June 05, 2020
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A Master’s Many Idioms

Close analyses of Adoor’s exquisitely crafted films has at its centre the filmmaker’s figure of the ‘outsider’

A Master’s Many Idioms
Sanjoy Ghosh/Outlook Archive
A Master’s Many Idioms
The Films Of Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Cinema Of Emancipation
By Suranjan Ganguly
Anthem Press | Pages: 178 | $40

A door Gopalakrishnan is a reclusive filmmaker. Since his first film Swayamvaram (1972), till his latest, Oru Pennum Randaanum (2008), he has made only eleven films in over forty years. In an interview to Dearcinema in 2010, Adoor reasoned, “Every film is different, maybe because of the long intervals between films. Every time I prepare a new film, I get the feeling that I have lost touch with the nitty-­gritty of filmmaking.... Once (Satyajit) Ray asked me, ‘Why do you take so long to make films?’...Then he saw this film, Mukhamukham. He asked if I had adap­ted it from any literary source. I said it was my own story. Then he... said, ‘Now I understand why you take so long’. I was, of course, very pleased by that comment.” In this social-networking generation, when producing way more than everyone’s cap­acity to consume is the norm, Adoor does come across as an exc­e­ption. He keeps to himself in a brag-loud world of ‘creative’ people whose acumen and artistic expressions cannot be measured with the same yardstick that one uses to assess Adoor’s works.

There are probably quite a few books on him in Malayalam, but there is a dea­rth of quality writing on Adoor’s cinema in English. Gautaman Bhaskaran’s Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema (Penguin India) and Lalit Mohan Joshi and C.S. Venkiteswaran’s edited collection, A Door to Adoor (South Asian Cinema Fou­ndation) are available in Eng­lish. The for­mer is an attempt at being the ‘authorised’ biography while the latter, though an ensemble reading, doesn’t cover all the films of Adoor with equal importa­nce. Hence Suranjan Ganguly’s The Films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Cinema of Emancipation holds the waiting reader with anticipation of a rounded analysis of one of India’s greatest ever filmmakers.

Suranjan’s book starts with a full-page picture of Adoor with a book on Satyajit Ray. This is interesting, since Ray is one director with whom Adoor has been con­stantly referred and at times compa­red. In the Dearcinema interview, Adoor exp­lained: “Romantic realism was his forte, I think.... His films are essentia­lly very lyrical. But, my films are not.” Suranjan takes it further and comments, “His (Adoor’s) approach to realism, with its blend of diverse, even contradictory elements, differs markedly from Ray’s.”

A chapter on Adoor’s rarely available documentary films, and their relation with his features is sorely missed.

Suranjan centres Adoor’s vision on the figure of the ‘outsider’ and how that is linked to a search for emancipation “within a Kerala struggling to define itself between regressive forces and the advent of modernity”. The author elaborates as to how the ‘outsider’ in the social-scape (in Swayamvaram) gets transformed to a more mental one (in Nizhalkkuthu). All along this critical study, Suranjan has made interesting observations. For instance, on Kathapurushan, he remarks, “...all key historical events are kept off-screen. It is thus a personal film that draws on Gopalakrishnan’s life and memories of the time, although it is not autobiographical in the strict sense of the term.” And closing the chapter on Vidheyan, he reminds us, “While his tragic story of abuse, servility, and emancipation acquires its own internal logic, we are not allowed to forget, lest we miss the point, that the man is essentially good and a victim of circumstance. Such an insistence is eventually counterproductive, because it compromises his individuality and encourages us to see him as a certain type or symbol.”

Adoor’s films have dealt with strong-willed women, even though their actions at times are due to patriarchal hegemony. According to Suranjan, most of Adoor’s films have a recurrent motif of men having food being served by women who play the role of provi­der. The other rec­urring, dominant trope is “the doorway against which women are often fra­med. Both tropes are, of course, not mut­­ually exclusive and often appear in conjunction with one another in the same film”.

Adoor has directed quite a few documentary films, which are rarely available like most of his feature films. A cha­­pter dedicated to them and their relation with his feature films was hence missed. But this is a minor aberration. The book provides detailed, shot-­­by-shot analyses of the films, which are free-flowing and have a non-­academic approach. In the ultimate analysis, Adoor’s films engage the individual in relation with society. Sur­anjan Ganguly’s marvellous book promises to incubate interest in the maverick filmmaker and his great films.

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