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Coming soon: Adoor Gopalakrishnan's biography

In Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema, the first authorized biography of the Dada Saheb Phalke Award winner, Gautaman Bhaskaran traces the life of this enigmatic director. Here are exclusive excerpts from the book.

books Updated: Jul 03, 2010 12:40 IST
Gautaman Bhaskaran

Adoor GopalakrishnanOne of the most critically acclaimed auteur-directors after India’s iconic Satyajit Ray, Adoor Gopalakrishnan creates cinema out of conviction. Not compulsion. He has made just 11 feature films in nearly four decades. One of the pioneers of the New Indian Wave, which unveiled a meaningful alternative to sensational, coincidence-ridden and plot-driven formula fare, Adoor made movies that were rooted in his native Kerala and told touching tales about real people and real issues. Born in 1941 at a time when feudalism was dying and along with it the joint family system as well as the matrilineal institution, he has been studying the community and the larger society through a microscopic examination of the individual.

Adoor shows us how clinging to feudal vestiges could ruin men like Unni in Elippathayam (The Rat-Trap) and Bhaskara Patelar in Vidheyan (The Servile). Kathapurushan (The Man of the Story) documents the history of the period it is set in, and we see social and political developments through the eyes of the film’s protagonist. Mathilukal (The Walls) takes us into a jail during the British Raj, and a canvas of relationships between the prisoners and the police and among the inmates themselves is presented in its stark reality.

Adoor’s characters are extraordinarily varied. A couple living in defiance of society, trying to make ends meet; a rootless, rustic simpleton unaware of his responsibilities; an ex-revolutionary wasting himself, sleeping and eating and drinking, much to the disgust of his old comrades; and a prostitute discovering love only to be separated from her lover by the guardians of society.

Adoor’s cinema manages to frame details that often escape our everyday glance, turning the mundane into the magical, the commonplace into the startling. Yet, very little is known about the auteur.

In Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema, the first authorized biography of the Dada Saheb Phalke Award winner, Gautaman Bhaskaran 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 uncles’ 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 (One’s Own Choice), to his latest, Oru Pennum Rantaanum (A Climate for Crime), Bhaskaran’s lucid narrative tracks the twists and turns of Gopalakrishnan’s life, finding an uncommon man and a rare auteur.

About the author

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a journalist and writer, having worked in two of India’s best regarded daily newspapers, The Statesman and The Hindu, for 35 years. Now Editor South Asia for South Korea’s The Seoul Times, he also writes for a variety of other publications across the globe: Hindustan Times and The Week in India, Gulf Times and Gulf News in the Gulf, The Japan Times in Japan and Sight and Sound and Screen International in Britain. He covers major international film festivals, including Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Tokyo, Deauville, Marrakech, Dubai and several in India. He has covered Cannes alone for 20 years. He teaches cinema at Manipal University and English at Chennai’s Loyola College. He lives in Chennai with his wife, and has a son.

The Servile

Every director has his favourites. Ray’s mascot was Soumitra Chatterjee, an actor whose brilliance emanated from the auteur’s megaphone. Ray first used him in Apur Sansar (The World of Apu), in 1959. This was followed by other films. There came a time when he immensely enriched the master’s cinema.

Gopalakrishnan has had his favourites too, but the favouritism, if I may use this term for want of a better one, was evenly distributed. He used several actors several times. Karamana Janardhanan Nair, P.C. Soman, Vembayam Thambi, Somasekharan Nair, Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair and Lalitha have been his regulars. If someone were to ask me who his most favourite was, I would look beyond these performers. It was his cinematographer, Mankada Ravi Varma. He worked on all his pictures except the last two, Naalu Pennungal and Oru Pennum Randaanum.

Ray seldom used stars, and when he did so on a few occasions, it was after considerable thought. When he cast Bengali matinee idol Uttam Kumar in Nayak (The Hero) in 1966, it was on the belief that none other than a star could do justice to the role of a star. Nayak was all about a star. Yet, Ray faced flak for using Uttam Kumar: Mrinal Sen quipped that Ray had now sunk to the level of using a matinee idol! Gopalakrishnan had no such criticism coming his way when he had stars playing for him. Sarada was one, and a popular one at that, when he used her in Swayamvaram and Elippathayam. Madhu too was one when he did Swayamvaram. Later, Gopalakrishnan cast Malayalam matinee idol Mammootty in three consecutive movies beginning with Anantaram.

Mammootty’s performances were riveting—certainly as Basheer and Bhaskara Patelar in Vidheyan (The Servile). Enacting Patelar after playing Basheer, Mammootty was marvellous the way he switched from a gentle, literary romantic—a charismatic soul loved by all in Mathilukal—to a brute, hated and despised by everybody in Vidheyan. Here men gravitated towards him out of fear and the power he exerted over them, reducing them to sheer servility. Spitting on and kicking the community’s underdogs, Mammootty’s Patelar is all viciousness. He kills, he rapes and strangles to death his lovely wife, Saroja (Tanvi Azmi), when she refuses to fall in line with his fearful ways.

The story is set in the early years of the 1960s when Thommi (M.R. Gopakumar) and his wife Omana (Sabita Anand) arrive in south Karnataka like hundreds of other Christian farmers who, forced by food shortages and unemployment in their native state of Kerala, migrated to neighbouring areas in search of better fortunes. Thommi and Omana are the last to arrive in an exodus that began during World War II, when rumours of large tracts of virgin land in Karnataka lured the Travancore (which became part of Kerala in 1956) peasants.

Thommi attracts the attention of Bhaskara Patelar, one among the Patels appointed by the British to collect taxes and enforce the law. Though the British left India in 1947, this system of revenue administration by Patels in vogue till the early 1960s, when Indian government officials took over. When Thommi and his wife arrive, Bhaskara has no legal powers, but he continues to bully the people around him through force and a handful of henchmen. Patelar terrorizes Thommi turning him into a meek mute, and rapes his wife. The rape turns into an open affair with Patelar being both a depriver and a provider for the couple.

Things come to a head when Patelar is tailed by Saroja’s relatives after he murders her and his attempt to camouflage his crime as suicide fails. Hunted and chased into the wilderness by a couple of hired gunmen, Patelar is finally shot dead. This is probably the only nail-biting finish in the Adoor basket. As the gunmen pursue Patelar into a rocky forest and corner him—half naked, hungry, hurt and shamed, his arrogance humbled and his might destroyed—Thommi, who flees along with his master, hides behind a huge boulder. The gunshots rent the air, and we see Patelar with his gun-toting arms raised slump on the rocky floor in a pool of blood. For a full minute, Thommi does not know what to do. How should he react? Should he be happy and relieved now that Patelar’s cruel dominance has ended or should he mourn the loss of one who was also his provider? Thommi makes his way to Patelar, removes the gun from him, throws it into the gushing stream nearby and takes to his heels calling out to Omana at the top of his voice, ‘The master is dead, the master is dead.’

Vidheyan, based on a Paul Zacharia work (Bhaskara Patelarum Ente Jeevithavum [Bhaskara Patelar and My Life], 1986), was the second adaptation by Gopalakrishnan. It is a deep analysis of servility in the wider context where the servant-master relationship takes on a strange hue. After the initial anger, pain and reluctance, Thommi finds pleasure in this slavery and obedience to the extent that he even finds his wife’s sexual affair with Patelar exciting. In bed one night with his wife, Thommi says he likes the way she smells, Patelar’s expensive perfume having rubbed off on her. Such is the vicarious joy.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Books India from Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema by Gautaman Bhaskaran. Viking Rs.599