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Adoor Gopalakrishnan -- Man of the Story

I think it was in '71. I was then a boy of ten, no different from other boys my age and more interested in Cricket, school strikes, Prem Nazeer movies and climbing trees than the boring chore of studying. So when the news of a movie being shot only hundred meters away from my home in Thiruvananthapuram spread like wild-fire, I was naturally thrilled. Those days outdoor shooting was unheard of and hence our curiosity was all the more piqued. My school leader also came to know of the shooting and, the resourceful chap that he was, he promptly invented a reason for a strike that would keep us away from school for a week.

They said the title of the movie was “Swayamvaram” (Ones own choice) and had Madhu and Sharada in the lead. The director, a man called Adoor Gopalakrishnan was a nobody then. When someone told me Adoor was involved, I had expected Adoor Bhasi, one of the greatest comedy/character actors of Malayalam cinema. In those days a movie without Bhasi was unthinkable and was doomed to fail.

Madhu, Sharada being household names, the prospect of seeing these divine personas in flesh and blood gave us goose bumps. So my teenage sister accompanied me to the shooting hoping to see them running around trees and singing songs. After a few days of standing in the hot sun and being “massaged” by the sweaty throngs around us, we were both a trifle disappointed. And to make matters worse, there was no Adoor Bhasi. Nonetheless the thrill of having watched how movies were manufactured gave us some cause for satisfaction. At least when the school reopened I had something to brag to my pals (after adding generous helpings of my “masala”).

When my uncle casually mentioned that “Swayamvaram” won the national and state awards for best film before it was even released formally, we were quite surprised. When it finally hit the theatres in ’72, my uncle made us happy by bringing home three tickets for the matinee. Hoping to spot our faces when the camera panned the crowds, my sister and I eagerly went for the show with my uncle. There was hardly a handful of people in the theatre. Most of them wore long jubbas and scraggy beards and carried long cloth bags slung lazily over their shoulders. They were the type you found hanging around in the Coffee House drinking endless cups of coffee and talking of revolutions in faraway places. It is needless to say that none of us liked the film, though for different reasons. I was disappointed to see not even one decent “stunt scene” in this whole sorry excuse for a movie. For my sister who was surviving on a Mills & Boon staple, the movie was a complete let down since there were hardly any love scenes or duets, despite this having the thoroughly misleading title of “Swayamvaram”. To my uncle, it gave him a headache.

I began noticing Adoor as an unassuming man found often near a “Murukkaan kada” beside the Forest Office, having a chat with the shop owner, or zipping by Vazhuthacaud in his Vespa (I think), with his leonine mane trailing in the wind.

Five years later, came “Kodiyettam” (The Ascent). By then the heat of youth was flowing quick through my veins. My interest in movies ranged from the brainless Bonds to the more cerebral art-house movies of the time. “Kodiyettam” too won a couple of awards and when I saw it, I had the distinct sense that I was watching a work of genius. Although much of the fine nuances escaped my untutored mind, I could in some strange way identify with the protagonist of the movie, who was a simpleton smothered by his surroundings. Gopi as Sankarankutty, left an indelible impression in my mind. He later won the Bharath award for this role. It sensitively portrayed the decay of the Nair society in Kerala. It went on to win the national award for the best regional film and best actor.

Then in ’81 “Elippathayam” (The Rat Trap) was released to much critical acclaim. This was his first colour movie. By this time a quite renaissance was happening in Malayalam cinema and in particular in Thiruvananthapuram. This was partly fuelled by the formation of the Soorya Film Society some time in ’78-79. Movies began to get more serious and the themes more offbeat. The directors ranged from the pure art-house ones like Aravindan (“Utharaayanam”, “Kaanchana Seetha”, “Thambu”, “Pokkuveyil”, “Chidambaram” etc), John Abraham (“Agrahaarathil Kazhuthai”, “Cheriyaachante Kroorakrithyangal”, “Amma Ariyan” etc.) to the fence-sitters like KG George (“Swapnaadanam”, “Ulkadal”, “Kolangal”, “Mela”, “Yavanika”, “Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flash Back”, “Aadaaminte Variyellu”, “Irakal” etc), P.A Backer (“Kabaninadi Chuvannappol”, “Manimuzhakkam”, “Chuvanna Vithukal”) somewhere between art-house and serious main-stream. Then in the serious mainstream movies, we had a whole host exceptional directors like MT Vasudevan Nair (“Nirmalyam” – for which PJ Anthony won the Bharath award for best acting), Hariharan, Bharathan, Padmarajan, Siby Malayil etc. Shaji Karun (of the highly acclaimed “Piravi” and “Swaham”) and TV Chandran (“Ponthan Mada”) came later. Coming back to the Man of the Story, the Unni (wonderfully portrayed by Karamana Janardhanan Nair) of “Elippathayam” was a study in contrast to the Sankarankutty of “Kodiyettam”. While Sankarankutty was a simpleton constantly amazed with the world around him and in the process looking ever outward, the life of Unni presents an inward journey to seclusion and hopelessness. The movie went on to win the prestigious British Film Institute Award.

I think it was in ’82 that, during a Soorya film festival, I had the opportunity to see “Swayamvaram” once more. But this time I enjoyed the movie for its stark realism.

“Mukhamukham” (Face to face) was his fourth film released in 1984. Though it attracted some bitter controversy, it was one of his finest works. It tells the story of a trade unionist leader, Shreedharan, who was idolised by the communist movement until his sudden disappearance. He becomes a legend of mythic proportions during the ten years of his absence. Suddenly he returns an alcoholic and a ghost of his former self. From the lofty heights of being idolised as a pioneer of the movement, he sinks to degradation and an object of ridicule. He is finally murdered by a mob. But on his death he becomes a martyr to the cause and put back on the pedestal. In many ways, Shreedharan’s life is allegorical to Kerala’s communist movement itself and this did not find favour among the party leadership and hence invited severe criticism.

Then came perhaps Adoor’s most abstract work – “Anantharam” (Monologue), in ’87. In “Anantharam”, Ajayan, the protagonist, is a talented youth who gradually loses his capacity to differentiate the real from the illusory. What makes the movie brilliant is that the entire tale is retold as a monologue by Ajayan himself, frequently flitting between these two states of existence. Ashokan handled the role of Ajayan, while the Malayalam super star, Mammootty also had a major part in it. It too went on to win local and international awards.

In 1989 “Mathilukal” was released, which was based on a novelette of the same name by the celebrated Malayalam writer, Vaikom Mohammed Basheer. The story is partly autobiographical and tells the life of Basheer during his incarceration in the Trivandrum Central Jail as a freedom fighter in the ’40s. He develops a relationship with a woman beyond the wall (in the women’s jail), whom he never sees. Mammootty acted in the title role of Basheer, his second role in an Adoor film. The movie won the national award for best direction, best audiography and best regional film.

Next came “Vidheyan” (The Servile), in 1993. This was a dark and brooding film about an immigrant worker, Thommi and his relationship with his cruel master Bhaskara Patelar (Mammootty, in his third Adoor film).

“Kathapurushan” (Man of the Story) was Adoor’s eighth feature film released in 1995. It tells the story of Kunjunni with the backdrop of the communist movement in Kerala. It is an epic tale covering almost forty years of Kerala’s history. It won the national award for the best feature film and best supporting actress, besides the Kerala State Awards for best director, best supporting actress and best supporting actor.

Adoor’s last movie, “Nizhalkuththu” (Shadow kill), was released in 2002. It is a period movie set in pre-independence India of the ’40s. The protagonist is Kaliyappan (sensitively portrayed by Oduvil Unnikrishnan), a hangman in the princely state of Travancore, south Kerala.

Apart from feature films, Adoor has also made several documentaries and short films.

In recognition of his contribution to world cinema, the French government recently (in May this year) conferred on him the ‘Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters’ award, the second highest honour to a civilian. The only other Indian to be awarded the French government’s award was Satyajit Ray.

(Hari Kumar -- July 2003)