Cineaste and filmmaker C.P. Padmakumar lived many lives and played many roles in his reel and real lives.
Padmakumar's sudden departure was shocking for various reasons. For one, there was no serious indication about his failing health, nor did his demeanour reveal anything imminent. Until a few days ago, he was in his element – active and in the middle of many things; all this make the exit of this gentle soul poignant and painful, especially in a world where grace and hope are becoming rare.
Padmakumar lived many lives and played many roles. He was art director to many films of Aravindan, and even acted in a few. In his life as a filmmaker, though he made only two feature films and few documentaries, he never grumbled or hankered for more. But he never stopped trying. For instance, he, along with George, poet-painter and a long time friend and co-scenarist of Padmakumar's films, had written many scripts during the last three decades, though most of them didn't turn into films. “But we always enjoyed the whole process of writing, which were actually long spells of silence and togetherness,” recounts George. And, whenever opportunities did come his way, he gave them his heart and soul, as is evident in his films.
He was always busy and happy doing things and more importantly, was also happy doing nothing. For instance, he loved the thrill of music, but also the tranquillity of silence. He loved cinema – not just making them, but also being part of it. Thinking and talking about his new film projects always excited him, but so too did the works of his fellow filmmakers, especially those by youngsters, whenever they broke the rules and extended the horizons of our experience. He enjoyed travelling and wandering, but also loved long sessions of talking and singing with friends. He always held fast to his convictions and never succumbed to pressures.
When he made a documentary celebrating 50 years of Indian independence that dealt with the perceptions of the old generation, he was asked to edit some ‘objectionable' comments made by the veterans in it. But Padmakumar refused to relent and stood by the truth of his footage.
A free spirit by nature, he never worked in an institution in his life, nor did he opt for a contractual relationship like marriage. Like his choice of cinema as his life-passion, these too were decisions he took, rather than things that ‘happened' to him. Even in his films, he was less interested in dissecting and analysing what is, but more in what could be, and in creating narratives that gave expressions to the many worlds that life offered. The film projects he had in mind like ‘Neelambari' and ‘Paragam' were also intended as non-linear explorations about freedom and creativity.
Like any other film artiste, Padmakumar too had passionately worked on several dream projects that were never realised in celluloid. And in both the films that he finally made, one can see glimpses of his vision.
For instance, his first film, ‘Aparna' (1981), made almost at the end of the high noon on Malayalam ‘art cinema', spurned the linear and tried to weave its narrative in the structure of dreams. At the centre of that spectral world was a woman waiting for her lover, a radical political activist. It was a heady mix of extremism, existentialism, and experimentation typical of the period, but in its form, the film broke the linear hegemonies, not only of film narratives, but political and aesthetic imaginations too.
His better known film was ‘Sammohanam' (Enchantment, 1994) in a way a variation on the femme fatale theme set in a remote village. Here also, at the centre of the narrative is a woman who comes to an idyllic village and casts her spell over it. The film is about the ripples she creates – first of curiosity, jealousy, and infatuation, then of love, lust, passion, and possessiveness – all culminating in violence and death. While the verdant landscape of the village foregrounds the tension between nature and culture; the array of characters represent the diversity of life, and various aspects of the feminine and the masculine, and man-woman relationship. At the social level, it is a world that encompasses the settler-farmers, craftsmen, artisans, gypsy traders, oracles and shamans. ‘Sammohanam' is about this irresistible enchantment that life forces cast upon us and about the ultimate elusiveness of desire, and the futility of possession. Padmakumar renders this elemental theme of passion, love and violence as a finely structured and haunting narrative.
Padmakumar was part of all the radical endeavours in Kerala. Inspired by the frisson noveau of modernism in Malayalam, he ran a little magazine Nithyatha. He was keenly interested in painting and sculpture all through his life; it was a passion that also found expression in his art direction to the films of Aravindan. He was passionate about music and sang well: his evocative rendering of the Gitanjali song by Tagore in T.V. Chandran's ‘Padam Onnu Oru Vilapam' is unforgettable.
A passionate traveller, long journeys punctuated his work, energising his tranquillity. His recent film – ‘Mind that Flows' – about Himalayan journeys with his brother is an attempt to capture the spirit of the jamgama in him, and the yearning for the beyond, physically in space, emotionally in mind and spiritually in mind.
Padmakumar didn't demand anything from anyone or impose anything upon the world, but he was a gentle and encouraging presence whenever and wherever something different happened. “As a person Pappan was always happy and contended, and never bothered about lost opportunities. But, it is we who lost many potential works of his, if only our society had cherished them to fruition,” says George.