Director Ambili has had an interesting journey in the Malayalam film industry

Director, art director and photographer Ambili returns to his first love, painting, with an art show at David Hall Art Gallery

In his lifetime Ambili has been many things and donned many ‘roles’. He has directed close to 12 films, been make-up artiste, still photographer for films, art director, an artist with drama troupes, and designed posters in his career spanning 50 years. This diversity hinges on an identity he holds close to his heart — an artist’s. With his art show, on at David Hall Art Gallery, he returns to that original calling. “If not for art then I wouldn’t have worked in films,” says the 68-year-old.

Director Sreekumaran Thampi told Ambili, when invited for the show, that it was “very late”, implying it was long overdue.

“I am lazy,” Ambili offers as explanation. For someone ‘lazy’ the number of works — paintings and sketches — is a staggering 124. His last ‘exhibition’ was in 1971, as part of a competition when he was a student of the College of Fine Arts (then the Occupational Institute) in Thrissur. Competing with batch mates and seniors, he won the first prize. It was another 48 years before he painted again, for this show.

From the show
  • The works are distinct and varied, a sum total ofAmbili’s experiences in different fields of art. In terms of palette and sensibility – they show an influence of cinema. He does not shy away from colour — bold reds, deep blues and burnt ochres. The diversity of inspirations frees him from the limitation of adhering to a single style. He pays a tribute to masters such as Raja Ravi Varma, MF Husain, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo — their portraits backgrounded by some of their major works. Besides there are black and white sketches — ink and dot — of actresses.

Writer/actor Sreemoolanagaram Vijayan had asked him to draw the cover of a book, which Ambili didn’t. Vijayan commented, “You are a passenger who reaches the station after the train has left.” It could be true of him, he believes. “Perhaps that is why I haven’t able to make a feature film in the last 15 years. I find it difficult approaching people asking if we could make a film.” The film industry too changed a lot in the last 15 years. His last feature film was Chamante Kabini, made in 2003, but released in 2015. In the meanwhile Ambili has been making films for the Public Relations Department of the State Governent, and also made short films based on SK Pottekattu and Perumbadavam Sreedharan’s stories.

Director Ambili has had an interesting journey in the Malayalam film industry

Ambili may not have painted for art shows, but he had been painting film posters for a while — “My poster for the Madhu-Sarada-Jayabharathi-starrer Asthamayam (1978) was noticed at a time when not many bothered with them. It had Madhu and Jayabharathi back-grounded by a setting sun.”

His tryst with painting, after he embarked on his film career, is about blank canvases, unused paints and broken promises, “Actor Sarada bought me paints and canvases for me to paint horses, actor/director Thikkurissi Sukumaran Nair did the same for a female nude, and writer Sreemoolanagaram Vijayan wanted me to do a book cover.” None of these got done – Sarada forgot, in Thikkurissi’s case the thespian remembered and joked about Ambili not doing the art work.

Curly haired, bearded and dressed in a white kurta and mundu, friends like director/scenarist Sathyan Anthikkad say he hasn’t changed much. Ambili has known Anthikkad since the days he was an art director and the latter an assistant director.

Director Ambili has had an interesting journey in the Malayalam film industry

Cinema has been his everything. The most notable of the films he has directed is his first, Veena poovu (1983), the story of an itinerant musician. That film changed the course of his career and he became director; it is remembered for its songs especially ‘Nashta swargangale ningalennikoru...’ “Films like Pather Panchali and Bhuvan Shome; films by Ingmar Bergman and other classic inspired me to direct films,” he says. Some of his other films are Ashtapadi, Maunaragam, Samudhayam and Swantham Sarika.

He belongs to a different, difficult time for filmmakers. A time when friendships were forged for life, made through shared disappointments and supporting each other. His conversation is peppered with names such as those of directors Ramu Kariat, Balachandra Menon, Bharathan and PN Menon, and writer Vaikom Mohamed Basheer, among others. He has worked with these and other directors as art director, costume designer and at times, make-up artiste too.

A sketch of Vaikom Mohammed Basheer he made as a 16-year-old led Ambili to films. The writer was speaking at a programme held in Thrissur, Ambili drew the writer on a paper an acquaintance was carrying for an autograph. Basheer was impressed by what he saw and showed it to the National Award-winning director Ramu Kariat who also happened to attendthe event.

Ambili landed a job as artist at Kariat’s Uma Printers (Thrissur), one of Kerala’s few colour offset printers. He got to work on campaign material for Kariat, when the director contested an election. “Working for him opened many doors for me. He was no ordinary filmmaker, he had worked with some of the best in the industry; that he hired me said something about my talent as well.” He freelanced for Uma Printers as a student and later joined it. His first was the poster for Virunnukaari (1969). The ‘to-be-released’ poster, colloquially referred to as the ‘coming poster, of Kariat’s Nellu (1974) was the first he signed his name. “I signed my name on it, Bharathan and PN Menon signed their work so I did too.”

Art direction happened to him by chance when he was called for actor Madhu’s film Asthamayam. He later worked at the actor’s Uma Studio in Thiruvananthapuram. It is fascinating as he remembers ‘building’ the pay ward of the multi-storied Medical College Hospital (Thiruvananthapuram). Despite limitations of technology and material, he created a set out of wood and board, drew the backdrop of buildings as seen from the seventh floor complete with tops of coconut palms.

“I learnt this during my sojourn in Madras. Music director PS Vidyadharan and I went there, like all film aspirants, to try our luck. When we went to AVM studio and Prasad Film Studio, I checked to see how the sets were made, it was educative.” He stayed and worked at Cherian Brothers, a photo studio in Madras as artist, the exposure perhaps led him to still photography (films).

Ambili transformed actor Praveena into a yakshi in Kalliyankattu Neeli and made a mask for the villain; his experience in theatre and working with dancers like Kalamandalam Kshemavathy helped him. “I don’t know how that happened, but perhaps it has something to do with me being an artist. I was able to do all these different things,” he says.

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 3:24:16 AM |

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