Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book: Adoor Gopalakrishnan - A Life in Cinema

Adoor Gopalakrishnan - the name instantly brings to mind meaningful Malayalam films. The films by Adoor are very small in number, only eleven so far, but each one of those is like a milestone in the annals of good movies in our country. It is unlikely that any Indian with an interest in good cinema is unaware of the name of this director. Unfortunately, most of us only get to learn about the awards that Adoor's movies win but rarely get a chance to actually view these films. In my case too, except for a couple of his films (Swayamvaram, Anantaram) that I watched in the Eighties, I was not much aware of his other films beyond their titles and knew even less about Adoor Gopalakrishnan as a person. This authorized biography of Adoor by Gautaman Bhaskaran came as a real boon to learn more about this amazing man and his craft.

As stated in the cover page, the book "traces the ebbs and flows of the life of this enigmatic director. From his birth during the Quit India movement to his lonely childhood at his uncle's house; from life at Gandhigram, where Adoor studied economics and politics, to his days and nights at the Pune Film Institute; and from his first film, Swayamvaram, to his latest, Oru Pennum Randaanum, the narrative tracks the twists and turns of Gopalakrishnan's life, finding an uncommon man and a rare auteur."

While providing the essential details on the life of the director the author has also provided great information on the creative process in the making of the films. There is a chapter in the book on each of the movies made by Gopalakrishnan. The information provided is very helpful in putting the films in context in terms of the story and its relevance. The book also provides some interesting tidbits recounted from the making of the films.  Given the understated, subtle, intricate, multi-layered nature of the films, it is good that Gautaman does not overly analyze the plots. Adoor acknowledges in the Foreword for the book, that Gautaman has done well in not trying to be analytical about the films. Adoor mentions that most of his films do not lend themselves to simple paraphrasing as their ambition extends beyond mere storytelling.

Swayamvaram (One's Own Choice) was Adoor's first film made in 1972. I recently watched this film again. This time I watched it on the internet. Even on the small screen what an experience it was!

Swayamwaram is a conventional narrative. Simple and straightforward. Nowhere in the film is there a dramatic exaggeration. Kerala of the 1970s flashes in front of your eyes, authentic in its sights and sounds. Synchronized sound and outdoor locales were used for filming this movie and apparently these were unheard of till then in Kerala.

I am sure there have been many films of Swayamavaram's theme in different languages. The theme of a young couple defying society and eloping to live in a city and facing trials of life. The theme may have been the same but not many of those other films have had the same amount of sensitivity and subtlety.

From the opening scene of a long bus journey in Swayamvaram, to the last scene where the girl Sita is left with difficult choices, the film takes you through a slew of emotions. No melodrama, no long-drawn-out dialogs, and no overacting. That doesn't mean the film doesn't have it's lively moments. Everything flows so naturally. There is an interesting scene, where the protagonist Viswanathan asks for his salary at the tutorial where he works as a tutor. The principal of the tutorial, and his manager, instead of paying the salary, take Viswanathan to a bar and subject him to their drunken garrulity. The scene is hilarious and tragic. Even someone who doesn't understand the language can understand clearly what is happening.

Talking about Swayamvaram, Gopalakrishnan says that Sita's dilemma reflected his own at that point in time. He says, "It was about my life, my choices...In this film, I was probing in different directions, trying to talk about many things, such as dream and reality, hope and disenchantment, the rot in society and so on."

Throughout the book one gets to read about Adoor's invaluable insights on various aspects related to the making of great cinema. Sample these for a taste of his unique takes-

On modeling some characters in his movies on some real-life characters from his life-
"After all, your work is about yourself, your experiences, your problems, your dilemmas. What you want to tell others depends on your own likes and dislikes, your prejudices and tolerances. Often, you may not be conscious of them, but then that is the truth.’(pg 20)

On the enormous possibilities that cinema offers-
"As much as it offers, cinema also demands. It is a difficult mistress. There are a thousand ways camera lenses, for instance, can be used, but one must be able to make the right choices."

"But lenses are only one part of filming. There is camera movement, composition of a shot or sequence, the role of colour and so on. The camera must move in a way that audiences should not notice it, and there has got to be a good reason for the camera to shift. One must choreograph it in such a way that viewers do not see the movement."

"Audiences want to know what is happening in a character’s mind. They want to know how he or she is responding to a situation or development. So, you have to take these into account while filming a scene."

"Cinema is demanding because it is not just photography. It is not just composition, it is not just colours, it is not even just technology. It is not just sound and effects. But much more than all these."

Cinema is actually one’s experience. One’s vision of life. The film-maker’s. That is his cinema. This is why, I feel, cinema is so demanding that one cannot have one’s attention diverted or distracted." (pg 57)

On the role of an actor in a film-
"A film is not just an actor's performance. He is only one of the several elements. In fact, to a great extent, his presentation is a raw material. In the theatre, the role of an actor is important. He can improvise, and improve with each show. But in cinema his role is restricted. It can be altered, edited, abbreviated, extended, cut to pieces... anything can be done. He is not even playing directly to the audience. He has to perform to the satisfaction and fulfillment of the director's vision of the movie." (pg 95)

On creativity-
"Creativity defies simple definitions and explanations. It is common knowledge that a person without the faculty of memory is incapable of imagination and creativity. Memory is linked to experience. It is stored in images or ideas by combining previous experiences. Imagination is often regarded as the more seriously and deeply creative faculty, which perceives basic resemblances between things, as distinguished from fancy- the lighter and more decorative faculty, which just takes in superficial resemblances."

"Experience is anything observed or lived through. It has many shades and grades. The most important is the individual reaction to things and events where one is directly involved.

At another level, experience is borrowed through empathy. You make the other person’s experience your own in order to understand him and his predicament. A different shade of experience is the one that comes from the appreciation of arts, literature, theater, cinema etc… then, there is also the case of information as experience. Print and electronic media do provide daily information of life around us and elsewhere…

These are what enrich one’s life. It is only such experiences that help a director make a movie that touches the heart and soul of an audience." (pg 145)

It is very important that we stay attentive to a filmmaker like Adoor Gopalakrishnan who is among the most critically acclaimed directors after Satyajit Ray.  His films surely achieve something more than mere storytelling.

At a time when most of the commercial cinema is full of loud and boisterous characters, talking non-stop at high pitch, the space for meaningful cinema is diminishing. Good films hardly run for one or two weeks in our multiplexes.

In  our headlong rush to be amused and entertained by the 'masala' films, many of us have no patience for the good films made with low budgets.   

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Library Class

During my high school days, apart from the regular subjects like the languages, science, mathematics, and social studies, we also had some additional classes on subjects like moral science, physical education, and so on. One such class was the library class. It was probably called that because it was handled by the librarian. It was a class that was completely dedicated to discussions on books. English books, novels in particular, were introduced to us in this class. It was a wonderful escape to the world of imagination.

Our teacher, DNR, was definitely a fervent book lover. He had a very efficient way of introducing a book. I can see him in my mind’s eye now, as he appeared in the class, greying-haired, bespectacled figure moving around in front of the black board. He would start a session by first listing on the blackboard, with a neat hand, the main characters from the book he had chosen for the day. Sometimes, if a break preceded the library class, this story outlining on the blackboard would start even before all the students were seated in the class.

Later on, I have gone on to read some of the books that DNR introduced in those classes. Novels like The Lost Horizon by James Hilton, The Airport by Arthur Hailey, a crime thriller titled Not Safe To Be Free by James Hadley Chase, and so on. Each one of those books has left an impression on me, not least because I first heard about them at an impressionable age. The love of books and reading was in me from an early age. The world of English fiction was introduced to me by DNR, and his library class. The selection of the books was also appropriate, as these were stories that could really hold the attention of a high school student. It was obvious that he loved these books. The class listened to him with rapt attention. The stories transported us into another world for the duration.

The books introduced in these classes were mostly from the genre of general fiction and thrillers and not the classics of literature. I think this was a good approach. As we were for the first time getting introduced to the joys of reading, light and entertaining kind of books kept us interested. Obviously, as one gets deeper into the world of books, the magnificent range and variety of reading material presents itself.

Later on, once out of high school, as I got more into the reading habit, I moved from the thrillers genre onto the classic genre.  In spite of not always being very accessible and easy in terms of readability, the classics have offered me a great reading experience nevertheless. When I look back on my reading choices over the years, I find that my list of books includes books from different genres, including a fair number of classics too. In a way though, it all started with the library class.

These days we often hear discussions regarding the importance and relevance of fiction. Internet is making information far more easily accessible but it is also resulting in changes in the way we read. The amount of reading has increased as a result of text-messaging, browsing and so on, but the traditional way of reading books has decreased. Internet has certainly increased the efficiency in generating and distributing information. The question though still remains regarding the impact on the state of reading fiction.

So, why do we need fiction? The answer for that question can never be universal. It is like asking why do we live. For one, maybe it is just the love of a good story. There have been hundreds of witty answers to the question on reading. I liked this anonymous quote- “Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book.” And this one from Gustave Flaubert,- “Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.”

I do want to believe in literature and its possibilities. 

DNR and his library class definitely helped in instilling the curiosity and enthusiasm for literature. Years later, I had a chance to meet DNR again. In 2010, I was back in my school for a reunion and he had come there too. Now, completely grey haired and long retired, he looked older. I went up to him and introduced myself. He seemed to recognize me but not distinctly. I told him how much I used to like his library class and mentioned some books that he had covered. I think he was pleased that I could remember some of the books he had introduced to us.

More on my favorite books here-

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez - Living to Tell the Tale

"Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it" writes Gabriel Garcia Marquez in his memoirs titled Living to Tell the Tale.

The sad news of the demise of this wonderful writer came last Friday while I was still midway through reading his amazing memoirs written twelve years ago. The book had been my constant companion for a few days during my commutes to work and the news of his departure made me sit through and complete it during the weekend. A kind of silent last respects to an author who had a tremendous influence on the way I look at literature itself.

It was in the Eighties that I first read about this master storyteller in an editorial written by the kannada writer-journalist P. Lankesh, in his influential weekly journal Lankesh Patrike. Marquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera had been published around that time and Lankesh had written about the poeticisation of old age and love in that novel.

The first Marquez book I read was around the late Nineties and the book was his Nobel prize winning novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Looking back now, after more than fifteen years, I can only vaguely remember the story. It was not one of the regular novels with a regular storyline. It was something altogether different. What I remember clearly to this day is the absolute spell that the story had cast on me. A sense of desolation, gloom, and melancholy. The sheer power of words to create an atmosphere!

Sample this: “Then, for more than ten days, they did not see the sun again. The ground became soft and damp, like volcanic ash, and the vegetation was thicker and thicker, and the cries of the birds and the uproar of the monkeys became more and more remote, and the world became eternally sad. The men on the expedition felt overwhelmed by their most ancient memories in that paradise of dampness and silence, going back to before original sin, as their boots sank into pools of steaming oil and their machetes destroyed bloody lilies and golden salamanders.”

A story of seven generations, set in a fictional town of Macondo, One Hundred Years of Solitude was first published in 1967. The book has been subsequently translated into thirty seven languages, selling more than thirty million copies. Marquez employs the device of magic realism, where the supernatural and the mundane combine to express reality. Like all great works of art, this novel works on so many levels.

The next Marquez novel I read was Love in the Time of Cholera. I consider it a great sentimental story about the enduring power of love. Albeit that there are critics who mock at such an opinion on the book as being too simple.Marquez himself is believed to have said in an interview about this book - 'you have to be careful not to fall into my trap'. Well, it's a matter of looking at excessive romantic love as either "ideal" or "depraved". The plot contains elements that make either of the judgments possible.

Take a look at the paragraph from the novel- “To him she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, why no one else's heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell.”

The next Marquez book I read was the novella Of Love and Other Demons. A short, charming book, again on the topic of love. If in the previous novel Marquez alludes to the metaphor of love as a disease, in this one he goes one step ahead and alludes to love as madness! With his magical skills with words the author manages in this novella to turn what was essentially a journalistic assignment into a beautiful love story.

The last Marquez book I read before reading his memoirs was nearly ten years ago and it was titled The General in His Labyrinth. This book is based on the real-life story of Simon Bolivar, the extraordinary South American general. There are fictionalized elements in the book- some dealing with Bolivar's intimate moments. Considering that the book is almost a non-fiction, related to a part of South American history, there can be no better way to learn that bit of history than through an author like Marquez.

I had been aware of the publication of Marquez's memoirs Living to Tell the Tale and the book was on my wish list for some time now.

Living to Tell the Tale exceeded my expectations. This was to be the first of the three parts of his memoirs, and the book tells the story of his life from 1927 to mid-1950s. Unfortunately, the first part is all we are going to have. Just as the auto-biography of M K Gandhi that covers only the early part of his life, Gabriel Marquez's auto-biography too is going to be only about the early part of his life.

As you go through the pages, you realize that right from his childhood Marquez had both a talent and an inclination to tell a story. For those who have read his novels, there is a lot of interesting material available in these memoirs about some of the influences and experiences shaping the novels. It is amazing how he has dipped into his own experiences and incidents from his life to weave masterful tales that have so profoundly influenced so many readers.

Some of the observations in this lucid narration are so memorable that you stop and reread the lines. Here are some such instances:

On his decision to be a writer-
"But the doctor thought this was splendid proof of an overwhelming vocation: the only force capable of competing with the power of love. And more than any other the artistic vocation, the most mysterious of all, to which one devotes one's entire life without expecting anything in return." (pg 30)

On his grandparents (brought to me memories of my own maternal grandparents)-
"The impression I have today is that the house and everything in it existed only for him, for it was an exemplary machista marriage in a matriarchal society, in which the man is absolute king of his house but the one who rules is his wife. In short, he was the macho. That is: in private a man of exquisite tenderness that he was ashamed of in public, while his wife burned to make him happy." (pg 80)

On the decision to write his first novel-
" I imposed it on myself like a vow made in war: I would write it or die. Or as Rilke had said: " If you think you are capable of living without writing, do not write." (pg 98)

On his Barranquilla group-
"But I believe without any doubt at all that our greatest good fortune was that even in the most extreme difficulties we might lose our patience but never our sense of humor." (pg 106)

On boarding school (absolutely loved Gabriel Marquez for this!)-
"Dawns in the dormitory had a suspicious resemblance to happiness, except for the lethal bell that sounded alarm- as we used to say- at six in the middle of the night. Only two or three mental defectives would jump out of bed to be first in line for the six showers of icy water in the dormitory bathroom. The rest of us used the time to squeeze out the last drops of sleep until the teacher on duty walked the length of the room pulling the blankets off the sleepers..." (pg 194)

On Arabian Nights-
" Today, as I review my life, I remember that my conception of the story was elementary despite the many I had read since I was astonished by The Thousand and One Nights. I even dared to think that the marvels recounted by Scheherazade really happened in the daily life of her time, and stopped happening because of the incredulity and realistic cowardice of subsequent generations. By the same token, it seemed impossible that anyone from our time would ever believe again that you could fly over cities and mountains on a carpet, or that a slave from Cartagena de Indias would live for two hundred years in a bottle as a punishment, unless the author of the story could make his readers believe it." (pag 220)

On parental pressure-
"They judged me by my grades, year after year my parents were proud of the results, they believed I was not only an irreproachable student but also an exemplary friend, the most intelligent and brightest boy, and the one most famous for his congeniality. Or, as my grandmother would say: "The perfect kid."
"...the truth was just the opposite. I seemed to be that way because I did not have the courage and sense of independence of my brother Luis Enrique, who did only what he wanted to do. And who without a doubt would achieve a happiness that is not what one desires for one's children but is what allows them to survive the immoderate affections, the irrational fears, and the joyful expectations of their parents." (pg 237)

On Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis-
"These were mysterious books whose dangerous precipices were not only different from but often contrary to everything I had known until then. It was not necessary to demonstrate facts: it was enough for the author to have written something for it to be true, with no proof other than the power of his talent and the authority of his voice. It was Scheherazade all over again, not in her millenary world where everything was possible but in another irreparable world where everything had already been lost." (pg 247-48)

Praise for Marquez's story published in El Espectador-
"In the imagination everything can happen, but knowing how to show with naturalness, simplicity, and without fuss the pearl produced there is not something that all twenty-year-old boys just beginning their relationship with letters can accomplish." (pg 251)

On his failed attempt at crime reporting at El Espectador-
"...crime reporting, so well established among readers, was a difficult specialization that required a certain kind of character and an impregnable heart. I never attempted it again." (pg 436)

It is not hard to imagine Marquez failing at crime reporting. This master storyteller is a softie. The one quality to me that stands out in his writings is the unmistakable humanity, the heart, and the feeling.

So much is written about the device of magic realism he employs in his works. I think it is the grace and intensity in every sentence that he writes that makes it possible for him to effortlessly blend the everyday stuff with the miraculous.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech Marquez sought to draw attention to the significance of his writing as something more than merely its literary expression.

Here is what he said in that speech-
"I dare to think that it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters. A reality not of paper, but one that lives within us and determines each instant of our countless daily deaths, and that nourishes a source of insatiable creativity, full of sorrow and beauty, of which this roving and nostalgic Colombian is but one cipher more, singled out by fortune. Poets and beggars, musicians and prophets, warriors and scoundrels, all creatures of that unbridled reality, we have had to ask but little of imagination, for our crucial problem has been a lack of conventional means to render our lives believable. This, my friends, is the crux of our solitude."

Monday, March 17, 2014

Book: Losing My Religion by Vishwas Mudagal

A friend suggested this book to me and also informed me that the author is related to someone I know. The mostly positive reviews on the book too raised my expectation. The Just Books outlet in my area had several copies of the book and I was all set...

At the outset the author informs you that the book is influenced by his own experiences, the people he has met, and the places he has traveled to. Starting with the dedication page and through the first chapter you encounter corporate jargon like "kicking a**", "ruling the world" and so on. The author being an entrepreneur himself, the unabashed praise and paeans to the creed of entrepreneurs strikes you as rather brash.

The story starts with the protagonist Rishi going through a personal crisis. The predicament of Rishi is all too familiar for people connected to the IT industry. A young guy is brimming with ideas to take his gaming related software business to a new level but does not find support with the investors. A classic case of someone believing strongly in something and getting disillusioned when others do not see it the same way. He is forced to close his business. Well, he does get an offer to work with another organization. He views that as a compromise and doesn't want to take the offer. He chucks it all and goes on an unplanned trip around the country. On the way he meets an American traveler Alex, and later a bold and beautiful girl Kyra. The story keeps taking wild turns and calls for some suspension of disbelief from the reader.

For someone smitten by the written word, there are so many genres of books to feast on. Where does Losing My Religion fit in? In the pulp fiction genre. With the likes of Sidney Sheldon, Geoffrey Archer and so on. While reading Losing My Religion, a couple of books I read long ago did cross my mind. Books like Sheldon's If Tomorrow Comes, and Archer's Not A Penny More Not A Penny Less.  The thrill-a-minute nature of story telling. Well, Vishwas Mudagal still has some way to go before he can be compared to those two prolific weavers of improbable tales.

The way I see it, underneath all the breathtaking non stop action, the story is really about the present day pressures of the urban life and about the choices before the youth. About a choice between security and freedom. About conforming and non-conforming to society's expectations of you.

At the end of the book there is a section on some personal information on the author where it says that his favorite fictional character is Howard Roarke, the protagonist in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead. In the way that Rishi reacts at the loss of his enterprise, you see shades of Roarke. A desire to behave in ways that are contrary to a rational understanding. Rishi discards the potentially promising career path and chooses to go looking for new frontiers, new adventures and new places.

Why do I think that the book also says something about the choice between security and freedom? In the first few pages, the author effectively captures the modern day issues faced by the urban young,- like career dissatisfaction, feeling of suffocation, effect of stress on relationships and so on. These are true for a lot of folks just as they happen with Rishi and his buddies. There is often a feeling that one is living someone else’s idea of how to live.

We must remember though that people do not live in a vacuum, and in most cases one's actions and attitudes are interconnected with others, importantly their families. An option to simply go away when things go wrong, like Rishi Rai, does not exist for most. Interestingly, in the story there is no mention of a family connected with Rishi. There is only an ex-girlfriend and another casual friend in his life, and Rishi is free as an Arab to do just as he pleases.

Most people hanging on to the security of a job, driven by deadlines, product release dates, fiscal year ends and so on, can experience the joy of an idiosyncratic and rebellious behavior only in a second-hand way. Through fictional characters like a Rishi Rai in LMR, or a Rancho in 3 Idiots. Probably that explains why that movie and this book have captured the popular imagination so much.

Through the character of Rishi, the author demonstrates an ideal entrepreneur's persona. We see how a true entrepreneur needs to keep the entrepreneurial spirit alive at all times. What the story also makes clear is that a true entrepreneur needs to possess a capacity to cope with insecurity and uncertainty. That is perhaps the price to pay to lead a life of freedom.

It is nice to see that a new book from an Indian writer, with a contemporary theme is attracting a lot of readers.

My Books page has information on the books I have read-