Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Door to Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Adoor Gopalakrishnan - A Life in Cinema by Gautaman Bhaskaran - A Review

Penguin Books India, 2010

C S Venkiteswaran

Except for a very few Indian filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Bimal Roy or Raj Kapoor, books on Indian auteurs are very few and far between. This is especially so in the case of regional language cinemas. In fact there are more books– hagiographies in fact – on stars than on directors. Though there are many books being written in the vernacular about film personalities, they seldom get translated into English and so, they are destined to remain ‘regional’ forever. This severe lack of textual material, in turn, makes writing on Indian cinema, especially regional cinema, a daunting task. For a country like India that produces maximum number of films in the world, it is indeed surprising that cinema is not considered an area that is worthy of being national ‘History’ or ‘Culture’. This apathy towards cinema is something that is reflected in our archival imagination and priorities too. The film negatives of most of the early films in almost all languages are lost forever. Even in the case of a cinema like Malayalam that boasts of consistent national and international accolades, most of the original negatives of eminent filmmakers like Aravindan and John Abraham are irrecoverably lost.

So, it is not surprising that the biography of a filmmaker like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who is one of the most eminent filmmakers in India today, and has been consistently producing internationally acclaimed films for more than three decades, has not yet come out. Gautaman Bhaskaran’s attempt at an authorized biography of the auteur - Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema - is most laudable and welcome in this context. The book fills a vital gap in writing on Indian cinema.

The book follows a very linear and chronological approach towards its subject. The first 12 chapters give a brief biographical sketch of the auteur providing glimpses into his childhood, parents, family background, school days, early attempts at writing, and later, his life at FTII in Pune, followed by his initial trials and tribulations after coming back and deciding to live and make films in Kerala. In the next half containing 11 chapters, each chapter is devoted to the 11 feature films he made between 1972 (Swayamvaram) and 2008 (Oru Pennum Randanum). Woven into this framework are snippets about the auteur’s (curiously, the author is fond of the word ‘helmer’) personal experiences, working methods, the curious chemistry with his technicians and actors, reminiscences and incidents relating to the release of films locally and at international festivals.

In the process, the book tries to maintain a balance between the personal and the creative, the man and the auteur, finding continuities and motifs that run through Adoor’s life and work. As mentioned in the foreword by Adoor himself, the first part of the book has mostly depended on his talk and the second part in giving ‘vital information about the making of each film along with some important details’. This biography does succeed in giving a lot of information about the filmmaker and his eventful journey towards and in filmmaking. It also gives a lot of insights about the process by which a film comes into being – right from the stage when the idea about a particular film is conceived, through the various unpredictable yet exciting stages of realization upto the point of its reception and subsequent appreciation.

One major limitation of the book is the inconsistency in its language that veers between the scholarly and the journalistic. From perceptive observations about a film or scene, the text suddenly digresses to some related but mundane detail, thus disrupting the flow of writing as well as the excitement of ideation. Although the author quotes copiously from various sources, he has not given a bibliography or a list of articles and books.

There are some instances where the biographer dwells into certain details that do not jell with the immediate or thematic concerns of the text. Take for instance, the description about the choice of Mammooty to play the lead role in Mathilukal: “To play someone when he is living is no mean challenge, and the Malayalam star rose up to it”. It is immediately followed by a para that starts with “So did the squirrels, though after throwing tantrum after tantrum. It took much coaxing, much cajoling and many takes before the squirrels put their tails up to perform.” And this is how the para ends: “Unaccepted and isolated, the Mathilukal squirrels faced hostility and death from crows that seemed to have taken a cue or two from Hitchcock’s Birds, though they attacked rodents not humans.” (p159). In another instance, while discussing Adoor’s Nizhalkuthu, the author suddenly digresses to an opinion-editorial he wrote for The Japan Times about capital punishment, that was written five years after the film and does not concern the film per se. (p 190-1) In another chapter, the author makes a far-fetched comparison between Swayamvaram and Dogme 95 movement and its Vows of Chastity. Actually, while the former draws its strength and beauty from the real lack of resources, the latter is a self-enforced vow, that too in the European context of excess.

Most probably these are occupational hazards that await a journalist venturing into biography-writing. But despite all this, the book offers a very concise yet comprehensive introduction to the oeuvre of Adoor and is written in a manner that is capable of evoking the interests of a cinephile in his works. This book will also be of great help to any researcher on Adoor films or Malayalam cinema.

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