It is always fascinating when a movie director or actor documents another helmer or performer. We saw two excellent biopics at Cannes in May -- one on the Swedish star, Ingrid Bergman, by Stig Bjorkman, also from Sweden, and another by Ken Jones on Alfred Hitchcock. We have yet another coming from Louis Osmond, who plans to film Ken Loach's 50 years in cinema.
As gripping as the documentaries on Bergman and Hitchcock is the one by Girish Kasaravalli on Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Indeed, when two legends of the medium meet through a viewfinder, the image can be electrifying. Kasaravalli trained his camera on the extraordinarily perceptive auteur from Kerala, Gopalakrishnan, in recent months to capture the mood and moments of his scintillating cinema. Titled Images/Reflections: A Journey into the Images of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Kasaravalli's documentary is a string of memories of the master's movies.The genteel Kasaravalli -- well known for films such as Mane, Ghatashraddha, Tabarana Kathe, Gulabi Talkies and Dweepa -- has zeroed in on some of the most marvellous moments of Gopalakrishnan's works to tell us the story of a man who is one of the few pioneers of the New Indian Cinema -- which began its roll in 1969.
Kasaravalli, unlike some other documentarians of Gopalakrishnan, has been incisive enough to pick the most relevant segments of his cinema -- and the most absorbing scenes or sequences from them are highlighted. Beginning with a visually stunning shot of Gopalakrishnan lighting an oil lamp in the evening ("This is the first light that is lit at dusk, and the people of the house stand around it with folded palms in silent prayer", he remarks), Kasaravalli's work is divided into five chapters with catchy titles which take us into Adoor's world of make-believe. Here are a few examples: Kathapurushan (The Man of the Story) of This Film, Face to Face (Mukhamukham) with Adoor, Adoor Gopalakrishnan as Seen by Naalu Pennungal (Four Women), Making One's Own Choices (Swayamvaram) in Sound and Technique.
In a telephone interview from Bengaluru, Kasaravalli spoke to this writer answering question with patient precision:
The normal direction is from a documentary to a feature. But you have gone the other way. After making several movies since Ghatashraddha in 1977 -- which is 38 years ago -- you have chosen to make not one but two documentaries -- on UR Ananthamurthy and now Adoor. What egged you to undertake these at this juncture of your life and career?
I know that many filmmakers, both aspiring as well as the practising, use documentaries as a stepping stone to do features. They also seem to consider these two forms in a hierarchical order. Here one sees that these people have not understood the strength and power of this form. But I am not one such director. I have always held documentary movie-making in high regard. I have often said that Indian documentaries focus on the problems that the country is facing much more effectively than features do. Many Indian documentary moviemakers have better perception of the reality around them than their counterparts.
A still from Naalu Pennungal directed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
When my friends suggested that I make a documentary on Dr UR Ananthamurthy I said okay, though with a lot of hesitation. Later, when Mr Kundu, the Director-General of the Films Division, asked me if I would like to do a film on Adoor, I said yes again, albeit with similar hesitation.
You have made two documentaries -- the first on Ananthamurthy and soon after on Adoor Gopalakrishnan. The first was a legendary writer and thinker, the second a master director. How did you approach the two documentaries?
My approach was very different, so were the challenges. There were quite a few movies on Ananthamurthy before my work came. So I wanted to adopt a different approach. He was a great writer, but also a great thinker. I greatly admired his ideas, articulations and vision of life. So I decided to make a film about one aspect of Ananthamurthy: his ideas and how they reflected in his writings and on his persona itself. But how to make a movie about ideas? I didn't want to make an abstract and esoteric film. I am not capable of that. This was the real challenge for me. I resorted to an interview-based movie, interspaced with visualisation of some of his poems and few passages from his short stories and novels where one sees the concretisation of these ideas.
A still from Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Nizhalkkuthu.
Did you feel a sense of intimidation when you were documenting Ananthamurthy's life and times -- he being a man of letters.
Not at all. I knew Ananthamurthy from my Ghatashraddha days. The fact that we both come from the same taluk, the fact that we had known a lot of people from that place also cemented the bond further. Besides he was such a warm man that even a young student would not be intimidated in his presence. He was an excellent communicator, conversationalist and a patient listener. One could meet him any time without prior notice and discuss anything in this world. He never let power and popularity come in the way. He would always discuss my films at length and give new interpretations and perspectives.
Adoor is one of the pioneers of the New Indian cinema, although the first of the works of this genre came in 1969, while Adoor's debut movie, Swayamvaram, appeared in 1972. Your first film, Ghatashraddha, came five years later in 1977. How was it to document Adoor in this context, given the fact that you are also considered part of the New Indian cinema?
The very fact that both of us are from the FTII created a warm bond. He had liked many of my movies and I his. The mutual admiration and respect for each other's works cemented our friendship.
Both Adoor and you are contemporaries in a way, and the last of the New Indian cinema directors. Was there a sense of unease when two giants of cinema met with the camera stoically standing between you and him?
Not at all. Adoor has made many documentaries on artists. So, he knew how a filmmaker structures his work. He gave me full freedom to interpret his movies and his vision of life. Once, one of the unit members asked him for something. He jocularly said that he was only an actor in the film, and pointing to me he said: "he is the director. Go and ask him."
Any reason why you chose to use chapters to divide the Adoor documentary?
The documentary is titled Images/Reflections. It is Adoor's images and my reflections or my images through the reflection of Adoor's images. I thought of creating a narrative using Adoor's images rearranged in my way--the compositions, the sound design, music, the pacing, etc. So, while I was writing the structure for my movie, it suddenly occurred to me that dividing the film into five parts, each one named after his movies, would bring out my intentions clearly. In the Kathapurushan segment, eminent people talk about Adoor's place in Indian cinema, and in Mukhamukham, I discuss certain preoccupations that run through all his films. In Naalu Pennungal, his cousin talks about his birth (Thanks to your book--I learnt about his birth from your book) and his daughter, Aswati, talks about the varying influences on him. Actor KPAC Lalitha talks about how movies take shape, and festival programmer Uma Da Cunha discusses how Adoor packages his films. The first two women talk about his personal life, the other two about his life in cinema. Swayamvaram is about Adoor's choice of his techniques, which have a distinctive touch. And in the last chapter, Anantharam, I bring to the fore how his movies envisaged the changes in the political structure, in the social domain and in the family setup. So, his images do not merely capture the tensions of the time, but are also reflective.
I found two important people missing in your documentary on Adoor: his wife Sunanda and director Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Why?
Sunanda preferred not to make any observations. Amongst his contemporaries, I have used Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal. Including more people would have made it repetitive.
Of the 11 films Adoor made, which is your favourite and why?
My most favourite is Mukhamukham. It is a very complex movie. Many have seen it merely as a document of the splintering of the left polity. But Adoor is also talking about a very important philosophical issue here. Through the character of Sridharan, he is asking: How much of an event is real, how much is imagined? Is Sridharan a real leader or has leadership been thrust upon him? So, when a young comrade tells Sridharan that one is disappointed with him, the pain acquires many shades. Here Adoor lifts a subject from its political or sociological grove to take it to a metaphysical level.
Which of his works is the most difficult to understand?
Mukhamukham again, because here he doesn't traverse the familiar path.
How has Adoor evolved from Swayamvaram to A Climate for Crime?
Adoor has been trying new kinds of imaging with each of his films. In some of his movies like Elippathayam, Mukhamukham, Anantharam, Kathapurushan and Nizhalkkuthu, he uses a very layered narrative. These films lend themselves to multiple interpretations. He uses a non-linear, fractured narrative to achieve this. In Elippathayam and Mukhamukham, the minimalistic expression makes the experience rich, whereas in Anantharam and Nizhalkkuthu, the duality between the real and the imagined makes it rich. In Vidheyan and Kathapurushan, the personal life of the individuals (Of Bhaskara Patelar in the first, and Kunjunni in the second) is elevated to a metaphorical level.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has written a detailed biography of Adoor Gopalakrishnan.)