Sunday, September 13, 2009

Master of the moving image


Seeing a newspaper advertisement of the Film and Television Institute of India in a tea shop was the biggest turning point for director Adoor Gopalakrishnan

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Adoor Gopalakrishnan was eight years old he was selected to play Prince Siddhartha in a play on Lord Buddha written by his Malayalam teacher Gopala Pillai at Adoor.

“All my cousins and relatives came to see me act,” he says. “Everybody liked my performance.” His cousins still remember the dialogue he spoke that day so many decades ago: ‘Worldly pleasures, don’t run with me, you will not be able to catch me.’

From childhood, plays were held regularly in the verandah of his house. His cousins and friends, including himself were the actors. But when he grew up Adoor joined the Gandhigram Rural Institute in Madurai to do post graduate studies in economics, politics and public administration.

It was at the excellent library there that he came across the works of writers John Galsworthy, George Bernard Shaw and Bertolt Brecht, apart from the plays of Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder.

“A desire crystallised within me to become a theatre director,” he says. When he passed out in 1960, Adoor got a job in the National Sample Survey. He travelled the length and breadth of Kerala interviewing people for data collection. “It was interesting material for me as an artist,” he says. “But after one and a half years on the job, I began to feel bored.”

One day, in 1961, while sitting in a teashop near the bus stand at Chengannur, Adoor chanced upon a newspaper advertisement of the Film and Television Institute of India, which asked for applications for various courses including one on screenplay writing and direction. “I decided to try my luck,” he says.

Adoor went to Pune, sat for the examination and secured the first rank. He also received the Institute’s only merit scholarship of Rs 75 per month. Apart from seeing numerous films, Adoor came under the influence of the legendary director Ritwik Ghatak. “He was an excellent teacher,” he says. “He taught us by showing his own films.”

When he graduated, Adoor returned to Thiruvananthapuram and with like-minded friends started a film society in 1965. He also began working on his first film, ‘Swayamvaram’. Unable to find a financier Adoor took a loan from the Film Finance Corporation. Nevertheless, it took seven years to complete the film, and thereafter, no distributor wanted to show it.

When the film was finally released in a few theatres, it stopped playing after one week. “Everybody dismissed it as a flop,” says Adoor.

A few months later, ‘Swayamvaram’ won the National award for best director, actress, cinematography and film. “This was the turning point for me,” he says. When the film was re-released it became a big success. “Within three weeks the investment was recouped and we returned the loan with interest,” says Adoor.

However, with the profits, instead of making another film, Adoor started a studio, Chitralekha, under the aegis of the Chitralekha Film Cooperative. As a result he had no money to make his next film.

Hence, ‘Kodiyettam’ was shot over a long period of time. The negatives were taken to Chennai for processing and left in the lab since he had run out of money. A year later, when he returned, some of the negatives went missing. So, certain parts of the film had to be re-shot once again.

When the film was completed, once again no distributor was interested. They said, “Who will want to see a film with a bald-headed man in the lead?” The hero was Bharath Gopi.

The cooperative had taken 13 prints but it was released in only two theatres: one in Kottayam and the other in Haripad. After the first show, the crowd doubled and, thereafter, it went on multiplying.

“Within three days time all the exhibitors began calling,” says Adoor. Eventually, the film ran for 135 days in Kottayam. “This was the longest run of all my films,” he says.

Adoor’s next turning point came when K. Ravindran Nair of General Pictures offered to produce his next film, ‘Elippathayam’ in 1981. And it was through this film that Adoor made his international breakthrough.

Out of 2700 films shown at the National Film Theatre in Britain, over a year, one film was selected as the ‘most original and imaginative’ at the London Film Festival. This was ‘Elippathayam’ and it won Adoor the British Film Institute award in 1982.

Numerous brilliant films followed: ‘Mukhamukham’, ‘Anantharam’, ‘Mathilukal’, ‘Vidheyan’ and ‘Kathapurushan’. And along with the way, Adoor has won several international and national awards, including the Dada Phalke award in 2005 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2006. And for the 2007 film, ‘Naalu Pennungal’, he has just won the National Award for Best Director for the fifth time.

At his spacious traditional-style home in Thiruvananthapuram, wearing a brown kurta and dhoti, he looks cool and unhurried on a hot summer afternoon. Asked about the allure of his films he says, “My films don’t work immediately, but over a period of time. Sudden approval comes for commercial films and people forget it as quickly. So when there is a setback I don’t get upset. I want the audience to see the films on my terms.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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