On His B’Day, Rediscover Adoor Gopalakrishnan: The Man & His Films

On Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s birthday, here’s a look back at the man and his movies.

5 min read

After a lavish family function, my uncles and aunts were leisurely chatting in the front yard when I first heard the name Adoor Gopalakrishnan. I was only about 12-years-old and had forgotten most of the things that was said then but for a joke on his film Elipathyam (Rat-Trap). My uncle remarked that this film begins when a lady lowers a rat trap along with a rat into the water and holds it for 90 minutes. When she finally takes it out the rat is dead and this was the film all about. Everyone had a good laugh but this comment stayed with me even though I knew only about Malayalam action movies, which I was a huge fan of at that time.

While growing up I remember vaguely seeing some of his films in Doordarshan. One of the few things I remember clearly is the final scene in Kathapurushan (The Man of the Story), where Kunjunni’s stammer is miraculously cured and his wife and son join him in singing with joy the Malayalam alphabets.

On  Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s birthday, here’s a look back at the man and his movies.
A still from Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Kathapurushan.
The first time I went to the theatre to watch an Adoor film Nizhalkuthu (Shadow Kill) was with my mother, skipping classes during my higher secondary. The theatre was almost empty except for six people including us. Next day, my friends were surprised when they got to know that I had gone to watch an Adoor film and it gave way for a few jokes too.

Even though I had seen all of Adoor’s films before joining the film institute, it was the learning there that made me realise the mastery that has gone into their making. I have revisited his films many times trying to unearth the magic in them and that’s how I realised how important the process of writing is to filmmaking.

All his characters, whether it is Ajayan in Anantaram (Monologue), Vishwam and Sita in Swayamvaram (One’s OwnChoice) or Sreedharan in Mukhamukham (Face to Face) deal with the fears and doubts that haunt us.

The relevance of the structure of the film Anantaram (Monologue) in regard to its theme, the subtle ways in which the transformation of Shankaran Kutty is portrayed in Kodiyettam (Ascent) and the acute study of the degeneration of a feudal family in Elippathayam (Rat-Trap) shows his excellence as a story teller.

When after my film school I got to know that Adoor was about to start the shoot of hisnew film Pinneyum (Once Again), I had to muster a lot of courage to call him to ask whether I could assist him, as I had the wrong impression that he was very strict and short-tempered.

On  Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s birthday, here’s a look back at the man and his movies.
Christo Tomy with Adoor Gopalakrishnan on the sets of Pinneyum.
(Photo courtesy: Christo Tomy)
I was surprised by his clarity in explaining things, be it the way to his house when I first went to meet him or the instructions to his crew during the shooting of the film. The film shooting was calm and peaceful, like an extension of his persona. While explaining the scene to the actors, I was in awe of his dialogue delivery. When the actors performed well, Adoor would enjoy it immensely and we could see a child-like happiness in him.

One night, the actors got stuck inside a house as a large crowd had thronged to catch a glimpse of the lead pair, Dileep and Kavya. The actors could be moved out safely only after police intervened and the particular scene got postponed.

Adoor was amused by the chaos and moved to the next planned location to continue the shoot. A few other days, rain or fading light played spoilsport. In film school, when my shoots didn’t go according to the plan, I felt cursed and got upset. But Adoor seemed unaffected during such situations and said with a smile “everything happens for the good”. Rightly so, the shoot got shifted to better locations on most such occasions. I understand now that it’s all part of the process and it should be his experience that helped him stay calm.

On  Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s birthday, here’s a look back at the man and his movies.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan with Dileep and Nedumudi Venu on the sets of Pinneyum. 
(Photo courtesy: Christo Tomy)
Adoor only takes necessary shots unlike the common practice which is to shoot different camera angles and then decide later in the edit which shots to use. Even though his latest film Pinneyum (Once Again) was shot on digital (which makes it cheaper to take more shots), his approach to filmmaking stayed the same.

Thatis possible only because he is clear about the emotional arc of his charactersand the story down to the minute details. His shot design is devoid of any gimmicks, rather importance is given to the characters and the narrative. His focussolely lies on the essential not on the ornamental.

As I got to know Adoor more, I found out that he is a warm and gentle human being. Healso has a great sense of humour which is evident in his films but rarely appreciated.

During the shooting of Pinneyum (Once Again), after a take Adoor was not sure if the dialogue was delivered clearly. He checked the particular take again but he couldn’t make out if the dialogue was understandable. While wondering whether it required another take, the cinematographer MJ Radhakrishnan said that the subtitles would solve the problem. Adoor understood the joke and added “only subtitles are necessary for my films” and everybody joined in the laughter.

He jokingly meant that the clarity of the dialogue is not important because people in Kerala would hardly watch his films.

During the last four decades, Adoor’s films have dealt with our politics, society and culture in the most honest and sensitive way. They present an ambivalent view of our society by staying true to its complex nature. He explores emotions and ideas so fundamental to our existence that we can’t help but empathise with his characters. Adoor has shown a rare consistency in his works over such a long period of time and maybe that is because he makes films only when he is so sure of it.

(Christo Tomy is a two time national award winning independent filmmaker from Kerala. After his PG Diploma at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Kolkata, Christo assisted Adoor Gopalakrishnan on his latest film Pinneyum)

(This article is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished on the occasion of Adoor Gopalakrishnans birthday. It was first published to mark the acclaimed filmmakers return to filmmaking after a long break. His film Pinneyum released on August 18, 2016.)

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