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.   

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