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I find the tag “Authorised Biography” on this book intriguing. As if veteran filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s life is some kind of a classified document that he has to ‘authorise’ veteran film critic Gautaman Bhaskaran to write it. On a first reading, the book appears like a straightforward set of lists on Adoor’s family, theatrical background and his films. Was it meant to serve some other, deeper, purpose?
Perhaps to steer clear of controversy, this hagiographical book avoids reflecting upon the tumultuous days of the Indian New Wave starting in the mid-’60s. Adoor was one of the vanguard filmmakers who instilled youngsters like me at the FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) with the essential energy to challenge the tenets of mainstream cinema. Despite his cool demeanour, Adoor was, for all of us, the angry young rebel. The new wave movement praised and abused him with equal vigour. Yet, the chapter dealing with his days at the FTII focuses more on his connection with maestros like Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak than on the influence he had there, both as a student and later as the chairman of its governing council.
There is, however, a small but interesting chapter devoted to his under-graduate days at the Gandhigram Rural Institute. Adoor appreciated the values of Gandhian philosophy there but was also dismayed that the teachers sent their children to elite public schools, thus reducing Gandhi’s values to a mere ritual devoid of soul and meaning.
In this chapter one can feel the loneliness of the artist in Adoor. He was torn between the ideological conflicts he experienced in this remote small town in Tamil Nadu, and his guilt for living far from his mother, who was diagnosed with cancer in Thiruvananthapuram. The long train journeys between the two places must have sown the seeds in his mind for the films that deal with feelings of estrangement and extreme anxiety. The long bus journey in Swayamvaram, the peripatetic walks in Mathilugal, the fast moving passenger buses in Kodiyettam and the nervous swagger of the protagonist in Elipathayam must have emanated from the pain and sadness experienced in those interminable journeys between home and the world.
Balancing between deep roots in a very strong family background and his ascetic adventures into a Gandhian mould, Adoor developed an uncompromising visual aesthetic that is deeply personal and regional at the same time. It was a trait that he shared with celebrated avant-garde comrades like Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal or Girish Karnad.
How delightful this book would have been if it had toured all his contemporaries and enriched today’s young filmmakers with the creative explosion that rocked the nation for almost two decades. It is another matter that this new wave fizzled out by the mid-’80s in the onslaught of liberalisation. But even in such an atmosphere Adoor has stuck to his minimalist approach, a model that needs to be examined in far greater detail within the context of international cinema. I have personally enjoyed his vast knowledge on current world cinema and the insights that he has on some of his favourite contemporaries, who are also his good friends.
Adoor is undoubtedly a phenomenon and he deserves a much better approach than this sanitised textbook can provide. I wish Penguin had exercised some imagination and brought out something more innovative and visually stimulating, like the very films of this Dadasaheb Phalke award recipient. He certainly deserves a richly illustrated coffee-table book with extracts from his scripts, storyboards and musical scores. Here is an individual who virtually redefined compositional approaches to cinema; sadly, the illustrations inserted in this book have merited no thought at all.
In his very interestingly written foreword, Adoor sympathises with Bhaskaran’s predicament of making his transition from a film critic/journalist to an author. Though Adoor wishes that this book would provide the basis for further study and analysis of his films, he also appreciates Bhaskaran’s refraining from analysing his films too deeply.
The second part of the book, which deals with eleven feature films made over 40 years, goes into some details of the individual stories and production highlights that will undoubtedly excite ardent Adoor fans. But any film scholar who is looking forward to some serious deconstruction will have to wait for an ‘unauthorised’ book on the legend called ‘Adoor’.
(Hariharan is the director of L.V. Prasad Film & TV Academy, Chennai)