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Book Review
"Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema" Authored by Gautaman Bhaskaran
Reviewed by Dr Rathi Jafer, Director, Inko Centre
"Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema" by Gautaman Bhaskaran

As the subject of the biography, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, himself notes in his foreword, “a journalist is turning a biographer with this book”. The biography, Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema, is indeed Gautaman Bhaskaran’s debut work as a biographer or, as the biographer would prefer, an ‘author’.

Gopalakrishnan’s generously supportive foreword gently launches us into his world as lyrically described by Bhaskaran, who invites us on a journey to discover and ponder his subject’s simple, yet enigmatic life. It a marvellously written book on Gopalakrishnan’s life from birth, through adolescence and early youth, to middle age and beyond, playing out against the backdrop of momentous historical events of national, regional and local significance.

A biography is by definition an account of a person's life, a person currently living or dead, famous or unknown, accomplished or anonymous. A biography is a faithful account of the series of events that makes up that person's life. Bhaskaran’s biography of the well-known auteur-director Gopalakrishnan does this with élan. We are treated, with careful attention to detail, to Gopalakrishnan’s peopled universe. His parents, many uncles and aunts, peers and teachers and mentors all come alive as characters in their own right, their stories running parallel to the many stages in Gopalakrishnan’s own life.

Certain defining characteristics such as Gopalakrishnan’s love for Kathakali or the abiding passion for theatre are captured from their inception: Gopalakrishnan sitting on his mother Gouri Kunjamma’s lap watching in wonder the spectacle of this ancient ritualistic theatre form unfold, and how his early interest in theatre developed as a result of his family’s love for most things artistic- theatre, music, dance and even the art of performing magicians! The descriptions of such momentous ‘beginnings’ are often followed by the biographer’s authorial comments:

His earliest memories of Kathakali are perhaps of brightly painted faces, puffed up costumes and men with slow, deliberate stylized action enacting a story with rhythmic eye movements and arm gesticulations. Secure in his mother’s lap, he would watch a presentation, perhaps wide-eyed… The little lad must have imbibed and retained a lot of this drama.

Talking of his first celluloid feature, Swayamvaram, Bhaskaran notes: I suppose even at that point in time, his heart was in theatre. His first love really. And it must have taken him quite an attempt to pull himself completely away from it…For him, life had certainly been a drama (it still is), and his world, a stage. People made their entries and their exits while Gopalakrishnan stood by watching them. He thought about them, analyzed them…. And he created out of them unforgettable characters…

The famous Victorian satirical writer, essayist and historian, Thomas Carlyle, viewed biography as part of history. Carlyle asserted that the lives of great human beings were essential to understanding society and its institutions. Bhaskaran’s biography not only outlines both the ebb and flow of Gopalakrishnan’s life, but also, in the process, allows us to walk through certain chapters of history. Certain spaces, organisations and people come alive almost like alternative film-reels, running parallel to the main story. There is a reference to an India before and after the Quit India Movement. The idealism of Gandhigram comes alive; the magic of the Film and Television Institute at, Pune unfolds. We feel the presence of Satyajit Ray and the inimitable Ritwick Ghatak as their life stories and powerful influences are drawn out with deft strokes by the biographer.

One could argue that this is a tiresome technique that can distract the reader from the main story at hand. But it is precisely this very technique of dispensing with chronology to freely rock back and forth, between the past and the present, that holds and, indeed, piques the reader’s interest. It is almost as if Bhaskaran was scripting for cinema, telling us the life story of Adoor Gopalakrishnan through free flowing frames that defy the logic of linearity. When Bhaskaran describes Adoor’s dramatic birth; when he describes the influence of folk arts, especially Kathakali; when he talks of Gopalakrishnan’s attempt to start the film society movement in Kerala — images and sounds rather than words fly off the pages of the book. It might not really be too hard a task now for any aspiring filmmaker to borrow material from Bhaskaran’s authorized biography to depict the story through the medium of cinema.

The latter half of the biography is devoted to the presentation of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s films, all 11 of them, starting with Swayamvaram (One’s Own Choice) that “stormed Kerala’s conservative city of celluloid” with its plot too radical for the early 1970’s in India. This part of the book will certainly benefit students, researchers and anyone else who is interested in getting deeper into the world of Adoor’s cinema.

The transition from the life story in the first half of the book to a lifetime’s oeuvre in the second half is abrupt. But this sense of unease is short lived. For as one gets deeper into the second half of the book, with its careful attention to film graphic details, it not the academic research as much as the interweaving of the who, the how and the what went into the making of each film that grips the reader’s attention. The suggestion that the “idea for Swayamvaram may have been triggered by Ghatak’s Subarnarekha” ; the delightful characters in Kodiyettam; the symbolic setting free of Gopalakrishnan with Elippathayam; Adoor’s obsession with casting as a “vital element of good cinema”; the controversy that courted Mukhamukham; the awards that trailed almost every film, the festival circuits that the films circumnavigated and the discussions that inevitably followed are the parallel stories that make this second section absorbing, descriptive and even reflective.

What Bhaskaran does not do — and Gopalakrishnan thanks him for this — is attempt to simply paraphrase the auteur-director’s work. He brings in opinions and reactions to Adoor’s work, but largely refrains from being analytical about the films. It is only in the Preface to the book that some degree of authorial analysis prevails, but that too is broad sweep rather than tooth-comb in its approach. Here are some random references: “Gopalakrishnan’s cinema is often filled with humour that is neither lurid nor loud…many of his male characters are weak…Gopalakrishnan’s cinema is subtle, yet forceful… he is a reluctant speaker, and this unwillingness to speak much is apparent in his work… One of the most critically acclaimed directors after Satyajit Ray, Gopalakrishnan’s cinema is rooted in the Kerala milieu and often mirrors the community’s concerns… “his works draw universal appreciation.”

Throughout the biography one is aware that the biographer finds his subject compelling. “The man’s work is fascinating” is the refrain that runs through the book. Bhaskaran’s obvious admiration for his subject could have easily tipped this book over, hagiography replacing biography. It is to Gautaman Bhaskaran’s credit that the book remains true to his aim of being “descriptive and informative”, its asides and air of informality, putting in place a structure of checks and balances.

True to this aim, the book does succeed in whetting one’s appetite for Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s cinema. For the uninitiated, it is an invitation to discover. For those already familiar with this Dada Saheb Phalke, Padma Vibhushan award-winning director’s oeuvre, it is a call to recollect and reconnect.

Dr Rathi Jafer is currently Director of the Inko Centre (Korean Cultural Centre), in Chennai, India

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