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Books

Tracing Adoor Gopalakrishnan's life in cinema

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Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema By Gautaman Bhaskaran Penguin 218 pages, Rs 599

Gautaman Bhaskaran, the authorised biographer of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, is in awe of his subject and lets him direct the book. The result is an uneven book that fails to do justice to one of India's finest-ever filmmakers. The access he seems to have had to the master director doesn't translate into insights about the man or his work. The fawning prose doesn't help either.

In his foreword, Adoor says Bhaskaran mostly depended on interviews with him for the book. He appreciates the fact that the author has done well in not trying to be analytical about the films. Well, many readers may not mind some analysis. They might have even wanted the author to place Adoor's commentary on his life and works in its socio-cultural context.

The first few chapters of the book introduce us to Adoor's childhood and family. The Nair joint family he grew up in is sketched in detail. The cultural ambience is provided by a crumbling feudal order. Expectedly, Kathakali is an influence and there is a lot of indulgent talk about this classical theatre's influence on his art. But, how did this art form shape Adoor, the filmmaker? In many ways, Kathakali, which revels in exaggeration, is a total contrast to Adoor's minimalist cinema. Anti-heroes are the lifeblood of Kathakali plays: In the deep recesses of their souls lies the truth of Kathakali. This is a far contrast to Adoor's world where anti-heroes just don't exist and heroes hardly engage in any heroic acts. Adoor's continued fascination for Kathakali is evident in the documentaries he has made of some of the finest actors of our time - Chenganoor Raman Pillai, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair and Kalamandalam Gopi.

Similarly, Bhaskaran tries to trace a Gandhian in Adoor. His decision to study in Gandhigram Rural Institute, an innovative experiment to link the Gandhian vision of constructive programme and Nai Taleem by G Ramachandran, could perhaps be identified as a clue. As evidence of Adoor's belief in non-violence, Bhaskaran writes that the director refused to kill a civet that had urinated on his books and documents. Violence, perhaps, is not much of a theme for Adoor, even in films like Elippathayam and Vidheyan which are studies in power relations within the family and the society.

The chapter on music in Adoor's films has interesting observations. Adoor credits Ritwik Ghatak, his teacher at the FTII, for introducing him to the creative possibilities of sound. But he adds that the teacher failed to recognise the student when Adoor met Ghatak some years after he passed out of the institute. The reflections on animals and birds that complete the cast of Adoor's films too indicate the possibilities that the master director offers a biographer.

They remain only possibilities because the biographer seems oblivious of the sociocultural ferment that helped Adoor make his kind of films. We would have liked to know why the film society movement flourished in Kerala or how a film cooperative could produce films with a new sensibility? This is important for Adoor's work as the movement spawned a new generation of filmmakers, and film watchers, who were concerned more about the aesthetics of cinema than commerce. Similarly, why was a film like Mukhamukham seen as a virulently anti-Left film in Kerala whereas, elsewhere, many critics saw it as a sympathetic reading of the Left movement? Adoor's cinema is a reflection of the modernist tradition that influenced Kerala's cultural and political preferences in the second half of the 20th century. His universality is born out of its local roots. Bhaskaran sees the foliage but is clueless about the roots.

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