That was our fourth consecutive evening together. We were at my cottage, on the second drink. In the last four days, I had driven him around the hills, we had been to a brewery at the Mall and trekked up to Chadwick Falls in the jungle. Realising that the word “sir” now sounds dry and distant, I asked: “What do you call a venerable old man in Malayalam?”
“I mean, what do people call you back home in Kerala?”
The novel and the cinema are often autobiographies in disguise; they can be more intimate and revealing than diaries or memoirs. During long afternoons and evenings in Shimla last summer with Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who steps into his 80th year this July, I found myself searching for the person behind Elippathayam (1982) and Mathilukal (1990). Critics now hail vulnerable male characters in recent Malayalam films like Kumbalangi Nights (2019); few recall that Adoor has been portraying such fragile men for five decades. Men who don’t impose themselves on women, are always unsure and anxious of their choices and not ashamed of admitting their vulnerabilities.
Perhaps, the last poet in a major Hindi film was in Kabhi Kabhie (1976), a hesitant man who writes poems for his beloved but doesn’t lay any claim on her and quietly watches her go away. Contrast the increasingly toxic arrogance of the leading men of Hindi cinema in the recent decades with Adoor’s protagonist-writers in Mathilukal or the autobiographical Kathapurushan (1995) — a movie he shot in the house he was born in. If it reflects the cultural difference between the Hindi heartland and Kerala, it’s also the statement of an artiste whose life was shaped by two remarkable women, his mother Mouttathu Gouri Kunjamma and wife Sunanda.
He was the sixth of seven children. Gouri Kunjamma brought him up after his parents separated in his childhood. As a child, Adoor was very possessive of his mother, a generous and compassionate woman, who came from a family that patronised the arts. She played the violin, her brothers had studied painting and sculpture under Raja Ravi Varma’s son Rama Varma. She constituted young Adoor’s world. “Our family was a traditional, feudal kind. But my mother was very kind and considerate towards the people who worked for us. All my basic lessons in human relations were imbibed from her,” he said. Gouri Kunjamma died in 1962, the year he joined the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune.
Her life and demeanour had ensured that he could never “imagine a woman being ill-treated” and would “always oppose it”. “I am very sensitive about any indecency, atrocities on women,” he said. Even when his films depict any cruelty on women, like in Vidheyan (1993), the predatory male gaze is completely absent, as violence never turns voyeuristic.
The parents of Kathapurushan’s protagonist, too, separate after his birth and his mother brings him up. I wondered whether Adoor created a motherly figure in several films, like Rajamma in Elippathayam, in order to trace and retrieve his mother in his art. “It happens naturally. I don’t do it deliberately,” he said.
Sunanda was the other influence. She died of cancer in September 2015, creating an aching absence in his life. “She was my memory, my closest friend in whom I could confide anything,” he told me one evening.
“Yes, we were soulmates. There’s no way to fill up the gap. It’s a permanent absence now. We lived together for 43 years. I never imagined that I would be alone in my old age. During the day, I am busy with many things. I feel very lonely when I retire for the day and go to bed. Those few minutes before I sleep, I think about her. I have her in my dreams.”
“Yes. I wake up from my dream and she’s not there. It’s a terrible feeling.”
It was an arranged marriage. His family went to see the girl. “It was love after marriage.”
“She was a very strong woman. She had great interest in cinema, was very active behind the scenes and had a major role in his movie-making. She would always push a contrary point of view and prompt him to listen to her,” Aswathi Dorje, Adoor’s daughter, now a senior IPS officer in Maharashtra, recalled.
Like many great filmmakers, his first love was theatre. Though he watched a lot of cinema in childhood because his uncle Mouttathu Gopalan Unnithan owned a few cinema halls, he always found cinema “distant” and “not related to our lives”.
He wrote and acted in plays, made some mark as a theatreperson during his student days, obtained a degree from Gandhigram Rural Institute, Tamil Nadu, before he suddenly decided to join FTII, which had just come into existence. He spent his first year at the institute reading only about theatre. Soon, Ritwik Ghatak joined as the vice-principal of the institute and Satish Bahadur as professor of the film appreciation department. The two giants invigorated the campus and the young theatre artiste was drawn to 35 mm.
He graduated in 1965, but it took nearly a decade for his first full-length feature film, Swayamvaram (1972). In these five decades, he has made 12 feature films, besides several documentaries on Kerala’s classical arts and theatre. The two are not mere distinct genres, but different ways of looking at reality. One primarily reflects a creator, the other an observer, a documenter, and, yet, they form a cohesive, creative oeuvre.
Theatre also seeps into his cinema. In a play, the viewer forms a direct bond with actors on the stage, whereas in cinema, the camera intervenes. The chemistry between moving actors and the static stage creates tension in a play, whereas in cinema the tension comes from the camera’s movements. Adoor uses his camera in a way that his frames often come to resemble a stage.
His films were made over several years, as he took to the sets only after deep introspection. He chose to work on original ideas; when he adapted literary texts, he did so “with freedom”. “The original inspiration may come from the story, but that is a point from where I take off,” he says.
Adoor chooses his actors, hands them the script he has meticulously written and they are required to follow him strictly — no improvisations at all. He completely pervades his cinema. “I am present in all my films, in one form or the other. Sometimes as a detestable character, sometimes as a character whom you love,” he says. An artiste for whom filmmaking is an act of absolute concentration. “Even when you are not making a film, you are into dhyaanam. It’s like hatching eggs,” he says.
Adoor has made several films in co-productions with countries like Japan and France but none of his producers ever interfered with his work. K Ravindranathan Nair, who produced several of his movies, never visited the sets. “I have never compromised with anything. I always did what I felt proud about,” he says, adding that “the best of cinema makes you a better person. This cinema is always about humanity. But not many filmmakers make such films. Many filmmakers make a hundred times more money than I do. But I am happy and contented with a decent subsistence,” he says.
When I asked him about any movie that made him feel that he should have made it, he replied: “It works both ways. There are many movies that I admire, I watch some of the bad ones, too, once in a while by mistake and tell myself — I should not make a film like this. I carry a creator, an audience and a critic within me.” Once, he headed the jury of the national film awards. The Union minister for Information and Broadcasting called him, requesting him to favour a certain movie. The request was promptly denied.
We discussed cinema, politics, even the famous 1905 trial of Kuriyedath Thathri, a woman from the Namboodiri Brahmin community, who was pilloried for her sexual life. He allowed me to take photographs, record videos and conversations — as if the filmmaker now wanted to be filmed.
He recalled his childhood memories of baby elephants, their joy when someone splashed water on them. He admired Nehru and shared his vision. “We have been very lucky to have someone like Jawaharlal Nehru — a dreamer, a poet, a visionary and a statesman.” The conversation also turned to Arundhati Roy’s famous novel, perhaps the most known work of fiction on Kerala in several decades. I find The God of Small Things (1997) deeply problematic, as it chooses a Dalit’s body as an instrument of revenge for an upper-caste Christian woman, and completely denies him any voice. The “novel’s politics is bunkum,” Adoor says, pointing out it has not been received well in Malayalam.
He wistfully remembered his old friends Satyajit Ray and UR Ananthamurthy, Ashis Nandy and Ashok Vajpeyi. He was sad that while many mediocre writers have received the Nobel, it continues to elude Milan Kundera. We both agreed that Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fe (1935) is a great novel. Its protagonist believes that books have a greater value than human life. “He was not born into the world for love. He had not married for love. He had wanted to safeguard the future of his books, and she had seemed a suitable person for this purpose.” The self-destructive passion, witnessed in many creative artistes through the ages, eventually consumes him.
Adoor is among the few Indian filmmakers with a vision for the form, whose method and frames have contributed to the art. Ray captured Bengal’s archetypal village, Adoor is perhaps even more firmly rooted in Kerala. The villages and towns of his cinema that portray the decay of a feudal life and the emergence of new communities make him arguably the most authentic chronicler of Kerala post-Independence. Both Ray and Adoor have a universal vision, but they are essentially the narrators of the backyards and basements of their provinces.
I recalled that Abbas Kiarostami, another giant whose art lies in unveiling an Iran we never knew, floundered in Certified Copy (2010) when he shifted his locale from Iran to Europe. Adoor agreed: “It was a poor copy of Last Year at Marienbad (1961).”
But for every rooted artiste, there are also many in perpetual exile, shifting geographies and assimilating various cultures. And even the seemingly rooted ones carry collective memories that transcend their immediate lives.
In Anantaram (1987), a teacher asks his students to name the first published work in Malayalam. The child replies: “The Essence of the Holy Bible.”
He asks again: “Where was it printed?”
The child again replies: “Italy, written and published by Father Clement.”
That’s Adoor and his Kerala.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj is a journalist and the author of The Death Script
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines