Actor K. Gopalan talks about the role of theatre in his life and his part in giving a new direction and sensibility to the theatre scene in Kerala
K. Gopalan is a non-conformist who calls a spade a spade and speaks disdainfully about the Malayali’s fascination for melodrama and nostalgia. Yet leading theatre directors in the State swear by this globetrotting actor who has the uncanny ability to get into the skin of each character he enacts on stage. Whether it be that of the protagonist in Vijay Tendulkar’s ‘Sakaram Binder’, Ariel in Footsbarn’s ‘Indian Tempest’ or a 90-year-old woman in ‘Spinal Cord’, to each he brings a rare intensity that makes the roles come alive on stage. Gopalan’s calling card is his formidable acting skills that mould his body language, expressions and voice into unforgettable characters on stage.
Speaking about his tryst with theatre Gopalan says that it is the only ‘pani’ (work) he knows, preferring to use the rather prosaic Malayalam word to lofty words such as vocation and passion. But passionate he is, about theatre and everything to do with it. So passionate that he dropped out of school after Class nine to immerse himself in theatre in Thrissur.
“It was an intense period when I lived, ate and breathed theatre. Influenced by extremist Left ideals and ideology, I acted in street plays that delved into different themes. Acting workshops honed our innate talent. It also gave me the chance to work with a titan like Jose Chiramel,” says Gopalan, who hails from Adat in Thrissur district.
Thrissur Roots, a theatre group, groomed him in the different techniques of the stage. Without any formal academic training in theatre, Gopalan relied on his experience and interaction with directors to understand the fine act of acting and breathing life into his roles. “The plays and workshops were like a theatre lab in which we experimented with different themes and techniques. The emphasis was always on innovation. Some of my contemporaries in the group were Jayaraj Warrier, C.R. Rajan and Jayachandran,” says the actor.
In the mid-nineties, came a stint with a theatre movement called Theatre Eye in which he worked closely with a group of theatre activists who changed the scene of contemporary theatre in Kerala. They lived and performed together without going into a cost-benefit analysis of the association in monetary terms. Utopian? “Not really,” reflects Gopalan. He adds: “Yet, it would be difficult to find such a band of idealistic youngsters today. Now money is an important element; we were driven by ideals. We were so involved in theatre that only one in the group ever got married. It was quite traumatic when the group disbanded.”
Again, it was theatre that brought him to Thiruvananthapuram and Abhinaya, with whom he worked for almost five years, acting in plays such as ‘Siddartha’, ‘Zoo Story’ and ‘Bhagavadajjukam’. Instead of sticking to one particular group or troupe, Gopalan enjoys working with different directors and theatre groups.
“I have learnt from many of them. Beginning with a veteran like Jose, I have worked with many young directors such as Deepan [Sivaraman], Jyothish [M.G. Jyothish] and Sankar [Venkateswaran] and I have learnt from all of them. We are able to communicate with each other and that is important for a production.”
His role of a 90-year-old mother in the play ‘Spinal Cord’, won him the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Award for the best male lead. But Gopalan says:
“What does an award do for me? I am not in it for all that. There should be efforts to create awareness for therein lies art and not craft.”
Gopalan firmly believes that academic training alone cannot create a good actor and wants the government to do a rethink on its courses in drama schools and such. “Youngsters spend four to five years of their prime in these institutes. Does this training help them to become better theatre persons or the cause of theatre in Kerala. I have my doubts. What we need are more of theatre laboratories.”
Dismissing all questions about his personal life, Gopalan explains: “That is not important. I do not follow the conventional route of marriage, house and so on that many Malayalis see as a desirable destination. It is time to revive the political discussions and spaces that thrived in the Eighties. Somewhere, along the way, we, as a society, seem to have lost that.”
However, Gopalan refuses to conform and prefers to walk alone to going with the herd. “My life is theatre,” he says. And the world his stage.
In almost all the significant productions of Theatre Eye, Gopalan played the protagonist, which included Malayalam adaptation of plays such as Badal Sircar’s ‘Beyond The Land Of Hattamala’, William Golding’s ‘Lord Of The Flies’, Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting For Godot’ and so on.
He essayed the lead in Sankar Venkateswaran's adaption of the Japanese play ‘Water Station’, which has no dialogues at all.
Gopalan is adept in yoga, Kalari and dance.
An excellent writer, Gopalan scripts and acts in his solo plays. ‘Arangathu Oru Athmabhasha’ is one of the plays scripted and acted by him.
He is a good artist too.
At present, Gopalan is with Footsbarn, playing the role of Ariel in ‘Indian Tempest’.
He has participated in several leading theatre festivals and workshop in Indian and abroad, especially in Europe.