A Life in Cinema
Viking Rs599 PP218
Gautaman Bhaskaran's book on Adoor Gopalakrishnan is an easily readable introduction to Adoor's life and films, especially for the young, uninitiated film aficionados who have not followed and appreciated the work of this eminent filmmaker. For those in the know, it leaves one more dissatisfied than enriched. Most of the information already exists in the reams that have been written about Adoor and in the innumerable interviews he has given.
The background evokes the milieu into which he was born and raised, his love for theatre and the almost accidental transition into cinema. Half the book is devoted to his formation: childhood, education, the Gandhigram years, the Pune film institute, the return to Thiruvananthapuram, the frustration of the early years, setting up of the first film cooperative and film society in Kerala and forays into documentary filmmaking.
In between, we glimpse Adoor's developing interest in technique and style, with an entire chapter on the use of sound and silence in his early films and another on the use of animals and birds, leading up to the making of his first feature. The narrative ends abruptly, with Swayamvaram winning the national Best Film award — having been sidelined in Kerala — thrusting both Adoor and Malayali cinema into the national consciousness.
Next, Bhaskaran devotes a few pages to each film, giving a long synopsis with some comments and details of the cast and credits. This is useful background material for the researcher looking for more than an easy read, but leaves the reader wondering what happened to Adoor after that first film.
No mention is made of the national honours — Padma Vibhushan, Dadasabheb Phalke award — or the international acclaim, including a comprehensive retrospective and homage to Adoor mounted at the prestigious Pompidou Centre in Paris. The few pages of illustrations remain limited to childhood, family and some of his films, missing the opportunity to tell a parallel story of his emergence into an international filmmaker.
The account of each of the 11 films is followed by a list of festivals where they were shown. But the international reaction is limited to a handful of quotes from western critics. His thoughts on cinema, his ideas and their realisation in his films, are not given enough space or emphasis in this book.
While Bhaskaran accords Adoor high praise for ushering in the New Wave of Indian cinema into Kerala, the background of this New Wave is only cursorily dealt with. Other than a brief encounter with Ritwick Ghatak at the FTII and his admiration for Satyajit Ray, there is little space devoted to paths his contemporaries took and the one he himself chose to tread.
After half a century in cinema, Adoor still does not take himself seriously and his wry sense of humour is one of his endearing traits. These aspects of his personality are well brought out by the writer who obviously admires the man and his cinema. But in a book it's necessary to take a distance and be as perceptive of weaknesses as of achievements. But this, it seems, was not Bhaskaran's purpose.
Aruna Vasudev is founder of Cinemaya: The Asian Film Quarterly.
Also Read: Our films their films: A collection of Satyajit Ray's critical writings. Incisive essays on films of Chaplin, Renoir and Kurosawa. And his own movies too.