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`Don't go by my earlier work'

C. K. MEENA talks to filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, at the Indo-German Film Festival organised by the Max Mueller Bhavan in Bangalore, recently.

THE LAST thing you should ask a leftwing filmmaker for is his horoscope. But at the Max Mueller Bhavan, Bangalore, recently , a curly-haired man in white shirt and blue jeans requests Adoor Gopalakrishnan for just that. Introducing himself as a sociologist, reiki master, former advertising executive, and student of astrology, he tells Adoor: "Just the date and time of birth will do." The 62-year-old director deadpans: "I don't want to know my future." Says the ad man: "No, no, I'm not going to tell you. It's for a project I'm doing on famous people and their birth signs." "I don't want you to know my future," his subject retorts good-naturedly. A young filmgoer butts in to ask him what the idea for his next film is. "That's what he wants to know," he jokes, pointing to the ad man.

Whatever his next feature film is about, you don't need his horoscope to predict that it too, like his nine earlier ones, will win national and international awards. And that it, too, will not be a box-office hit. During a recently held seminar titled "Film business in the shadow of Hollywood and Bollywood", the eternal question cropped up yet again: why do award-winning films get a meagre audience? A young man barely in his twenties told the gathering that his friends had shunned the festival because they were sure it would be "boring". He naively suggested to the directors assembled there (Girish Kasaravalli, Nagabharana, M.S. Sathyu, and K.N.T. Sastry among others) that they try to make their films more "attractive" to his friends by adding "just one or two" songs, dances, or humorous gags.

Adoor, who sat grimly through the ensuing debate on what constitutes entertainment and whether it is okay to compromise, later said with a hint of sarcasm: "They (those who ask you to compromise) are actually being sympathetic. They're telling you in a very polite way, why don't you change, you'll make a better living. It reflects their taste. They already have a notion about what cinema should be like and they are telling you, why don't you fall in line?"

Nobody in his right senses would order Adoor to fall in line. In his 30-year career he has never swerved from the ideal of "good cinema". Even those who accuse him of self-indulgence cannot but respect a man who has put his life-savings into his latest work and says cheerfully: "I don't think I'll recover it." He panders to no one, doesn't need to please anybody (least of all the government), and this gives him the freedom to speak his mind which he does with a blunt candour that sometimes verges on rudeness. He's a bit like a porcupine, furry and warm in the company of friends and admirers but quick to show his quills when threatened or irritated. And those quills can really sting.

He is relaxed and in a mood for banter as he walks down Lavelle Road after the seminar, with Girish Kasaravalli and others, to have lunch at a colonial club. As we enter its hallowed precincts, we suddenly become aware of his trademark khadi kurta. Will he be forbidden entry for not wearing the right attire? He looks down at his black leather shoes. "I wasn't allowed to enter the Calcutta Club," he recalls. "The man at the door kept looking at my feet and I wondered why. I was wearing chappals." Here, he has shoes on but not a shirt. Unfortunately, nothing exciting happens. The Malayali girl at the front desk gets up respectfully the moment she realises who the guest is.

When told about the membership fee and waiting list at this particular institution, and he says firmly: "I am not a member of any club." Inside, we have the buffet and he goes to the vegetarian section ("I'm cutting down on meat and fish"). For dessert, he would prefer a plain banana but the club cannot come up with one. "Maybe banana doesn't match the status of the club," he says dryly. We order coffee. "It's married coffee," says Adoor, and Kasaravalli explains: "We call it a married print when you marry sound and visual in film." The husband and wife here are decoction and milk. Adoor points to the bowl of sugar and says mischievously: "That is the — what do they call it? — the other woman!"

Adoor's films are as varied as his moods. He cannot be slotted or predicted. "You should not go by my earlier work," is his answer to those who try to do so. Every film, from Swayamvaram (1972) to Nizhalkkuthu (2002), has a different theme and structure. He critiques both feudalism — in Elipathayam ('81) and Vidheyan ('93) — and the left movement — in Mukhamukham ('84) and Kathapurushan ('96). It is not only society but the individual (violent, neurosis-ridden, irresponsible, or alienated) who is the subject — in Kodiyettam ('77), Anantaram ('87), and Mathilukal ('90).

Those who categorise him are bound to be disappointed. Some viewers found Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill) "deterministic" and "not strong enough" because they expected protest. They wished the hangman's son hadn't so meekly succumbed to the system. "I cannot satisfy people's expectations," says Adoor curtly. He has every right, after all, to draw a character the way he pleases.

When asked whether he is turning to philosophical issues because he is growing old. The questions he poses about taking a man's life — did he ponder them when Naxals were executing landlords back in the Seventies? Sin and guilt; life, death, and life-amidst-death; is he turning (dare I say the word?) spiritual? He replies indirectly. "Every film is a kind of discovery. As an artist, you discover yourself and you reveal yourself. As you live, as you respond to things around you, your concerns change, get deeper. At the age of 28, my concerns were different. Life leaves its impressions on you."

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