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Book review: A dribble down Adoor’s film aesthetics

Face-to-Face is now not just the English translation of the title of a film by Adoor Gopalakrishnan. It’s an Assamese author’s take on the aesthetics of one of India’s top directors.

books Updated: Sep 07, 2016 18:43 IST
TK Sreevalsan
Author Parthajit Baruah presents his take on the Malayalam filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s aesthetics on screen.  (Parthajit Baruah Blog)
Author Parthajit Baruah presents his take on the Malayalam filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s aesthetics on screen. (Parthajit Baruah Blog)

Face-to-Face, by a young Assamese scholar, looks at septuagenarian film maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan through his first eleven works on celluloid. Author Parthajit Baruah attempts to give a ringside view of the Malayalam filmmaker’s aesthetics.

The writer is a clearly a fan of the internationally-acclaimed director whose 12th film Pinneyum’ (or ‘Once Again’) recently hit the theatres. That is where this HarperCollins publication can perhaps disappoint some readers wanting to know the inner labyrinths of master’s artistry and allied tales.

As a window to Adoor, the 205-page Face-to-Face with 50-odd images opens up a decently with a profile of the 75-year-old director. Likely, that was the core idea of Baruah, who teaches in a college in Nagaon.

The writer, who did a film appreciation course at Pune’s FTII, details the socio-political moorings of Adoor’s films —something that French film historian Jean Michel-Frodon, too, emphasises in the preface. The director, though, has traced his sensibility to painting and theatre, too, about which the book is largely silent.

The cover of the book Face-to-face by author Parthajit Baruah.

Beyond Kerala’s matrilineal and feudal past, the book goes on to substantiate how Malayalam cinema has drawn on local literature. Aptly cited are Adoor’s later films ‘Naalu Pennungal’ and ‘Oru Pennum Randaanum’ (adaptations of Thakazhi’s short stories) and ‘Mathilukal’ (1990) that banks on Vaikom Mohammed Basheer’s first-person narrative of a curious jail episode.

Some of the chapters that speak about Kerala’s film-society movement and the ways Adoor’s characters (mainly women) break stereotypes and Baruah gets into interesting points about the director’s approach.

He reasons why Kodiyettam’s (1977) background score was replaced with “ambient sound heightening the scene’s emotional content”— a technique Adoor employed in his debut film (Swayamvaram, ’72) up to ‘Nizhalkuthu’ (2002) and later.

As for Elippathayam (1981), Baruah explains how Adoor’s debut film in colour set a character code that would be impossible in black-and-white.

Eleven of the chapters take up 11 of Adoor’s films. Baruah contends that ‘Swayamvaram’ bombed at the box office. Because it featured no songs; it didn’t have an ‘indispensable’ comedian, which is partly true. The book also cites ‘Kodiyettam’ (with a balding newcomer as the protagonist) running for 145 days in a Kottayam movie hall.

The book drills into Adoor’s fascination for the human mind. Baruah is reminded of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 classic ‘Wild Strawberries’ while watching a “confusion between the real and the imaginary” in Adoor’s ‘Anantaram’. For all its multiple narrative, a lukewarm response the 1987 Malayalam film got abroad was just “for some reason”, Baruah says.

Such laxity in probing often makes the book—it generously quotes Adoor, fellow artistes and even reviewers—a journalistic compilation. The author likens ‘Kodiyettam’ (flag-hoisting) to the structure of a Kerala temple festival, but doesn’t substantiate. In ‘Vidheyan’ (1993), the gallows humour-riddled instance of a “misdirected bullet” comes as a freak mention.

Even so, many of Adoor-intended symbolisms are well narrated: the 1995 ‘Kathapurushan’ protagonist’s stammer indicating his reclusiveness, the ‘stop’ signal on the road for the newly-weds in ‘Swayamvaram’ and the kite-flying in ‘Kodiyettam’ symbolising its drifting hero.

The book gets rambling at times. From recalling the director’s wife serving the Baruahs delicious idlis and appams at her Thiruvananthapuram house to a 7-page interview with Adoor at the end, the Face-to-Face can become a stretch.

Will Baruah’s book rake in the numbers? It might depend on one’s familiarity with Adoor, a Dadasaheb Phalke awardee, now in his 51st year of his career.