ADOOR GOPALAKRISHNAN – The Kerala Coconut
– Chidananda Das Gupta
Adoor Gopalakrishnan (b 1941) came to film-making through the film society and film institute route, reinforcing enthusiasm with training. Besides, his early experience of both traditional and modern theatre as well as of classical dance, especially Kudiyattam and Kathakali , provided a rich background for his creative fulfillment in cinema.
Kerala is deeply regional in its culture and close to classical learning and tradition. Adoor’s family deity is Krishna, the village in which his Kodiyettam is shot is dedicated to Duryodhana, a character
in the epic Mahabharata. Kerala’s synthesis of classical tradition and modern thought, of simplicity in lifestyle and richness in culture, make it remarkably different from many other states. Yet, Marxism
has been a major element in its social and political make-up. The accent on education and health care in the ‘Kerala Economic Model’ has made this state relatively free from harsh urban-rural contrasts – most of Kerala is semi-urban. The economic model has developed its cultural coordinates. As a result, Kerala provides appropriate soil for the growth of a serious cinema.
The impact of film society activity in these surroundings no doubt gave Kerala’s intelligentsia a potent combination of regional depth and international awareness, plus an understanding of the universal language of cinema. It seems improbable that, without such a milieu, Adoor’s talent would have blossomed as it did, or his audience comes to have the loyalty it does towards his work.
Adoor was the prime mover of the film society movement in Kerala and one of the earliest products of the Film Institute of India. As such he can be regarded as one of the earliest talents to be discovered and brought to the fore by the process of social engineering in newly independent India.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan stands out in his independence from Marxism, particularly in its orthodox and thoughtless, superficial and imitative manifestations. This is particularly significant as, like in West Bengal, Marxism has been a powerful political and cultural force in Kerala, from which to stay away is difficult and not entirely without hazards. The communists, besides commanding a large following, have often been elected to power and controlled the bulk of subsidies to the arts, including parallel cinema. With his fame as a filmmaker, Adoor, like Ray in Bengal, has maintained a formidable distance from political pressures as much as from consumerist forces. His humanism has never been overpowered by ideological pressures from political forces. Unlike Ritwik Ghatak, and others in West Bengal, his films do not bear the marks of a struggle against official leftism or party ideologies to independent; he withstood these pressures from the very beginning of his career. This also bespeaks the tolerance of the Marxist rulers, perhaps induced by the formidable reputation Adoor so quickly acquired.
Adoor is the name of the small town from which Gopalakrishnan came. The town is known for its Kathakali dancing troupes and it is customary for the players –and the villagers – to prefix their names with that of the village they come from. Hence the name of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, known to his friends, all over the country and abroad as just Adoor.
Adoor’s work shows an affinity to Kathakali’s extreme formality of style. Kathakali’s totally restructured image of the human figure when he appears on the stage, with the face painted in emphatic colours and the body draped in innumerable angles and folds of cloth that hide his form, make him only a Kathakali artist. It is through this complex cloak of artifice that one has to recognize
a character in a Kathakali performance. The individual human being is wiped out; a character in the play possesses him, inhabits his body. In this respect, Kathakali is akin to Japanese Noh; the clothes
hide the man and make the character. The sounds, the cries, the staccato gestures too are stylized, artificial. Each character is known by its costume and make-up; the quality of acting is judged by the degree of approximation to what is decreed by tradition, and by the force, vigour, as well as the subtleties of the performance.
It is tempting to think that Adoor’s films have a similar dimension of masking reality behind artifice, challenging the audience to discover what it may. The movements of the characters are often, as of Unni and Rajamma in Elippathayam, slow, deliberate, stylistic. Does this have to do with his childhood ambition to become a theatre director? It is not altogether surprising to know that he first considered entering the National School of Drama in Delhi but could not because he has no knowledge of Hindi.
Consistent with this theatre background is the fact that Adoor uses camera movements very sparingly; the bedrock of his filming is the steady shot more often than not at eye level. It is very different from those who resort to the tracking shot as soon as object movement within the frame
ceases, so as to keep things moving and thus keep spectator’s eye engaged. Adoor’s object is to keep the screen full of realistic details and yet eliminate all minor movements, demanding from his audience complete concentration on the central action. In films like Kodiyettam, the absence of music also heightens this concentration.
In thirty years, Adoor Gopalakrishnan has made only nine films. He chips away at his scripts for years, until he has arrived in a lean, muscular form in which nothing is expendable. His films are like Kerala’s ripest coconuts; their hard shells have to be broken if one is to relish their substance.
Part of this shell is formed by his style of severe understatement, his refusal to explain.
To compound this problem, what one finds inside the Kerala coconut is often a powerful absence.
Elippathayam and Mukhamukham are both powered by silence, the frequent absence of words where they are expected. His reticence throws a challenge at the very start of the game; if forces the
audience to concentrate on the image and to pay extra attention to the words when they come.
In Mathilukal, the two protagonists cannot see each other, separated by the wall that stands between the man’s section of the jail and the women’s. There is thus an intense concentration on the words: ‘My films are for an enlightened audience’, Adoor declares blandly, despite the consumerist made-easy pressures building up rapidly, as much in Kerala as in the rest of the country.
Adoor’s early films seem to see reality from the right end of the telescope, as it were; the middle period, one might say, sees it from the reverse end of the telescope, which pushes the characters
out to a distance, where their relationships and behavior patterns stand out in clear relief. Thus,
Swayamvaram or Kodiyettam describe more than they analyse. Elippathayam and Mukhamukham
are more concerned with analysis than with narration.
In Elippathayam, little is spoken to express an attitude. The laziness of the rural rich men folk, their total inability to act is apotheosized in the landlord’s inability to bathe himself, indeed to do anything
other than sit in easy chair, endlessly staring at newspaper headlines. His most active moments find him snipping off grey hair from his moustache. One by one he quarrels and gets rid of his sisters; the eldest, foiled in her attempts to get her share of family property, departs; the second dies of stomach pains without medical attention; the youngest, fed up with her life of slavery to the lazy elder brother, leaves the house. Unable to fend for himself, the landlord confines himself to bed, resembling the rat inside a trap carried to a tank and drowned by the youngest sister at the beginning of the film. This is the rat trap he has created for himself.
Silent repetition of daily chores is used to build up an anticipation of some kind of unknown tragedy lying ahead. Yet it is not a means of creating suspense; indeed, it is the very opposite because it emphasizes the fortitude of the women, the dullness of their chores, the uselessness of the man they serve as unpaid servants rather than sisters. They are not the only ones to behave the way they do, nor are they the only ones trapped in a prison, it is obviously symptomatic of the rottenness of the society around them. Well after the audience has got the idea, Adoor goes on piling the repeats so as to drive the idea home. Each time Sridevi, the youngest sister, goes to dip the rat trap in the pond, she repeats the full action without the progressive abridgement that the other directors would have used. It is only at the end, and well after it, that the images get stuck in our minds. Just as the badi in a raga in Hindustani classical music is dinned into the ear, Adoor’s basic images are firmly grounded in the mind’s eye through the long –held steady shots and their repetition. This makes his films structurally very different from the Hollywood narrative model, giving them a stamp of individuality.
There is intense pressure in Mukhamukham for the revolutionary returning from exile to break into a torrent of words, about his life in the absence, the changes in his ideas, his relationship with his party and his future plans – about all of which he maintains a stony silence, creating a powerful tension. The lack of explanation infuses an ambiguity; the audience is induced to speculate, decipher meanings on its own. Its presumptions, set ideas, knee-jerk reactions, are all shaken off one by one, until the audience has to face the last alternative, the true one, however unacceptable: that the man has had enough; he just wants to be left alone with his drink.
Even in Adoor’s first film, there is an unwillingness to be over-explicit, so as to leave room for the audience to fill in the gaps. We are not told why Viswam and Sita in Swayamvaram have to elope, or why, when they run out of money, they cannot raise it from relations or friends. Such mundane details are left to our imagination. The young couple is on the bus and the bus moves, the film begins.
Adoor’s silence in Mukhamukham brought him the same kind of trouble that Mrinal Sen had faced when he refused to explain where the girl has been all night in Ek din pratidin. Marxists read all kinds of explanations into the silence, mainly the rejection of their policies – everything, in other words , except the human and the obvious one. Inscrutability is not beloved of the leaders of ‘The People ‘.
Predictability is more useful.
However, unlike Mrinal Sen in the instance I have quoted, Adoor has provided profuse commentaries and interviews after the film was released. The audience cannot avoid seeing the disintegration of Sreedharan the revolutionary into the drunk. Adoor tried hard but unsuccessfully in his many interviews to fend off this view.
Sreedharan’s re-appearance is a fiction. It is a product of the concretization of the intense desire of a people caught in a particular situation to get back the ‘man –image’ of a hero called Sreedharan… In an important scene of the film I have used Lenin’s quotation, ’The proletarian movement passes through various stages of growth. At every stage a set of people stagger, stop and are unable to continue the forward march’. This film concerns one such moment…. Sreedharan was a ‘messenger’. He had delivered his ‘message’ and gone. His message is still with us. The mistake is in calling the messenger back and expecting him to fight our battles for us.
Despite this very articulate explanation, Iqbal Masud, in a perceptive essay said:
Sreedharan is built up in the second half with such specificity that he is no mere image of fiction. He is an individual in the process of disintegrating and this is conveyed so powerfully that one sees in Ganga’s (the actor) ruined face and body, the ruins of a once-bright communism.
Cinematically, the most interesting aspect of the film is the power of silence which reaches its pinnacle here.
Adoor’s first film had been by far more definitive. Its rebel couple, who run away from family and tradition,
face a grim fate. After a long, brave struggle, the man dies, on a stormy night and the woman, child on lap, is left staring at the bolted door, outside which wait the patient men who would make a whore of her.
‘The trip from illusion to reality’ as Adoor himself calls it, is complete. Film by film, Adoor moved towards the inscrutable, demanding more and more from the audience.
All of this makes him an outstanding creator of unpopular cinema.
Adoor’s visuals are very Keralite. They breathe the very air of his region, its lush greenery, its moisture settled on every surface, human or vegetable, investing every movement with a slow and languorous grace. There is much palpability in the images; rain keeps pelting down on the dense vegetation, bare bodies glisten with a moist immediacy.
At the same time, they suggest a Japanese way of looking at space. They make subtle use of the architectural similarities between Kerala and the Far East – China, Japan, Korea, particularly the last two. The eye level shots of doorways and horizontal lines of the titled roofs often suggest Ozu, and the fast, low angle lateral shots of movement in front or behind trees and shrubs faintly echo Kuruosawa. Like Ozu, he emphasizes the ordinariness of the ordinary. Eye level mid-shots predominate, and foregrounding, so common with other directors and so remarkable in Ghatak, is somewhat rare in Adoor’s work. The formal compositions, the steady shots held for long moments, the long stretches of a single texture, also recall some silent film techniques.
Cast in the Ray mould, Gopalakrishnan writes most of his own stories, looks through the lens to check every
frame and is in every sense the auteur of his works, in control of all aspects of filmmaking. Asked why he uses
the word ‘realization’ instead of ‘direction’ Adoor replied, ‘Filmmaking is not mere direction. My film is the realization of my concept. The word direction is inadequate to describe that process. The director merely directs. The term does not connote creativity’.
Adoor shares with his compatriots in the parallel cinema a reticence about depicting sexuality, but sometimes
he has used a kind of coarse appeal with fat folds of bare flesh as in Unni’s neighbor out to seduce him in Elippathayam. Earlier, in Swayamvaram and Kodiyettam , the seducing women, similarly endowed, behave in similar fashion, swaying and thrusting their folds at the man. Some characters are free from this- the more independent or modern ones like Sridevi in Elippathayam and Nalini in Anantaram. Does this indicate Adoor’s own dislike for the assertion of sexuality as such? Of course it is possible that he was at first forced to work with unsuitable actresses because, as he says, ’I spent two years looking for non-actors but to no avail. Girls won’t come forward – they think acting is tantamount to becoming a prostitute; the boys are keener on respectable jobs and don’t want to interrupt their studies’.
The puritanical streak may nevertheless be part of him because he does avoid all close encounters among men and women, even in his later films, when the social prejudices against cinema had died down. Unlike Ray, he would perhaps rather avoid a slightly explicit scene than go in for the kind of sanitized lip-to-lip pecking of Ghare Baire.
Beginning with Anantaram, one sees a shift in Adoor’s work towards the visually beautiful. This is as true of lighting and compositions as the looks of the actors and actresses. Adoor seems to have mellowed, grown more amenable to accessibility. Nalini in Anantaram obviously belongs to a later generation in which girls were less prejudiced against cinema and actresses less so towards the parallel screen.
Talking of early times, it is worth noting that the innovations of Swayamvaram caught Kerala and its cinema unawares. They went on up on the Ray model of complete creative control of the film. In Adoor’s work,
Swayamvaram was a kind of revolt by a young and idealistic group of enthusiasts who remained outside the framework of commercial cinema. …. I went against most of the conventions of commercial cinema. There were no songs in Swayamvaram. The entire film was shot on actual locations. I used natural ambience recorded from the location. Barring Sharada who belongs to Andhra Pradesh, no actor or actress dubbed their dialogues’.
But here his resemblance to the Ray-mould directors ends. The rest is Adoor. The power of silence, the quasi-
Japanese sense of space, the solidity of the steady image, the force of repetition – are all his.
The earlier films are composed in a more severe fashion with straight lines, squares and rectangles predominating, the colours restricted and not much of a factor in themselves. Anantaram onwards, curves, circles play their part, colour is more relaxed, and pleasant, lighting more flattering to the skin. It is further softened by the undercurrent of nostalgia in the autobiographical element. The accent shifts from the judgemental in Elippathayam and the contentious in Mukhamukham to a more compassionate, nostalgic mood in Vidheyan and Kathapurushan.
With Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow kill 2002), Adoor reaches new heights, bringing together various strands developed in earlier films. For the first time in his work, there is a lyrical passage of deliberately emphasized, declared, visual charm in the love scenes; in the faces and bodies, in landscapes. A remarkable story, written by Adoor himself, leaves us thinking more than ever before. The many strands of the story, especially the story within a story, make the film rich in ambiguities. What makes it more intriguing is a curious coldness in recounting the love story, it is as though we have seen it all before, and will do so again. That it is obviously
a replay of the Radha-Krishna legend is only a small part of the feelings it arouses in us.
The hangman is a deeply religious person, given to drinking, affectionate towards his family and friends and altogether the opposite of any image that the word hangman might conjure up in us. All facile assumptions are challenged. The picture that emerges is of a man caught in the meshes of his time and circumstances which makes us rethink all assumptions, and in fact seeks to rid us of the very habit of making ready assumptions.
We are forced to think of the more universal meanings hinted at, or numerous ordinary people who must often act as hangmen of sorts, handing out punishments, deserved or undeserved, to people for whom redemption comes too late, in supreme irony.
While the film brings home to one in the end is that it is not individual moral choice that controls human destiny but the network of social and genetic circumstances that determine all conclusions. The hangman’s devout worship of Kali does not deliver him from sin; nor does his son’s deliberate moral choice of Gandhian non-violence absolve him of the necessity to hang a possibly innocent man. Adoor had for long struggled
against the political determination of communist orthodoxy; now he substitutes it by moral determination.
(From the book, SEEING is BELIEVING – 2008)