A debutant’s tryst with legendary Indian film maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan

A debutant’s tryst with legendary Indian film maker Adoor Gopalakrishnan

By Anila SK

Colombo, Nov 1 (newsin.asia) – About three years ago, I was among the audience of the International Film Festival of Colombo, where Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the legendary Indian film maker, was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award. After the function was over, he sauntered out of a crowded hall, gently wishing people seated on both sides of the hall. All stood up, to show their respect to an icon. I was on the edge (not metaphorically); meaning an aisle seat.

“Namaste sir.” The word ‘namaste’ made him turn towards the direction where it originated. “Malayali”? He asked; I nodded. He may have asked three questions in less than ten seconds. “How come in Ceylon? What do you do.?”

I had just finished a 6-month crash course in screenwriting in Chennai and returned to Colombo and was not really sure of ‘what I was doing’ at that point of time. Between jobs? Between passion(s)? Jobless? Passion-less? I thought the best way was to state facts –I was in Chennai and have just returned.

Soon his question followed: ‘‘Where in Madras”?

Ceylon. Madras. These two words conspicuously stood out from the rest.Only people from a certain generation would still use them. Old names of cities and places become parts of history, and sometimes, reduce tosimply evoking imageries of the exotic locations they once used to be. I am a bhaktha of antiquity. For me, it generates not just immense respect, but curiosity, and sometimes, a sense of responsibility to preserve and cherish what is diminishing in value.

He paced out. The whiff of an era permeated the air.

While returning home, my ever wishful mind grabbed a fantasy, and lived it to the full. In a meditative mood, I dreamt willfully. I am seated on the floor, with Adoor in an arm chair. I am listening and whetting a screenplay based on his suggestions. Many dreams do not last long. Reality pinches soon. My mind is a safe keep of many such half-baked, half-lived dreams and fantasies. But if they ever came true, it was like dejavu; I was familiar with the settings as I had repeatedly played them back, and lived them several times over. (Wait a minute. Did someone just whisper the Law of Attraction to me?)

It took me a few decades to take a break from my career and explore the intrigue of Cinema that had fascinated me from childhood. One’s inner self chants the ‘now-or-never’ mantra at times. It did for me then. That is how Idecided on a crash course on screenplay writing at the Mindscreen Institute in Chennai.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan

After the course, I had to tread the familiar route: knock on a few doors to assist in a film. These doors hardly open. For a woman, it is doubly sealed! Amen. So I thought of experimenting: consolidate the talent among family and friends, and make a film, which we can always cherish. No major story. Loose script and a near zero budget.

Thus the idea of Orazhcha, (A week), germinated.It was James Joseph, Director of the film Galileo and the Faculty member of Revathi Kalamandir Film Academy in Trivandrum, who advised me to color correct it, as he saw ‘something’ in the story. He said “don’t feel apologetic,” when I had my misgivings.

Looking back, it was the best experience in learning.

We made Orazhcha. (A week).It slightly (only slightly) went beyond being a movie, which would only remain within my family; it was premiered at the Jaffna International Cinema Festival in 2016.

While planning for a private screening in Trivandrum in July 2017, after a couple of screenings in Colombo, I had a wish to show Orazhcha to Adoor. A journalist friend of mine, a gifted photographer,was more than happy to help arrange a meeting.

So it happened on 17 July 2017.

It was around 8 pm, when my sister, my journalist friend and I walked into his house in Aakkulam, in Trivandrum. While expecting a guard to open the gate, Adoor himself opened it for us.Clearly distinguishable; he was the only white in that dark night –everything was white on him – vest, shorts, shoes and socks; even the hair. He was taking the usual, evening, brisk walk in his large garden, where his house, modeled in the ancient tradition, with elegant pagodas stood in isolation from the rest of the world.

We were escorted in. I pinched myself softly to feel if it was real. His home was like a set in a film. Dim lighting. Aesthetically decorated walls, with a few unmistakable masks from Sri Lanka, his “Ceylon”. Only footsteps one could hear in that large house was that of silence.

He wanted to take a shower; but started on a conversation that went on for a long time. Adoor, known for his serious gait and measured way of talking, was in clear contrast to the man seated in front of us that evening. He spoke lavishly and with an air of familiarity, like a long lost friend! Topics went from one to another randomly – from Sri Lankan arts, masks, and politics to the status of ‘new-gen’ films in Kerala.

His pace slowed when he spoke of Malayalam films. His reservations towards the current blockbusters were obvious. “I do not watch Malayalam films. What is there to watch? But I would watch a genuine attempt, a good story, even if it has technical gaps.” My fears compounded to share my debut work with him.

It was like sailing in a boat, from one shore to another. From one topic to another. We spoke randomly of things known and new. He commented on Malayalis’ crude ways. He spoke about the prank calls he gets in the middle of the night. “Coward, he will not identify himself. Why should I respond? We get such nuts.”

‘Sir, I do not know what fear is. I freely travel even at night in Colombo. When I get home in Trivandrum, I have this unknown fear, and I am sure it is not just because I live out mostly. It worries me.” I aired a genuine concern. His answer was quick with a grin: “it is best that you stay in Colombo.”

We could make out that no one else lived in that house with him. He probably lives with his thoughts, stories and books.

He did a quick shower, and was ready to watch my film. Surprise would be an understatement. I least expected it. I had planned to give him the DVD and collect it later so that he could watch it at his convenience.

He led us to his magnificent study. One can easily get lost in its ambience and character. Quietly loud. Deafening silence. The oxymoron would best explain what I felt.

He placed the DVD on to the UPS and pulled a chair next to him for me to sit. Some of those silent moments were awkward. His open, free treatment towards us was the awkward part, as I had never expected that warmth. Now, sitting next to him, and watching my debut did something to me. I was seeing things I did not see earlier; I wanted to cut the film into half; I saw only mistakes; I wondered why, after all, I took it to him? Why did not I write a proper story? But he patiently watched; dozed off too at times! But he was non-judgmental.

“There are many nice things about this film; but you did not come here to hear them, did you.”?

I smiled.

He chose a few shots to explain what he thought of them. How could they have been different? I listened intently.

We sought permission to take a few pictures with him in his study. My talented photographer friend was waiting earnestly with his camera. He froze some precious moments. I overwhelmingly told him, “Sir, this is like dejavu to me; or more like a script I knew. The only difference in the script is that you are seated in your office chair and I am not seated on the floor. I have had a vision of this scene, a few years back.” He rewarded my excitement with a fond smile.

Scene in Orazhcha ,a film on a week in the life of an old couple in Kerala

It was nearly 11 pm. We had spent almost three hours with him. While taking leave at the door, he asked me ‘how old is your daughter.’ I had referred to ‘mol’ (daughter) for writing the movie’s original name on the DVD in English as ‘Orazhcha,’ which he had found amusing.

“That is my niece, sir. She is an undergrad.” “Oh,” he smiled again.

Then he presented my take away of the evening. “As a first attempt, this movie is good.”

What he said after, I am sure, will stay with me for the rest of my life.

“Kindness is not what you maintain in film making. You have to cut ruthlessly at the editing table. Once you shoot, don’t fall in love with your shots. Let go of them.”

We said good bye. Immensely thanking him for the time he spent with us, for us.

I walked away, still awestruck with the fact that he just opened his doors to us, strangers. His willingness to meet and listen to a person, who claims to have made a debut film, not knowing what exactly it was about, spoke something about the person and film maker he is.

He did not have to meet us, who appeared from nowhere. But he did. He listened; spoke freely, respectfully, genuinely and affectionately. I have had some unpleasant experiences while trying to take my first steps in the field of film making. I have seen many friends undergo the same. Mentors were not easy to find. Some who had made it big, often perpetuated an exploitative work culture for the newcomers, who largely remained disillusioned. But this experience, to me was rich, different, absolutely invigorating and humbling.

When we stopped near a night kiosk for a spot of dinner, I experienced a reassuring calmness that went beyond just living a remote dream of meeting him.

The next day, I woke up with the same calmness, and edited out ten more minutes of the film, ruthlessly just as he said. That mantra worked for me. I am sure, it always will.

Thank you sir, for your time. For everything you said, left unsaid, and punctuated in between.

(The featured image at the top shows Adoor Gopalakrishnan watching Oazhcha with Anila and her sister)