is ordered by the ruler to execute a convicted murderer, the hangman is devastated, and tries his best to wriggle out of being a part of the State-sponsored killing. Gopalakrishnan infuses into this narrative Gandhian ideology of non-violence, and we see Kasaravalli capturing those magic moments through the spin of a charka or when the rope for the hanging is being woven.
Gopalakrishnan rues that Indians have moved away from Gandhian ideals and philosophy. “Development does not mean that you have to be anti-Gandhi,” he quips. A staunch believer in Gandhi, Gopalakrishnan began to work the chakra in his school days, and to wear Khadi even as a boy. It was his love for Gandhi that took him to the Gandhigram University, near Madurai, later in life.
These are some of the observations that Kasaravalli makes in Images/Reflections — weaving the story of a man who grew up watching a temple priest sail past in a small boat every morning, a man who eventually told fantastic stories through moving pictures. Gopalakrishnan has made 11 features in 50 years, and at the moment, he is writing his 12th movie.
And, Kasaravalli’s superb study of Gopalakrishnan’s cinema has certainly left us thirsting. One more, we want to shout.
* Gautaman Bhaskaran, who may be emailed at [email protected] , has written a full-fledged biography of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the first in fact, and is now keen on penning one on Girish Kasaravalli.
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