Adoor Gopalakrishnan is, unfortunately, ‘at it’ again. Kerala’s best-known filmmaker was recently at his favourite pastime of hitting a contemporary below the belt; trying to belittle someone with whom he started out on his filmmaking journey almost half a century ago. Honestly, I have noted with a mixture of disappointment and disgust, Adoor’s venomous remarks against K.P. Kumaran, as made to a ‘Mathrubhumi’ interviewer and carried in one of the weekly’s recent issues.
When Adoor claims all credits for the remarkable success of Kumaran’s short film, Rock (1972), saying that it was actually he who shot it, edited it, and did the sound for it, he is clearly insinuating that Kumaran was just a ‘showboy’ director who had no part to play in the film’s creative process other than providing the basic concept and arranging for the actor seen in the film.
Regarding Kumaran’s role as co-scriptwriter of Adoor’s national-award winning debut film, Swayamvaram (1974), Adoor tells the interviewer that it was only at the insistence of the late Kulathoor Bhaskaran Nair that he agreed to sharing the scriptwriting credit with Kumaran. Adoor claims that he dictated the script and the only contribution by Kumara was that he wrote it down. Adoor tells the interviewer that he regrets having agreed to Nair’s suggestion, and calls it the biggest mistake of his life. However, he does not explain why it has taken him almost five decades to admit what he calls ‘the biggest mistake of his life’!
In this connection, perhaps it needs to be mentioned that some weeks ago, writing an obituary piece on Kulathoor Bhaskaran Nair in ‘Mathrubhumi’, Adoor had many unkind things to say about his dead ‘friend’.
It has long been known that Adoor spares no one, dead or living. If it is Nair today, it has been Aravindan down the years. For the past three decades at least, Adoor has routinely tried to run down the deceased director. Why Adoor does what he does, Adoor alone can say. But people have been watching and they have their own explanations; candid and unsavoury. If anyone calls this piece a rebuttal, I wouldn’t argue, but the bigger truth is that it is in the nature of a pained reaction to an old friend’s visible decline on more than one front. By this reaction, I want to say that there is something vulgar and deeply rotten about an artist trying to run-down a fellow-artist, and that too by citing unsubstantiated charges. Who is it to tell Adoor that his frequent off-the-cuff attempts to belittle his contemporaries do not in any way add to his own height!
Sadly, there is a long history of Adoor’s vilification of those he does not like, for whatever reason; Kumaran is the latest victim of his venom. It does not require this writer to tell the Kerala nation that Govindan Aravindan, who would have been eighty-five this year, was a many-splendored genius who lit up the Malayalam film chamber and much else besides, briefly but memorably. Yet, even such a one as he has been a subject of contemptuous carping by Adoor.
The final outcome of Aravindan’s delayed decision to gravitate to filmmaking was that when he died suddenly in 1991 at the age of fifty-six, he left behind him a body of work which would match, sometimes exceed, the best exertions of the best of his peers in this frenetic, highly competitive field. The posthumous assassination attempts that Aravindan has had to face at Adoor’s cruel and insensitive hands, speaks lass about art and more about the artist in shocking moral decline.
However much the credit-denying contemporary or the captive critic may try, nobody is likely to take lightly the delicate vitality of Aravindan’s oeuvre, spread out thinly but securely over a period of just fifteen years. His humanism, his sense of calm even under pressure, his empathy with the loner and the underdog – each of these high qualities can be easily discerned in his best films.
Even as Adoor goes about town still trying his desperate best to erase Aravindan, the latter’s absence is increasingly felt even in fur-flung corners of the country. In fact, such was the nature of the man, or the quality of the art he produced, that his passing away, suddenly and prematurely, is still counted as a personal loss by many both within and without Kerala. With a sinking heart and a rising anger, I wonder, will Adoor be similarly remembered when he is gone? Will he be similarly loved and respected? Or, will he be remembered as someone who made some important films, but apart from that, aroused only fear, anger, and alienation in people?
In 2010, when there was a fresh round of calumny against the maker of Thambu and Esthappan, this time on Trivandrum Doordarshan, one remembers that there was some hard-hitting protest in the Malayalam print media. The protestors showed character and courage of conviction. I wonder whether Kumaran will be as fortunate as Aravindan. Surely, this noble soul, who has silently withstood till now many an undeserved sling and arrow, should be made to feel that he is not alone in his anguish! Perhaps, Adoor’s remarks to the interviewer were intended to convey an impression that Kumaran never had anything in him by way of an artist. To my mind, Kumaran’s first film, Atithi (The Guest, b/w, 35 mm, 112 mins, 1974) is living proof of the director’s acumen, but also of the damage that the ganging-up by vested interests can do to even the best of films.
Although made forty-six years ago, I was able to catch up with Atithi only in 2017, thanks to a Kumaran retrospective at the 22nd edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala. When I saw it, I wondered to myself about how I could have not even known of the existence of such a quality film when I had been watching Malayalam films for more than half a century. By and by, the mystery unravelled itself to me. I gradually realised that I was by no means unique in not having come across this nugget earlier. I discovered many genuine film-lovers born to the Malayalam language and living in Kerala, who hadn’t even heard of Kumaran’s debut feature, let alone seen it. The power of politics-driven indifference/hostility to inconvenient art, dawned on me, although admittedly not for the first time.
Atithi is a film that, to my mind, was deliberately and very consciously made to ‘look’ imperfect, unsmart, so as to fit into a pattern of provocative interpretation of the lives of an assortment of empty dreamers and stark failures, but also of daredevils trying to make the best of a bad situation. Employing a unique aesthetics of the uncertain mixed with the profane, matched by a freewheeling style following no grammar, Atithi should have, ideally, been acclaimed as an example of bold, original, challenging cinema. But, unfortunately, it was not to be. Instead of being recognised and rewarded, it was ignored and sent for a long hibernation.
Going by the tone of his remarks, Adoor is likely to dismiss Kumaran’s debut as having been of no consequence. But, if anyone asks me, I would full-throatedly stress that Atithi is a work of art made decades before its time. Perhaps, that was the reason for its failure to draw the crowds, or attract the notice of the constipated pundits of Malayalam cinema. In a very real sense, Kumaran signed the film’s death warrant with his own hands – by daring to enter visually forlorn and morally forbidden territories with the vision of a pioneer and the daring of an experimentalist. Atithi reminds me of Eliot – “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
Vidyarthy Chatterje is a critic .He edited ‘ MOTIF’ a cultural magazine published from Jharkhand