A documentary on Adoor Gopalakrishnan eschews biographical comprehensiveness in favour of fascinating glimpses into the filmmaker’s mind

How do you begin a documentary on a famous filmmaker? Prasanna Ramaswamy, the director of Lights on Adoor Gopalakrishnan, has the man walk into a room and ask an unseen assistant, “Is the lamp in the field? At the edge?” He is setting up a shot. Gradually, we see others, and we see equipment. “Let me sit here itself,” says Gopalakrishnan, settling into a nook by the camera. “Camera angle should be changed,” he says. The cinematographer asks, “She will stand there?” “No,” says Gopalakrishnan. “She will have an entry.”

He instructs Leela, “You come behind him. Look inside. Just stay at the door.” She makes affirmative sounds. Gopalakrishnan says, “Action.” The actors behind him swing into action, but he doesn’t look at them. His eyes are on the monitor. They seem to have done what he wanted. “Okay, take,” he says. He removes the headphones and asks, “Did the last one get recorded?” After some discussion, he says, “Let’s record it once more.” They hear a motorcycle outside. They decide to wait till it passes.

The scene shifts to an interview in front of an audience — and again, we are thrust into the middle of things, with Gopalakrishnan saying that he doesn’t make art films, just films. “It is the critic who terms it art and commercial and things like that.” And then he decides that some differentiation has to be made. “Films which are made with certain conviction and without compromise, we tend to term them art films or offbeat films. It is better to call them offbeat, because ‘art film’ is a very bad term now. Immediately, you think this is the kind of cinema that you should avoid.” The audience laughs.

A woman gets up to ask where the choice took place in Swayamvaram, which was Gopalakrishnan’s first feature. “Swayamvaram is choosing oneself,” he says. “The film starts with a choice. This girl and a young man, they have made a choice in the beginning... Then they come to a small town... This is a trip from illusion to reality... The film ends at a time when she has to make a choice.”

As these opening scenes suggest, Lights on Adoor Gopalakrishnan isn’t a chronological or comprehensive detailing of Gopalakrishnan’s life. We don’t begin with his birth and his schooling and his precocious talents that kept teachers in thrall. And we don’t follow his career from Swayamvaram to Oru Pennum Randaanum, his last-released film, along with the numerous documentaries in between. There is no voiceover ushering us through any kind of overly determined narrative, no attempt to come to terms with the importance of his work, and there is no background music either, imposing on us emotional directives.

If this documentary is about anything, it’s the sense of what it’s like to be around the man as he reads out excerpts from his writing on Adoor (his native village), or muses about his process for dealing with a script on which he gets stuck, or potters about his garden, commenting on a bloom (“the hotter it is, the redder it is”) and marvelling at plantains that thrive despite receiving no manure or water. Hanging out with Adoor Gopalakrishnan would have been an apt title.

Even when it comes to discussing Gopalakrishnan’s films — all in his own voice — Ramaswamy doesn’t, for the most part, follow the clichéd format of breaking the filmmaker’s reminiscences with relevant scenes. (The exceptions are when, for example, he discusses the sound in Elippathayam while looking at the movie.) Gopalakrishnan talks about Nizhalkuthu while going through a stack of stills from the film.

The effect is that of a flipbook, with his words providing commentary: “The reality of a dream is more intense because it is bereft of all unnecessary details. It goes to the very core of an experience.” He talks of a palm tree in the film that’s almost a member of the family. “I was going around looking at the location, at the trees, at the landscape, everything. Then, I suddenly heard a rhythmic sound from this palm tree which almost resembled the heartbeat of a human... And I said to myself that this is the heartbeat of the film.”

And somewhere, this segues to an admission that he associates the past with greenery. Kathapurushan is in some way a journey to the past, so he shot the film during the rains, because he wanted different shades of green. Whereas in a film like Mathilukal, there is very little of the outside world, so he had to bring in nature, inside the walls of the jail. “You bring in the birds, you bring in the squirrels, creating a world within the walls.”

He speaks of his documentaries on performing traditions as well, recalling early memories of watching Kathakali performances from his mother’s lap. And it all comes back to the movies. “Koodiyattam has this fantastic practice of having a performance only when there is at least one knowledgeable person sitting in the front row. It is not for the uninitiated. It is very interesting, highly evolved art. The art is not for one who doesn’t care. Only cinema has been trying to do that, you know, trying to please everybody — in that process degrading itself to such depths.”

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