Parthajit Baruah’s new biography Face-to-Face The Cinema of Adoor Golapakrishnan is the latest book to explore the cinema of the acclaimed Malayali auteur, whose best-known films include Swayamvaram, Kodiyettam, Elippathayam, Mukhamukham and Vidheyan. “He makes ordinary day-to-day occurrences extraordinary through the power of his observation, research, creative imagination and cinematic technique,” Baruah observes in his introduction. This edited excerpt is from the interview that closes the biography.
Parthajit Baruah: As a student, you made a comedy, A Great Day, but during the forty years of your cinematic journey, you have never tried to make a single comedy.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan: I have come to realize that you can’t impose comedy from the outside. Then it looks laboured and artificial. It has to grow from within a situation. A certain sense of fun is always welcome but the situation and characters should lend themselves to it. I think there is subtle humour in most of my films. The only exception perhaps is Mukhamukham – it was too serious a theme for humour.
PB: Two leading film-makers from Kerala, Aravindan and John Abraham, were your contemporaries. How did you relate with them?
AG: Both Aravindan and John Abraham were my friends. I played a major role in coaxing Aravindan to make his first film. He was a good friend till some of his clannish friends contrived to keep us apart. But what was unpardonable was that they did not let him have the doubts an artiste is entitled to and has to struggle with to reinvent himself in his pursuit of cinema. He owes it to his ‘friends’ that he did not develop the potential he had. John Abraham was my junior at the film institute by two years. He was talented and was a favourite of Ritwik Ghatak. But film-making demands too much of you. One gets enervated and frustrated in the Indian situation as the organized industry is very hostile to anything that is original and innovative. John was very promising and showed flashes of brilliance – but unfortunately he lacked the innate strength and discipline to withstand the pressures associated with film-making. In his case, alcoholism offered him an escape from the realities enveloping cinema.
PB: Why is cinema important to you?
AG: Cinema is the greatest art form the human mind has given shape to. It lends meaning to my life – it is what I live for. I am always under the magic spell of cinema and it is truly wonderful how through it I can share my experience of reality with the viewers.
PB: You have always worked with a crew of ‘regulars’, whether on the camera, sound or music…
AG: Ravi Varma, who is now no more, has been my longest associate. I got to know of Ravi Varma through his brother (my junior at the film institute) who told me that his elder brother was keen to work with film-makers dedicated to serious cinema.
When I completed writing the script of Swayamvaram, I forwarded it to him in Madras. Promptly came his reply: he was very pleased with the script and he foresaw it opening a new direction for Malayalam cinema. He was all too eager to work the camera for this project.
My films have been few and far between. But Ravi Varma worked for all the documentaries and feature films I made ever since. He had the rare quality of refusing to make compromises. As a person, he lived a very simple life but had deep convictions about cinema and culture. He was very well read and had excellent taste in literature and arts.
Little energy was wasted in convincing him about the structure, composition, angle or movement in a shot as he would have already read my basic script as well as the shooting script in advance. In fact, he was the only other person in our unit who knew exactly what I was doing.
When I went to Chennai to brief him about the production of Nizhalkkuthu in 2002, he had become weak and sickly what with his advanced age and frugal food habits. He advised me to opt for another cameraman. This was not acceptable to me and after a lot of persuasion he agreed to come. When he arrived on the location for the shoot, happily, he was his old self full of enthusiasm and vitality. He surprised all of us including his associate, ace cameraman Sunny Joseph. I had requested him to help in case Ravi Varma got too tired to carry on.
The cinematography of this film was exceptional – but regrettably it happened to be the last film we worked together on.
Another long-time associate of mine was M.B. Srinivasan, the music composer. He had an uncanny sense of cinema and again our association started with Swayamvaram. He saw the rough cut and was very enthusiastic about its freshness of approach. From thereon he became a constant companion and associate. He belonged to the leftist movement, having worked with the Indian People’s Theatre Association. He was always prepared to listen to you and was very understanding and cooperative. He had the advantage of a thorough knowledge of both Western and Indian music, and his mind was always open to new ideas. Together we carried out many experiments with the music track: increasing and decreasing the speed of the recorded music to create special effects which no other music composer had dared till then. MBS, as we would call him, was a wonderful human being whom I lost with his untimely death a couple of years after we worked together on Anantaram.
Another long-time associate was my editor, M. Mani, who edited my films from Swayamvaram to Kathapurushan. Then the whole system of editing underwent a change. The new technology required editors to be technology-savvy and many of the old-timers had to quit the scene. My dear editor and gentle friend had no option but to leave the profession.
Yet another close associate was Sivan, whom I have known since college days. With me, he adapted to doing the work of an art director at which he proved very efficient. He would make props and special properties required for the film at the shortest notice and I always depended on his resourcefulness. He could not join us in the production of Nizhalkkuthu for personal reasons and his place was taken by Marthandam Rajasekharan who has worked with me for the last three films.
How can I not mention P. Devadas, who was my institute mate and constant companion in the beginning of my career even preceding Swayamvaram. I did most of my post-production work with him, until he succumbed to a heart attack. There followed Krishnanunni and Harikumar and I have had perfect rapport with both of them.
And, of course, there is my chief assistant Meera Sahib, my loyal and dependable friend and colleague. Popularly known as Meera, he is often taken for a lady by those outside our unit and by viewers who see Meera’s name regularly on the credit list of my films! He was a senior bureaucrat in the state service, retiring as head of the Bureau of Economics and Statistics. Starting from the Kodiyettam shoot, he has worked with me from the script stage to the very completion of every film that I have made, including the documentaries I made in between.
PB: Do you worry about routine domestic problems when you are not busy in creative work?
AG: As you know, I take a long time to make my films. There are always long intervals between them. I am very much involved in everything. Like every other middle-class householder I do everything myself – like paying the electricity bill and so on. I lead a simple life, but I am not aloof or cut off.