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Sunday, Jan. 9, 2011

Adoor: India's master storyteller of the silver screen

ADOOR GOPALAKRISHNAN: A Life in Cinema. The Authorized Biography, by Gautaman Bhaskaran. Penguin, 2010, 281 pp. (hardcover)

Celebrating the centenary of Akira Kurosawa last year, Donald Richie, the noted writer on Japanese films, observed that Kurosawa believed that he existed only through his films. "Take 'myself,' subtract 'movies,' and the result is "zero,' " he once wrote.

According to Richie, author of the seminal book "The Films of Akira Kurosawa," the auteur became interested in his project only when he was assured that it was going to be about his films, not his personality.

A similar sentiment emerges from "Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema," a book on one of India's most celebrated filmmakers. Its author Gautaman Bhaskaran, a veteran film critic and journalist, devotes half the book to the 11 works of Adoor, starting with "Swayamvaram" (One's Own Choice), which became an instant success in 1972.

Eleven films in four decades. That is not a track record to be proud of if you were a director in the conventional Bollywood mold. But then Adoor is anything but conventional, a true creative talent rated along with Satyajit Ray as one of the finest cinema directors the country has produced.

Ray, of course, was the high priest of filmmakers in India and his works inspired a whole genre of New Wave directors like Mrinal Sen, Mani Kaul, Basu Chatterjee, Shyam Benegal, M.S. Sathyu, P.N. Menon, G. Aravindan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan.

Bhaskaran's authorized biography walks us through the protagonist's life in a predictable way, from the moment he came into this world, feet first. There are few sudden turn of events or life-defining moments recorded. However, a lot of space is devoted to Adoor's formative days as a student in the Film Institute of India in Pune, where his talent was recognized.

Admittedly, Adoor is not an easy subject to handle. An intensely private man, reclusive some may say, Adoor translated his visions to celluloid like few have done.

Creative talents like Adoor defy definition. He creates social commentary through his works. All his works have been in Malayalam, the language of his native Kerala, a state known for its mellifluous vocabulary and intellectual depth that gave the world its first democratically elected Marxist Communist government in 1958.

Adoor is a product of an India that was struggling to find its identity through a million mutinies, as V. S. Naipaul said in his seminal book of that name written half a century ago. The influences ranged from Nehruvian socialism that saw expensive industrial mammoths being built with state funds to emerging, struggling entrepreneurship that is the backbone of middle class India, to the Naxalite movement, whose organic violence continues to singe the country even today.

As a young man, Adoor started focusing his vision on finding life in the ordinary — in small villages, in everyday characters, their hopes and dreams and frustrations. His movies were rooted in his native Kerala and touched the raw nerves of real people and real issues. Says Adoor: "Cinema is actually one's experience. One's vision of life. The filmmaker's."

This is what he created with his first, and by far the most successful feature film, "Swayamvaram" (One's Own Choice), which "stormed Kerala's conservative citadel of celluloid," as the author recalls rather eloquently.

In some ways, Adoor has lived his life through his works. While "Kathapurushan" (The Man of the Story) released in 1995 is unmistakably his own life story, complete with the hero arriving in this cruel world feet first, just like his creator, Adoor's other works often reflect past experiences. Like in "Elippathayam" (The Rat Trap) where the protagonist's pain was felt by the audience mainly because Adoor himself had suffered betrayal at the time of making the movie.

Bhaskaran cites an episode to highlight this, saying Adoor was dealt a "stab from behind" by people he trusted when the Chitralekha Film Cooperative, which he established in 1965 along with friends to promote the cause of good cinema, fell victim to a power play. "Elippathayam" went on to win a host of awards, including one from the British Film Institute for the Most Original and Imaginative Work.

But Bhaskaran refrains from plunging into the murky world of personal rivalries, petty politics, jealousies and other factors that resulted in the stab in the back for Kerala's most promising filmmakers in those days.

The biographer's inquiry also fails to travel through an intellectual contest between two of Malayalam cinema's greatest creative minds of the 1980s, Adoor and Govindan Aravindan. In fact, Aravindan gets only passing mentions in the book. The professional and the occasional personal rivalries between the two brilliant auteurs would have made wonderful reading.

Despite its mega size, India's film industry is scarred by self-inflicted wounds through commercialization. In a recent interview, Adoor lamented that filmgoers have stopped taking cinema seriously. "Cinema is very vocal now and it is a very dangerous trend," said the winner of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India's highest honor for an auteur.

In his foreword to the book, Adoor Gopalakrishnan says the author has "done well in not trying to be too analytical about the films" because his films defied simple paraphrasing. He concludes that "this book . . . will throw some light on my life and work. And I am happy it does as much."

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