Featured in the May 2018 issue of The World of Apu film magazine.
The following are notes from two events organised by Singapore South Asian International Film Festival in September 2017. One was a screening of Images/Reflections, a documentary on Adoor Gopalakrishnan directed by Girish Kasaravalli, which was followed by an interaction between the two filmmakers. The other was a panel discussion between Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Girish Kasaravalli, Leena Yadav and Prasanna Vithanage.
[Author’s note: Quotes have been reproduced from memory.]
Two schools of filmmaking
After the screening of this documentary, Girish Kasaravalli spoke about two types of filmmaking, the important distinction between his films and Adoor’s, and how they are from two different schools of thought. Kasaravalli’s filmmaking is similar to Ray‘s and Bergman‘s, with dense and multi-layered storytelling. The filmmaker focuses on adding numerous elements, shades, layers and meanings to the narrative. On the other hand, Adoor’s style is like Bresson‘s, with a certain minimalism, and tearing away everything until you are left with the core. For example, if both are shooting a conversation in a restaurant, Adoor would have only the two people against a minimal backdrop. Kasaravalli would prefer to layer the frame by adding fringe characters in the background, maybe a child to add contrast if it is a grim scene. Their differences motivated Kasaravalli to make this documentary, as he wanted to understand the other school of filmmaking.
Kasaravalli mentioned two other types of filmmaking – Flaherty versus Griffith. Flaherty was all about going to a location, observing it and imbibing it before drawing a story out of it. Griffith liked to lock his story before going into production and creating the sets.
Kasaravalli: Digital tools have democratised filmmaking and anybody can make a film today. It also means someone without any training or qualifications can make a film. Technology has also made the camera less conspicuous, thereby helping in capturing realism a bit more easily, since you don’t have people in public ogling at the camera. Capturing reality just for the sake of it is of no use. Question is why do you want to capture reality? What’s your philosophy? Why are you making the film that you’re making? Without that your film is empty.
Both Adoor and Kasaravalli didn’t seem to care much for technology. They see technology as a means to an end. In fact, when one of the audience members said he liked the camera angles in the documentary Images/Reflections, Kasaravalli gave him a quizzical look and said, “You like the camera angles? Oh okay.” Adoor did appreciate some of the benefits of digital technology though.
Adoor: I use story only to keep the audience inside the cinema hall for a certain period of time, to hold their attention. My actual movie is about something that’s beyond the story. I’m not interested in the story. I’m interested in that which lies beyond it.
In the documentary, Adoor was asked why he frequently has a narrator within his films. He mentioned the mythological epics as his inspiration. The epics always have a narrator, and there are even stories about the narrator narrating the epics. So the narrator creates a story simply by his act of narrating one.
Adoor doesn’t let his actors improvise much. He is particular about getting his vision on screen. He does not even reveal the film’s climax since he feels it might colour the actor’s performance beforehand.
Kasaravalli when asked why his films have strong female characters said, “Bergman made women-centric films, Kurosawa made male-centric films. Nobody asked Kurosawa why he made male-centric films.”
To Kasaravalli they’re all people, male or female. His films are about the people.
During the panel discussion, Leena Yadav said it is wrong to tag her as a female filmmaker. She felt that just because she is a woman, she is expected to always write strong women characters in her films. She was judged whenever she had a weak woman in her film. In fact, after being questioned for the choices she made in her first film, she decided to never make another woman-centric film, but somehow she ended up making Parched.
Snippets from the documentary
A splendid scene from Naalu Pennungal with Nandita Das and Remya Nambeesan was shown. Remya says something to Nandita, who responds saying she needs to take care of the house now. A couple of pots are boiling in the background, with the steam rising behind her back. We hear the sounds of the pot lids bobbing. Adoor spoke about the use of sound to give an added layer of meaning.
While Adoor was shooting Nizhalkuthu, the coconut trees beside the house made a specific sound. He felt as though the trees were asking to be a part of the film. So he incorporated the sound in the film and made it seem like the coconut trees bore witness to the changes that affect the family.
On the use of background music in Elippathayam: instead of going for ornamentation, Adoor wanted the score to feel like it is dropping, falling from a height to echo the film’s theme of decay and fall of feudalism. And the theme is repeated thrice – once when a trapped rat is taken away and drowned in a lake, again when a dead woman is carried away, and finally when a dead man is taken and thrown into the lake.
Adoor mentioned being impressed by the close-up photo of a mosquito he saw in the Time magazine. It was an extreme close-up and showed the mosquito’s belly with a single drop of blood. “It looked ferocious!” He never saw mosquitoes the same way again. He always tried to do the same with his films.
The documentary made a mention of the fact that Adoor’s feet came out first when he was born and his birth was accompanied by rain and thunder. His parents worried that it might be a bad omen, but someone else says, “It’s good that his feet came out first. He’s going to be rooted in the soil.”
Adoor’s daughter says that Adoor’s favourite Apu trilogy film is Aparajito, because his own mother died of cancer before he could reach home from the film institute. So he has a closer connection to that film.
Uma da Cunha, who subtitles Adoor’s films, mentions how particular Adoor is, about the exact words used. She speaks about their long discussions, and how after several weeks, he would suddenly call her up and suggest a better word for a line of dialogue.
Adoor seems to draw inspiration from characters and stories in his own life, like the grandmother character in Kathapurushan, a movie shot in one of his ancestral homes. His daughter mentions that he carefully observes the people around him and is always on the lookout for details to include in his film.
Kasaravalli said that the Film Division of India requested him to make this documentary on Adoor. It took him one and a half years to make it, partly because Adoor fell sick during the making, and couldn’t be taken to locations of his film shoots. He wanted to arrive at a reconciliation of the two styles of filmmaking in his documentary.
I liked the way the documentary layers Adoor’s filmography into the narrative. It is broken down into chapters and each chapter is titled after an Adoor film. For example, four women talk about Adoor and that chapter is titled Naalu Pennungal [Four Women]. A chapter on how Adoor breaks the norms is titled Swayamvaram [One’s Own Choice]. Also, the locations from his films are used as locations for filming this documentary too, like the boat ride from Naalu Pennungal. Towards the end, Kasaravalli uses silent vacant shots of Adoor’s shoot locations and transposes audio from his films on them.
Politics of filmmaking
Adoor: The moment you set your camera angle, you’re taking a political stance.
When asked about the future of communism in India, Adoor said that his most cherished ideal is socialism. He is afraid that word might be removed from the Constitution in the future. As long as socialism is upheld, he does not care which party is in power. He said that Mukhamukham was his most controversial film.
Whenever any film of mine releases, the party people simply want to know, Is it for us or against us?
He mentioned that Mukhamukham was criticised as being anti-communist inside India, especially in Kerala, and it was criticised for being pro-communist in foreign countries. Kasaravalli added that the core of Mukhamukhamisn’t any political ideology.
The film tries to chart the path of any political ideal, its rise and fall and disillusionment. This is the case with any political ideal and that’s what Mukhamukham is trying to depict.
When asked about the rise of Hindutva, Adoor said that half the Hindutva supporters today don’t know Hinduism.
Hinduism has always been a welcoming religion that assimilated other religions into it. Assimilation is perhaps the reason why Jainism and Buddhism are not as dominating as separate religions. Early vedic scriptures contain mention of meat-eating. It was Jainism’s influence that pushed Hindus towards vegetarianism. Hindutva, Gandhi and the charkha are being adopted as symbols by the political parties for their own agenda.
Adoor believed that people can see through this charade.
The art of cinema
Prasanna Vithanage explored why French cinema is still doing artistically well in comparison to cinema from other countries.
This is because in certain countries trade laws have been constituted to not consider art as commodity. In countries like India and Sri Lanka, artists are still pushing for it.
Kasaravalli quickly pointed out that while French cinema has achieved this, it killed African cinema, just like how American cinema killed Latin American cinema, and Bollywood in India killed the regional cinema.
Adoor spoke about how classical art forms like dance and music have a long-standing tradition of appreciation. Children are initiated into these art forms at a young age, they are taught its rules and standards.
But film being a relatively new art form, people think there are no rules, they have no standards or guidelines for appreciation. A great solution for better films to be made and appreciated is for film appreciation to be incorporated in the school syllabus. Such recommendations have been made to the government, but it hasn’t taken any steps, out of fear.
A dancer from the audience said that performing arts are also facing same pressure as filmmakers, to have fast-paced performances and more titillation.
We’re having to jump higher and faster.
Kasaravalli said that while there is indeed pressure on mainstream filmmakers to make their films fast-paced, there are a bunch of filmmakers who have achieved cult status by deliberately making their film’s pacing slow to achieve their goal, like Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming–liang.
When asked about changing times and democratisation of filmmaking, Adoor said that one must adapt.
Everything in nature adapts.
He gave an example of a coconut tree, and how by studying its appearance you can tell what seasons it has been through.
Trends, short films, and “rubbish”
Kasaravalli had a pained look on his face when an audience member went on about how Indian cinema is now opening up to small budget offbeat films like Masaan and big star films like Tubelight and Jab Harry Met Sejalaren’t doing well. I interpreted Kasaravalli’s look as, “This isn’t a new trend.” His look also seemed to mock the fact that the audience member said “Indian cinema” but spoke only of Bollywood.
Adoor responded to a question on the viability of short films thus:
15 years ago, I was a jury member for the Singapore International Film Festival. I awarded the Best Short Film prize to Eric Khoo‘s short film. And several years later, at another international film festival, I had the honour of awarding him the Best Feature Film prize. So it does happen that filmmakers graduate from making short films to making feature length films.
He also mentioned that Eric Khoo’s short film was fresh, the casting was good and the film was made at a time when there was no film school in Singapore.
Adoor frequently used the word “rubbish” to refer to the Indian films of today. He said that the problem for art cinema in India isn’t Hollywood films with huge marketing budgets, but their own commercial films.
They’re being made by illiterate people who know nothing about cinema. People are being fed trash through the television. So they don’t know how to appreciate good cinema.
At Adoor’s home he has shut the TV. Leena Yadav added that movies are being made like trash and treated like trash. She said that the audience in Europe sits through the end titles whereas the audience in India is the first to get up and leave.
I shall leave you with an anecdote that Adoor shared. Once, Mrinal Sen, whom he considers an elder brother, called him up after one of Adoor’s films had released. Mrinal asked Adoor how his film was doing.
Adoor: The film’s doing quite well Mrinal da.
Mrinal: Then don’t you think there’s something wrong with it?
(after a moment’s silence)
Adoor: Actually, it’s not doing that well…