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Alternative History

Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Adoor GopalakrishnanAsk anyone about alternative cinema in India and his is likely to be the first name to come up. Each of his films has been acclaimed as a masterpiece.

Though his oeuvre is thin-- eight feature films to date-- Adoor Gopalakrishnan has built up an impressive reputation chronicling the slow but irreversible decay of Kerala's feudal structure. However, none of his films has stirred more controversy and debate than his work Mukhamukham (Face to Face). A scathing study of the communist movement in Kerala, the film was acclaimed by critics but reviled by the leftwing establishment. Mukhamukham charts the self-willed journey of one man from the frontline of the trade union movement to the backwoods of personal degeneration, inaction and violent death. Comrade Sreedharan makes his choices within the turbulent political context of a society in transition. The film is perceptibly about the limited options for an individual within a monolithic structure such as the communist movement. It is also a psychological study of disintegration.

Gopalakrishnan talked to me about
Mukhamukham, communism and the controversy surrounding his film. Extracts from a 1985 interview: 

Venu Menon: Let's begin with the controversy that has erupted among the communists, and a section of the press.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan: Some of them had the strong feeling that this film is anti-communist, which it is not. Only a wrong reading of the film can give one that impression. So, that sums up the argument and the reply.

VM: Why they feel it is anti-communist is possibly because they see a kind of negative treatment of the communist movement which comes across in the film.

AG: Not for communism, no. My basic approach to the film is that I do not manipulate the reality of the political situation which is there. My approach has been most reverential. The reality I deal with is a reality very close to the minds of the people. The main guidance of this film are Keralites who are going through this experience. When you talk about the period of the early fifties… that is a period which is still green in our memory. It is not something from the very distant past. A lot of people have lived through that period. So their sentiments, their feelings, have to be reflected in the film. I did not want to manipulate that reality. Nor have I attempted to manipulate the reality of the present day situation. I do not distort, twist or turn a political reality.

VM: By reality, do you mean history?

AG: There is absolute historical accuracy about the things I am saying, about the political situation whether of the past or the present.

The communist movement is very much in the background of the film. And at times it even becomes the subject of discussion. And I do not deny the fact that at a certain level the film has a lot of political relevance. This is not the result of my subjective approach but the result of an objective portrayal. So, if people find things objectionable in the film, it is not because of my portrayal of the reality but because of the reality that exists outside the film. The film probably reminds people of the reality that exists in the world outside. This may be what provokes them. The reason for the provocation lies outside the film.

VM: Shall we now talk about your main character in the film? Is he modeled on any particular person in history?

AG: There have been many people like that. Not just one. In my work, I do not believe in bodily lifting characters out of life. This is not to say that my character should look unreal. What I mean is that I do not attempt to portray life and characters naturalistically.

VM: But characters in history do serve as sources, don't they?

AG: There have been many. Once I decided on this subject, then I knew I had to do my research, although party politics etc. are shown in the film only as the background. Still I had to be historically correct. I had to be truthful. So I had to educate myself about the things I was going to deal with in the film even as background. In fact, none of the things I have learned or researched is applied directly to the film. I have studied the lives and works of a number of people who have been in the movement.

VM: Since it is a relevant and concrete movement, could you name some of the men whose lives you studied?

AG: As I said, I have not modeled this film on any one character. There have been many. It would be pointless to mention any name. Because it can mislead. For instance, I have used a photograph of P Krishna Pillai in one of the sequences. And this has led at least one critic in Kerala to think that I have modeled my main character after P Krishna Pillai. Sreedharan, the main character in the film, is only one of the small leaders of the movement, a party worker. When the party was operating from underground, it used to send trusted party workers out to different areas. They used to operate even under false names. In this case, his original name may not have been Sreedharan. In the film his antecedents are not known.

If I say that I have modeled this character on one person, it would be incorrect. So I wouldn't attempt that.

VM: Not one person perhaps. Usually, the practice is to synthesise elements from several characters in history to aesthetically create a single character.

AG: I have studied the lives of many leaders and I have also known many others whose names are not recorded in the history of the movement. Their names do not appear anywhere.

VM: So, you have portrayed somebody who is unknown as a leader of the movement?

AG: Not in that sense. My knowledge and research is not restricted to the known leaders, but extends beyond them.

VM: What pattern does your main characterisation follow?

AG: The first part of the film is concerned with the construction of the image of the man. The second part of the film is based on a conjecture: What if he were to return? If the audience does not see the conjecture, it does not matter. Even if they take his coming back for real, it is all right. While they watch the film, my idea is to give them the feeling that what they are watching is really happening. Like in a dream. When you dream a dream, you believe what is happening. But when you wake up, you realise, after all, it was a dream. The film operates on three levels: memory, fiction and reality. The first part is memory, the second fictional and the reality that evolves out of the two forms the denouement of the film. I mix the experiences of memory, fiction and reality which forms the pattern of the film.

VM: Can you be more specific about how you mix the three elements of the film?

AG: In the first part of the film, the sequence where the proprietor of the factory is killed, you see the body lying on the roadside. The scene of the crime is shown in detail: the waylaid car, the big police van, the sub-inspector pacing up and down. All these details are shown, except the face of the murdered man. The scene is concrete, yet the contradictory press reports about the murder and speculation about the motive turn the event into fiction. In the second part the fictional is rendered real as the body of the slain Sreedharan is studied closely by the camera, revealing such detail as the flies hovering over it and the gash running across the forehead. For both the murders the time of the day and the locale are the same.

VM: The film does suggest that you are viewing the communist movement, making a comment on it, through your central characters.

AG: That is not true. Sridharan is not communism. He is a communist. The way I have used the portraits of Lenin and Krishna Pillai indicates this. The introduction of Sreedharan as a party worker is done with that scene where his face is reflected off Lenin's portrait. In the first part of the film he is a messenger of communism who delivers his message. In the second part, the messenger is called back whereas the message he had delivered is still with us. What has become of the message? It lies split and splintered. And now you are calling back the messenger to deliver further messages. What more can he give? His message is already with you. So, naturally you will be disappointed when you ask for more and don't get it. This point has been missed by many. The messenger becomes an inconvenient reality at this stage in contrast to his image. Everybody wants to do away with him because the image is preferable to the embarrassing reality he now presents. That is why it does not matter who kills him. If you see him as communism, then the film will be lost on you. And that is exactly what happened to some of my critic friends in Kerala, not elsewhere.

VM: But the character cannot escape being seen as a reflection of communism, to an extent, since he is a character derived from history.

AG: No. His role as a carrier of the message of communism is very well established in the film. Those sequences in which he receives letters and his tearing them or burning them are very significant. When the party was operating from underground, it was common for the party workers to receive messages from the party headquarters. Here, being a receiver of the messages, it is clear he is not the one who makes the decisions but only one who carries them out.

VM: The communist movement comes to us in the film through a set of static symbols like the writing on the wall, the red flag, the portrait of Lenin and so on which do not convey the dimensions of a popular movement, especially in view of the fact that in 1957, we find the first communist government coming to power in unified Kerala.

AG: I do not agree with your observation. It is true I have used images like letters on the wall, portraits and red flags. But they are not static. With compositions, camera movements, sound effects, music and juxtapositions I have tried to achieve a dynamic effect. There are areas in the film where I have equated these images with characters. As for the popular movement you are referring to, it was not yet a mass movement in the erstwhile Travancore-Cochin. Actually, the first part of the film ends when the movement was just getting into gear. 

VM: But the movement was already in full swing in Malabar and had its impact in Travancore and Cochin. In 1953 Quilon was the venue of the largest-ever political rally witnessed in Kerala till then, which was organised by the Communist Party of India in connection with the Travancore-Cochin conference. Two years earlier, an underground communist candidate, M N Govindan Nair, won from Bharanikkav in Quilon district with the largest majority in the first general election under the Constitution.

AG: I don't think voting is an index to the popularity of the movement. The left government was formed mainly on the strength of votes from the Malabar area and because Kanyakumari was no longer part of Travancore. The left movement had not yet come to Travancore-Cochin as a mass movement. I am not aware of the rally you mention. But a rally does not indicate the presence of a mass movement. Also, those who participate in such a rally need not belong to Quilon but can come from the rest of the state and country.

VM: Coming back to the structure of Mukhamukham, Sreedharan's suffering is so large, and stressed so much in the film, that one expects a clue to the man's inner struggle, the storm raging within him. But the man behind the suffering remains an enigma. Sreedharan's motivation for self-destruction is never articulated. There is the tea-shop scene when someone asks Sreedharan pointed questions about himself and he keeps silent. These are questions the audience asks of the film itself.

AG: It is unanswered questions like this that eventually lead the characters and the audience to probe within themselves. The questions echo back and the answers are to be searched for. Here Sreedharan is the creation of these very people who ask the questions in the film. They should know the answer better for Sreedharan is a projection of their own selves.

VM: There is a distinct pattern in some of your action shots. The first police raid is only heard, not seen, because when it takes place a police van obstructs our view. But the raid on the party office is graphic as the camera follows every detail of the action.

AG: Yes, that's right. In the police raid on the party office I wanted to evoke the October Revolution. There are indirect references to it, the book, the steps, the colours, the shot of the books, the red ink. The whole action evokes the scene of a murder, with red ink from a broken bottle splashed on the walls and on the splintered portrait of Lenin. I wanted to show the brutal way the people's movement was being suppressed. I wanted to evoke the bloodshed of the movement.

VM: Your previous films fared well at the box office but Mukhamukham does not appear to be doing too well.

AG: The initial response at the box office was not very good. But now it has started picking up. It is premature to make a judgment on the popularity of the film at this stage. My experience is that my films have been enjoying longer leases of life compared to others in periodical releases. The widespread discussion of the film in the press as well as among the public is proving to be educative for audiences at large.

VM: Is there any particular reason why your output is low?

AG: Initially it was for sheer lack of financial resources. Then it became a habit, it appears. Ever since I started making films for Ravi - he produced both Elippathayam and Mukhamukham-- the anxieties and worries about funding have not been there. Now I realise that the long periods of struggle I have gone through to make each of my films has also left me a very responsible artiste. I had no right to waste an opportunity and so I put in my best every time I got it. And then, I have also come to acquire the habit of working from my own idea and script every time. This allows me lot of creative freedom. But to settle on an idea that is really satisfying also takes time. And while I am working on one film I do not think about the next. Sheer availability of finance does not really accelerate my process of creativity.

VM: You have said that it takes an enlightened audience to appreciate your films. Does that mean your films don't aspire to reach out to a wide audience?

AG: An enlightened audience would appreciate my films better than the uninitiated. This is true of every work of art. As you know my films have been popular with the audiences in Kerala. Each of them has not only covered its cost of production but has also brought in profits.

VM: What do you feel about the present level of film consciousness among Indian audiences? Do you think leisure time is important to develop this consciousness?

AG: If the level of film consciousness is low among the Indian audiences, the responsibility should lie with the kind of films that are forced upon them. You have to realise that they have been left with no options. Yes, you have to have the time to see the films and you also have to have the right kind of films to see.

VM: How do you see the part played by agencies like the National Film Development Corporation?

AG: NFDC has helped produce a large number of good films. Where it has failed is in the area of distribution and exhibition. The chain of art cinemas we have all been dreaming of is not even talked about these days.

VM: What brought you into films? Did you enter the profession by design or accident?

AG: By accident. In the beginning I was more interested in playwriting. I used to write plays and act in them in my college days. I was working as an investigator with the National Sample Survey when I saw an advertisement by the Poona Film Institute for a course in screenplay cum direction. Thinking that screenplay meant playwriting, I applied. I stood first in the test and got a merit scholarship. I resigned my job and joined the institute. At the institute, I still retained my interest in plays but gradually got out of it and went deep into films.

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