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A Door to Adoor (/blog/206-a-door-to-adoor)

ON 10 AUGUST 2014

Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Article Taken From The Book : A Door to Adoor (/books/199-book-adoor-to-adoor)

Adoor Gopalakrishnan's oeuvre spans over three decades and includes a handful of feature
lms as well as some documentaries and books on cinema. He is undoubtedly one of the
most acclaimed of Indian lmmakers after Satyajit Ray, as is evident from the critical acclaim
his lms and retrospectives generate in international festivals.
Adoor's lms map the history of the region from the inside, for all his lms are
autobiographical in a way and are about dierent aspects of Kerala society and life. They deal
with human conditions at the most elemental level and it is their keen observation and
intense sensibility about the 'local' that makes his lms universal in appeal. If his debut
lmSwayamvaram was about the disillusioned youth migrating to the city in search of
livelihood and expression;Elippathayam was about the inexorable decay of the feudal
system. While Mukhamukham is a searing critique at the decline of Communist movement
into a mere party, Kathapurushan takes a panoramic look at the various turning points in the
history of Kerala through the eyes of the protagonist. Other lms like Anantaram, Mathilukal,
Vidheyan andNizhalkkuthu look at life and society from various angles, probing deeper into
the conditions in which human beings nd themselves in.


He made his entry into lms in the early 70s when the 'new wave' was lapping the shores of

the country. A frisson nouveau was in the air and various lmmakers in dierent languages
were making lms that were to change the very look and feel of Indian cinema. But by the
90's, with the withdrawal of the state from such enterprises, there was a certain
disillusionment and agging of enthusiasm and energy. Many of them moved to 'commercial'
ventures while others migrated to television. What sets Adoor apart from other lmmakers
of his era is his uninching commitment to the medium. Never did he compromise on his
vision or stray from his chosen path, as all his lms vouch.
This conversation between Adoor Gopalakrishnan and C.S. Venkiteswaran had appeared in
the Indian lm quarterly, Deep Focus, (October 2001 January 2002). A fresh conversation
with Adoor has been merged to update it.
What are your earliest memories of sight and sound?
One of my earliest memories is of a boat ride in the night. Someone had come to inform my
father of my aunts death. I was ve or six years old and we were staying at my fathers oce
quarters, which was in an island in the backwaters. We started then and there by boat. The
water that was all around us was calm and still and it bore a faint reection of the night sky
lending some faint idea of light and sight. The sound of the oars falling on water is still vivid
in my memory.
Memories of the old past have something to do with tragedies- pain, insult, loss, grief, I
When I was a child, I was a good marksman. I was adept at aiming at any mango or cashew
fruit and downing it with stones. Once, while I was going to school, I saw an owl on a tree. I
dont know what came over me. I aimed and threw a stone at it. And it dropped to the
ground dead. This painful memory has stayed with me since then and still haunts me. There
are many things in life that you cant repair later.
Our house was in the middle of a large garden with a variety of trees mango, cashew,
coconut, areca nut, jackfruit, tamarind. There was hardly any tree I had not climbed. Once on
top of the tree, I would forget about the laws of gravitation. And naturally it was normal
routine for me to fall o them. As it became a regular aair, my mother kept a dish of herbal
oil handy so that she could take it with her every time she rushed to the spot where I hit the
ground with a big 'thud'.
Animals, birds, trees and plants were all part of our life. We had cows, dogs and cats, all
called by name. They were part of the family. I remember an incident concerning one of our
dogs (we called him 'La Fayette') old and inrm and everyone thought he was about to
die. He had almost lost all his hair and was always dozing in some corner of the house. One
day he chanced up on thelehyam (ayurvedic medicine) kept out in the courtyard for sunning.
Before anyone noticed it, he had lapped up the whole of it. My mother had got it prepared
for my sister who was resting after delivery. In a couple of weeks, to everyone's surprise, the
dog started growing shiny hair, and to regain his lost youth. A perfect testimony to the
ecacy of the lehyam!
You are very fond of Kathakali and have made several documentaries onKathakali
artistes like Guru Chengannur and Kalamandalam Gopi. WasKathakali always there
right from your childhood?
There were regular performances at my ancestral house. Our family were patrons of
Kathakali for generations and we had our own Kaliyogam (Kathakalitroupe). There were
artistes in the family too. A cousin of my mother was married to an all-time-great Kathakali
singer. One of the three husbands, all brothers, of my grand mother, had taken to magic as


his pastime. While he proved himself a patron and connoisseur of arts, the other two took
care of mundane matters like managing the farmlands and attending to regular litigation
My earliest experience ofKathakali is that of watching it from my mothers lap. For my mother
Kathakali was almost part of her daily life. So, even as a child, I developed a liking for it as I
watched it in performance and listened to my mother as she explained what was happening
on stage to the women sitting around us.
In those days, at my taravad (joint family house), we could watch a number ofKathakali
performances both with make-up and costume and also without them (Cholliyattam). On
any special occasion like an elder's birthday, a performance was an essential item. We had
the basic unit (a troupe comprised of performers, accompanying instrumentalists, trainees,
singers, greenroom hands, gurus etc.) We only had to gather the stars as guest performers
as is the general practice even today. The costumes and headgear my uncle had got made
were of high quality. Whenever the legendary Krishnan Nair, who was a rising star in the 50s
had any performance nearby, he used to insist on borrowing these very ones. Those days the
glittering parts of the headgear were made out of the shell of insects like the blue beetle, not
gilt paper as they are done now. Their glow in the light of the oil lamp was very unique. A
number of labourers used to be sent out to the elds to hunt for blue beetles every time a
head- gear had to be made.
But the tragic part of it is that I grew up in a period when all this was considered worthless.
What was considered worthwhile was western theatre. So, we spent our time reading,
studying, writing and producing such plays. We were always looking towards the west. I feel it
was a great loss. It was thrust upon us that proper theatre should have unity of space and
time. And we were totally convinced of that, no doubts or hesitations. So, Kootiyattam
orKathakali did not mean much to us. We had acquired dierent yardsticks of quality
judgment, and these arts questioned such rigid conceptions of space and time.
Curiously, one doesnt nd any Kathakali performance in your lms.
True. I have only shown the performers getting ready in Kodiyettam, and never beyond that.
That also, very contextually, just to show a transformation a man transforming into a
female character.
I think your approach to lms is deeply inuenced by Kathakali, its basic elements and
mise-en-scene that combine rigorous delineation of characters on the one hand, even
while maintaining the possibility of improvisation during performance. So in a way, it
is very much open and also rigorous at the same time. This, I feel, is a characteristic of
your lms also especially the way you present your characters and organize your
May be it is there in an indirect way.
For example, when a pacha (literally green, signifying valiant or noble) character
comes on stage, his character is very much dened. But in actual performance, it is
the narrative context that determines expression, and the possibilities for
improvisation are innite. This precision about characterisation is present in your
lms also, I think...
May be. After all, what is a character? A character is revealed through actions and reactions
and the inevitable interactions (and also the lack of it) with others in given situations. There is
possibly no other proper way to reveal it. All human situations are dramatically potent. So if
the person who faces it happens to be plain wooden in nature without any potential for


attitudinal changes, how would a credible and interesting development result? The lessons of

the past as well as the fresh encounters of the present go on to dene his place in the sun.
There can be no single prefabricated approach in these matters.
Yes, the most popular characters in classical arts like Kathakali orKootiyattam are all
villains like Ravana or Bali, and seldom the satviccharacters like Rama. For satvic
characters lack drama and conict in their personality, and as a corollary, in their
Yes, they are also the most colourful characters. It is a red 'thadi' and 'kathi' that shines on
stage rather than the satvic 'pacha' characters. But paradoxically, only those who play the
pacha characters become stars. People admire a Gopi more than a Ramankutty Nair,
despite the visually spectacular and colourful presentation of the villains or demons in
Unlike art forms like the Japanese Kabuki, the presentation of which is more spectacular,
Kathakali requires the minimum of properties and sets. You can perform it anywhere with
the minimum of resources and stage settings.
Recently I made a lm on Kootiyattam - the oldest living theatre in the world - for Unesco. It
was basically an eort to document the theatre art form. A three-hour long lm resulted
though I had shot almost ten hours of it. But then they wanted a smaller version of 10 to 15
minutes duration. It was not impossible, but was not fair to the art, I thought. Instead, I
suggested they watch any 15 minutes from the lm. That would be more in keeping with this
theatre art that takes a few weeks to enact an Act.
This great performance tradition of Kootiyattam and Kathakali, where there is innite
freedom to improvise, where time and space is uidhas all this helped in developing
a malayali lm idiom or language?
I havent analysed my lms on those lines. But I believe that such a culture is part of my
works and runs as its undercurrent.
Kathakali engrosses me completely. While watching a performance, I forget everything else
the external world, all the personal problems There is hardly anything in it that relates to
the present and there is no eort at being realistic. I think the percussion and the ambience
as a whole transport us completely into a dierent world. And it has always been such a
creative stimulus for me. Here each role is being dened anew by the actors each time they
perform it. Now Gopi is dening how a Nalan should be. Earlier it was Krishnan Nair.
Tomorrow it will be somebody else. It keeps on changing and evolving.
Read the whole conversation in the Book "A Door to Adoor" (/books/199-book-a-door-toadoor)









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