Reeling in the Trophies

Indu Shrikent
Filed on September 3, 2010

A book on one of India’s greatest filmmakers Adoor Gopalakrishnan has long been overdue but Gautaman Bhaskaran’s The Authorized Biography, Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema, has very successfully filled this void. To have culled so much information from a reticent person like Gopalakrishnan is in itself an achievement worthy of praise.

To get to know Gopalakrishnan is to know the history, the life and times of Kerala, and this added dimension makes the biography quite fascinating. In fact, Bhaskaran has made the read even more interesting by placing real life incidents alongside their reel life counterparts. Madhu, the hero of Gopalakrishnan’s first feature Swayamvaram (One’s Own Choice, 1972), once told Bhaskaran that while “others made cinema, Adoor made life”. The author tells of how the filmmaker, “recreated on the big screen men and women we meet everyday, their joys and sorrows we are familiar with, their fortunes and misfortunes we can identify with, and their friendships and fights that are so common in our own existence.”

The easy flowing style makes reading the biography a rather pleasant experience for readers following Gopalakrishnan as he grows up in the stunningly beautiful state of Kerala. The book has been written keeping in mind how the filmmaker delved into his childhood and youth for locations and people. We are given vivid descriptions of the place where Gopalakrishnan was born, where he spent his formative youth; his love for his mother Gouri Kunjamma — “a rarity in her society, who taught her children that only humanity and humility mattered” — as well as detailed characterisations of all the people who impressed upon his cultural frame of mind. In praise of Kathakali, Gopalakrishnan once said, “Had the Russian master, Sergei Eisenstein, witnessed a performance of Kathakali he would not have turned to Kabuki for his inspiration to propound the theory of montage.”

One of Gopalakrishnan’s guardians opened the first cinema theatre at Adoor and that is where, as a youngster, he saw the first Malayalam talkie Balan. Being an artist, he also painted life-like backdrops for the plays he wrote. Gopalakrishnan was barely 10 years old when he started writing plays and his love for theatre continued till he joined the Pune Film Institute. He had enroled there to develop his creative writing skills, but little did he realise that cinema would soon overtake his love for theatre. He was almost “spellbound” by the enormous possibilities cinema offered, and explains, “As much as it offers, cinema also demands. It is a difficult mistress. There are a thousand ways camera lenses, for instance, can be used, but one must be able to make the right choices.”

Gopalakrishnan’s journey to making films is as fascinating as the films themselves. He learnt the craft of filmmaking from great professors such as Ritwik Ghatak, RS Pruthi and Satish Bahadur. He values his film education at the institute a great deal and credits it for his knowledge of filmmaking. No doubt, his struggles to create his early films, the documentaries he made to fund them and the setting up of the Chitralekha Film Society will prove great inspiration for young and struggling filmmakers of the future.

I was also very impressed reading about Gandhiji’s influence on Gopalakrishnan as a young man, which has stayed with him till the present. A simple lifestyle and his insistence on wearing khadi is a testimony to his identification with Gandhian ideals. It is written that he wept profusely on hearing of Gandhiji’s assassination.

I thought the most interesting chapter was Sound of Silence; how he evolved sound techniques for his films. He writes, “I noticed that listening is as important as viewing. The natural sounds beyond storytelling can intensify the effect of images.” Bhaskaran ends the chapter on sound in a beautiful sentence, “Silence exists with sound, between sounds. Sometimes, silence accentuates sound.”

The latter half of the book has detailed descriptions of all the films Gopalakrishnan has made so far. Though a film critic himself, Bhaskaran has wisely refrained from critically analysing the films, but has instead described the films at great lengths: the story, the politics, the metaphors and much more. Gopalakrishnan was well before his time and the films he has made are bold, portraying his free and independent spirit — all of which Bhaskaran has been able to capture very well.

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