Prasanna Ramaswamy on her documentary on Adoor Gopalakrishnan

“I won't call it a film ‘on’ Adoor Gopalakrishnan. For starters, it is not a biopic. It is a film which explores what is engaging for me about him, his work,” says Prasanna Ramaswamy, theatreperson and filmmaker, who is in the city for the screening of her documentary Lights On Adoor Gopalakrishnan.

A theatre director with 22 full length productions and a recipient of the State award for theatre, her first feature-length documentary was Desired Melody on Sanjay Subrahmanyam. Her other major works include, Dancing Life - Malavika Sarukkai and Celebrating the Word, an hour-long documentary on Indian English Writing made for The Hindu, during the first Lit for Life Festival. She is currently shooting a film on the Tamil writer Ashokamitran. Excerpts from an e-mail interview

A documentary on an eminent filmmaker like Adoor Gopalakrishnan is a formidable task that demands a responsibility and a commitment to fidelity. Where does the beginning of such a project lie?

I would say the beginning is from my excitement about his created work as well as the admiration about his intense involvement with his work. The aesthetics of his image, minimal and dense narration, very rooted and culture-specific discourse, his intellectual rigour and his unfailing faith in art have always greatly appealed to me.

I have done what I always try to do in my work: to avoid 'information', which a viewer can easily get from other sources; I believe that the time of my audience is precious. I try to work on an evocation by bringing in moments of experience through image as well as word and leave it open for interpretation, as I trust their intelligence.

What was the sort of homework that went into the work?

I was somewhat clear that all the talking will be about his work, the underlying philosophy of it and from that point I prepared the script and questions, after arriving on the major themes that I find engaging in his work. I have seen all his films, each one a few times, some four times, some five and some more than that.

Did you factor in an element of flexibility vis-à-vis the script and the shooting itself, considering the subject of the documentary?

It happens always, at least with my experience of four feature length documentaries.

One starts with an excitement, a question, prepares the basic script, goes through the shoot, where already many developments, unplanned, happen and then one sits in front of the machine to edit the film and the material throws both possibilities and challenges simultaneously; therefore it is always a two way flexi- dialogue with such films.

How does it feel after completing the documentary, Lights On Adoor Gopalakrishnan, particularly when one is aware about his meticulousness as a filmmaker?

I had shot 30 hours of footage and would have liked to shoot more and would have liked to work with a better budget. As I am my own producer, I had constraints but despite that there is a film, which I would say that I am not unhappy with.

How about the funding for such a venture?

Most of it was self-funded. Petra Matusche, a friend of mine, who likes my work, supported the editing process. She is a huge admirer of Adoor’s work. As I have been shooting this film little by little, she kept track and wanted to know when it would be complete. When she found out that I was cash-strapped, she stepped in.

Inputs from the cinematographer and Adoor himself, during the making of the film, going beyond his role as the subject – what was your experience like?

From my first film onwards, I have been trying to see how one could combine 'cinema verite' and staged scenes like an interview etc, to make a documentary. As for the cinematographer, Ramani who is a strong believer of 'cinema verite', at times gets irritated with the staging part. This is an ongoing discussion between us.

His faith in 'verite' has pushed me and emboldened me a lot in these years of work with him, I would say. That way, a cameraman like Ramani has to be seen to be believed...only after he has left, would you realise that he was there with the camera.

As for Adoor, I felt he is so used to being shot at that it was like one of his everyday unavoidable 'occupational hazards'. Having said that, I must say he cooperated very sweetly, despite being such a ‘star’. Lights On Adoor Gopalakrishnan will be screened on June 9, 4 p.m., at Nila Theatre, Kairali Complex.

When we met

Our very first meeting was after a public screening of Mukhamukham (which is a great favourite of mine) in the 80s. During the discussion, he misunderstood my question and got upset. I felt sad and later on followed it up with a letter. He got my point and quickly responded with warmth. Thus, started a long-standing friendship.

Years later, when I saw Kathapurushan, I felt his discourse on the Marxian ideology, vis a vis a social being, had come full circle.

Similarly, when I first saw Nizhalkuthu, even before he had completed it, I felt, apart from its stunning structure etc., it is a great discourse on death and renewal and have tried to make him talk on this.

The usage of greenery in his films has always fascinated me and that became a question along with his ideas on lensing. His sense of lensing is breathtaking, especially when you are present in the same location, you can get the full sense of what I am saying here.

However, I made a conscious decision to not to speak on Elipathayam, but for a brief note on its music as I wanted to bring in the contribution of MBS to his films.