Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s oeuvre spans over three decades and includes a handful of feature films as well as some documentaries and books on cinema. He is undoubtedly one of the most acclaimed of Indian filmmakers after Satyajit Ray, as is evident from the critical acclaim his films and retrospectives generate in international festivals.
Adoor’s films map the history of the region from the inside, for all his films are autobiographical in a way and are about different aspects of Kerala society and life. They deal with human conditions at the most elemental level and it is their keen observation and intense sensibility about the ‘local’ that makes his films universal in appeal. If his debut filmSwayamvaram was about the disillusioned youth migrating to the city in search of livelihood and expression;Elippathayam was about the inexorable decay of the feudal system. While Mukhamukham is a searing critique at the decline of Communist movement into a mere party, Kathapurushan takes a panoramic look at the various turning points in the history of Kerala through the eyes of the protagonist. Other films like Anantaram, Mathilukal, Vidheyan andNizhalkkuthu look at life and society from various angles, probing deeper into the conditions in which human beings find themselves in.
He made his entry into films in the early 70’s when the ‘new wave’ was lapping the shores of the country. A frisson nouveau was in the air and various filmmakers in different languages were making films that were to change the very look and feel of Indian cinema. But by the 90’s, with the withdrawal of the state from such enterprises, there was a certain disillusionment and flagging of enthusiasm and energy. Many of them moved to ‘commercial’ ventures while others migrated to television. What sets Adoor apart from other filmmakers of his era is his unflinching commitment to the medium. Never did he compromise on his vision or stray from his chosen path, as all his films vouch.
This conversation between Adoor Gopalakrishnan and C.S. Venkiteswaran had appeared in the Indian film quarterly, Deep Focus, (October 2001 – January 2002). A fresh conversation with Adoor has been merged to update it.
What are your earliest memories of sight and sound?
One of my earliest memories is of a boat ride in the night. Someone had come to inform my father of my aunt’s death. I was five or six years old and we were staying at my father’s office quarters, which was in an island in the backwaters. We started then and there by boat. The water that was all around us was calm and still and it bore a faint reflection of the night sky lending some faint idea of light and sight. The sound of the oars falling on water is still vivid in my memory.
Memories of the old past have something to do with tragedies- pain, insult, loss, grief, I think…
When I was a child, I was a good marksman. I was adept at aiming at any mango or cashew fruit and downing it with stones. Once, while I was going to school, I saw an owl on a tree. I don’t know what came over me. I aimed and threw a stone at it. And it dropped to the ground dead. This painful memory has stayed with me since then and still haunts me. There are many things in life that you can’t repair later.
Our house was in the middle of a large garden with a variety of trees – mango, cashew, coconut, areca nut, jackfruit, tamarind. There was hardly any tree I had not climbed. Once on top of the tree, I would forget about the laws of gravitation. And naturally it was normal routine for me to fall off them. As it became a regular affair, my mother kept a dish of herbal oil handy so that she could take it with her every time she rushed to the spot where I hit the ground with a big ‘thud’.
Animals, birds, trees and plants were all part of our life. We had cows, dogs and cats, all called by name. They were part of the family. I remember an incident concerning one of our dogs (we called him ‘La Fayette’) – old and infirm – and everyone thought he was about to die. He had almost lost all his hair and was always dozing in some corner of the house. One day he chanced up on thelehyam (ayurvedic medicine) kept out in the courtyard for sunning. Before anyone noticed it, he had lapped up the whole of it. My mother had got it prepared for my sister who was resting after delivery. In a couple of weeks, to everyone’s surprise, the dog started growing shiny hair, and to regain his lost youth. A perfect testimony to the efficacy of the lehyam!
You are very fond of Kathakali and have made several documentaries onKathakali artistes like Guru Chengannur and Kalamandalam Gopi. WasKathakali always there right from your childhood?
There were regular performances at my ancestral house. Our family were patrons of Kathakali for generations and we had our own Kaliyogam (Kathakalitroupe). There were artistes in the family too. A cousin of my mother was married to an all-time-great Kathakali singer. One of the three husbands, all brothers, of my grand mother, had taken to magic as his pastime. While he proved himself a patron and connoisseur of arts, the other two took care of mundane matters like managing the farmlands and attending to regular litigation of sorts.
My earliest experience ofKathakali is that of watching it from my mother’s lap. For my mother Kathakali was almost part of her daily life. So, even as a child, I developed a liking for it as I watched it in performance and listened to my mother as she explained what was happening on stage to the women sitting around us.
In those days, at my taravad (joint family house), we could watch a number ofKathakali performances – both with make-up and costume and also without them (Cholliyattam). On any special occasion like an elder’s birthday, a performance was an essential item. We had the basic unit (a troupe comprised of performers, accompanying instrumentalists, trainees, singers, greenroom hands, gurus etc.) We only had to gather the ‘stars’ as guest performers as is the general practice even today. The costumes and headgear my uncle had got made were of high quality. Whenever the legendary Krishnan Nair, who was a rising star in the 50’s had any performance nearby, he used to insist on borrowing these very ones. Those days the glittering parts of the headgear were made out of the shell of insects like the blue beetle, not gilt paper as they are done now. Their glow in the light of the oil lamp was very unique. A number of labourers used to be sent out to the fields to hunt for blue beetles every time a head- gear had to be made.
But the tragic part of it is that I grew up in a period when all this was considered worthless. What was considered ‘worthwhile’ was western theatre. So, we spent our time reading, studying, writing and producing such plays. We were always looking towards the west. I feel it was a great loss. It was thrust upon us that proper theatre should have unity of space and time. And we were totally convinced of that, no doubts or hesitations. So, Kootiyattam orKathakali did not mean much to us. We had acquired different yardsticks of quality judgment, and these arts questioned such rigid conceptions of space and time.
Curiously, one doesn’t find any Kathakali performance in your films.
True. I have only shown the performers getting ready in Kodiyettam, and never beyond that. That also, very contextually, just to show a transformation – a man transforming into a female character.
I think your approach to films is deeply influenced by Kathakali, its basic elements and mise-en-scene that combine rigorous delineation of characters on the one hand, even while maintaining the possibility of improvisation during performance. So in a way, it is very much open and also rigorous at the same time. This, I feel, is a characteristic of your films also – especially the way you present your characters and organize your scenes…
May be it is there in an indirect way.
For example, when a ‘pacha’ (literally ‘green’, signifying valiant or noble) character comes on stage, his ‘character’ is very much defined. But in actual performance, it is the narrative context that determines expression, and the possibilities for improvisation are infinite. This precision about characterisation is present in your films also, I think…
May be. After all, what is a character? A character is revealed through actions and reactions and the inevitable interactions (and also the lack of it) with others in given situations. There is possibly no other proper way to reveal it. All human situations are dramatically potent. So if the person who faces it happens to be plain wooden in nature without any potential for attitudinal changes, how would a credible and interesting development result? The lessons of the past as well as the fresh encounters of the present go on to define his place in the sun. There can be no single prefabricated approach in these matters.
Yes, the most popular characters in classical arts like Kathakali orKootiyattam are all villains like Ravana or Bali, and seldom the satviccharacters like Rama. For satvic characters lack drama and conflict in their personality, and as a corollary, in their representation.
Yes, they are also the most colourful characters. It is a red ‘thadi’ and ‘kathi’ that shines on stage rather than the satvic ‘pacha’ characters. But paradoxically, only those who play the ‘pacha’ characters become ‘stars’. People admire a Gopi more than a Ramankutty Nair, despite the visually spectacular and colourful presentation of the villains or demons in Kathakali.
Unlike art forms like the Japanese Kabuki, the presentation of which is more spectacular, Kathakali requires the minimum of properties and sets. You can perform it anywhere with the minimum of resources and stage settings.
Recently I made a film on Kootiyattam – the oldest living theatre in the world – for Unesco. It was basically an effort to document the theatre art form. A three-hour long film resulted though I had shot almost ten hours of it. But then they wanted a smaller version of 10 to 15 minutes duration. It was not impossible, but was not fair to the art, I thought. Instead, I suggested they watch any 15 minutes from the film. That would be more in keeping with this theatre art that takes a few weeks to enact an Act.
This great performance tradition of Kootiyattam and Kathakali, where there is infinite freedom to improvise, where time and space is fluid…has all this helped in developing a ‘malayali’ film idiom or language?
I haven’t analysed my films on those lines. But I believe that such a culture is part of my works and runs as its undercurrent.
Kathakali engrosses me completely. While watching a performance, I forget everything else – the external world, all the personal problems… There is hardly anything in it that relates to the present and there is no effort at being realistic. I think the percussion and the ambience as a whole transport us completely into a different world. And it has always been such a creative stimulus for me. Here each role is being defined anew by the actors each time they perform it. Now Gopi is defining how a Nalan should be. Earlier it was Krishnan Nair. Tomorrow it will be somebody else. It keeps on changing and evolving.
Read the whole conversation in the Book “A Door to Adoor”
In today’s Indian film scenario, Adoor Gopalakrishnan occupies a very significant place. He has a unique vision of looking at Indian History, mythology and social conditions which he uses as a metaphor to build his own vision of the world around us. Though he greatly admires Satyajit Ray, the path he treads is quite different from what Indian cinema has witnessed so far. He believes in minimalism drawn from the folk arts of Kerala where the pace provides space to the audience to experience the film not as a spectator, but as a participant.
– Girish Kasaravalli
As is evident from Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s films, he remains indisputably Indian. For the last 32 years or more of his unfailing career, he is seen to have grown from strength to strength, always at his creative best. In the Indian context today, he is to my mind the most original and imaginative filmmaker. Humanist to the core and realist by conviction, he has the rare compassion for the most ordinary and has a distinctive charm in his depiction because he has never been unaware of the thin line that divides it from the extraordinary. Which are why, hidden behind the facade of simplicity, his films are replete with layers of perception. There is no way but to be overwhelmed by feelings of fulfillment.
– Mrinal Sen