Adoor Gopalakrishnan has written the screenplay of all his films and several books on cinema, but is not much of a speaker. So it’s perhaps fitting that the two-day masterclass he conducted at the Bangalore International Centre on November 23-24 began with a screening of Kathapurushan, the story of a writer who has a speech impediment. It’s also perhaps why the masterclass was conceived as a series of moderated Q&A sessions instead of a monologue supported by film extracts. While the moderators, film critic Maithili Rao and writer-filmmaker Basav Biradar, provided useful interpretive frameworks to give shape to the discussion, Adoor’s comments proved rather tangential, veering into generalities in response to specific questions, preferring to dwell on personal authorship over collaboration and remaining focussed on the films’ literary aspects when probed on formal choices. But as with all significant artistes, we are glad to receive whatever we get.
Adoor describes Kathapurushan (The Man of the Story) as an “incisive look” at himself. In the exchange that followed the screening, Adoor touched upon the co-production offer by NHK, Japan, and described how he was urged by film critic Tadao Sato to take up the offer even though he had no story idea at that point. Speaking about the colours in the film, he recounted how he wanted to shoot the film between rains in peak monsoon in order to capture the various shades of green intrinsic to Kerala. He spoke of how he storyboards his sequences beforehand, with the cinematographer responsible primarily for the lighting. This explains the stylised shot division of the film’s most memorable sequence: a raid at Kunjunni’s revolutionary press shown entirely through close-ups of typesets, pamphlets, strewn paper, marching feet and cuffed hands.
If the hero of Kathapurushan represents the first type of Adoor protagonist, the individual who rises above the station his situation consigns him to, the principal characters of Vidheyan (The Servile) are wholly products of their environment. Talking about the genesis of the script, Adoor said he changed the Patelar character from a serial killer in Paul Zacharia’s original short story to a naïve, out of step with the times. He also revealed that he had offered the short story to his friend and fellow filmmaker KG George. The latter, it appears, turned it down as he was more interested in the social politics of migrant Malayali settlers in Mangalore, in place of this abstract meditation on power. Adoor also rejected moderator Maithili’s proposition — based on Suranjan Ganguly’s analysis — that his films were about outsiders, maintaining that they were only about individuals. Discussing his casting of Mammootty as the antagonist, Adoor said he doesn’t differentiate between novices and professional actors and usually casts actors in small roles before giving them meatier parts in subsequent films. That this was his third production featuring Mammootty made the star comfortable in portraying a repulsive a character as Patelar.
While the two characters of Vidheyan are products of a system, Basheer, the protagonist of Mathilugal (The Walls), rejects all isms and asserts his irreducible individuality. Adoor remembered his collaboration with Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, the author of the autobiographical novella on which the film is based, with great fondness and respect. He described how the author was sure the film would turn out well when he learnt that the sole woman character in the story would not be shown, but only heard. Adoor spoke about the authenticity of the period details and the prison set that was built with brick and mortar. He stated that the central challenge of adapting the novel was to turn the ‘I’ of the novella into a flesh-and-blood character. Answering the moderator’s question about the casting of Mammootty as Bashir, he said that, in his writings, Basheer had a lofty self-image, which he wanted to bring out through the image of the handsome actor. In the film, Basheer perambulates the prison corridors, amusing himself at first but soon descending into a marked depression — a change in tone that Adoor mapped to Basheer’s real-life spells of schizophrenia.
The last screening was that of Elippathayam (The Rat Trap), arguably Adoor’s most academic, but also most rigorous film. Adoor mentioned that Elippathayam was a film about “sharing”, about our reluctance to respond naturally to change. He detailed the reasons why the film was shot in colour: the Moraji Desai government, having gotten rid of licensing limitations for the import of film stock, enabled the flourishing of colour stock in the country, to the detriment of monochrome. The highly coded colour choices of Elippathayam were thus a virtue born of necessity. He asserted that films, whatever else they are, must function at least as social documents, pointing to the authenticity of the way of life depicted in Elippathayam. For all its ills, he added, the feudal system fostered a more intimate relationship between the landed class and the tillers, as well as between the tillers and the land — something that vanished with the disintegration of joint families and ancestral homes.
The four films screened, all of them Bluray projections, offered an excellent cross-section of Adoor’s body of work. Even with Adoor’s limited commentary on them, it was evident that they stake a claim for the filmmaker as one of the true modernists of Indian cinema. In all the four sessions, Adoor reflected on the long periods of inactivity between his films. He explained that the hardest part is for him to be convinced that an idea is worthy of a feature-length production; the rest follows. It’s good to get stuck working on an idea and return to it after a while, instead of compromising the idea, he said, adding that he constantly asks himself why the audience should see his films, that nothing will change if he doesn’t make films. The last thing the 78-year-old filmmaker wants to do is to repeat himself.