Venkiteswaran: What are your earliest memories of sight and sound?
Memories of the past have something to do with tragedies-pain, insult, loss, grief, I think...
When I was a child, I was a good marksman. I was adept at aiming at any mango or cashew fruit and bringing it down with stones. Once, while I was going to school, I saw an owl on a tree. I don't know what came over me. I aimed and threw a stone at it. And it dropped to the ground dead. This painful memory has stayed with me since then and still haunts me. There are many things in life that you can't repair later.
Our house was in the middle of a large garden with a variety of trees-mango, cashew, coconut, arecanut, jackfruit, tamarind. There was hardly any tree I had not climbed. Once on top of the tree I would forget about the laws of gravitation. And naturally it was normal routine for me to fall off them. As it became a regular affair, my mother kept a dish of herbal oil handy so that she could take it with her every time she rushed to the spot where I hit the ground with a big thud.
Animals, birds, trees and plants were all part of our life. We had cows, dogs and cats, all called by name. They were part of the family. I remember an incident concerning one of our dogs (we called him La Fayette)-old and infirm-and everyone thought he was about to die. He had almost lost all his hair and was always dozing in some corner of the house. One day he chanced up on the lehyam (ayurvedic medicine) kept out in the courtyard for sunning. Before anyone noticed it, he had lapped up the whole of it. My mother had got it prepared for my sister who was resting after delivery. In a couple of weeks, to everyone's surprise, the dog started growing shiny hair, and to regain his lost youth. A perfect testimony to the efficacy of the lehyam!
You are very fond of Kathakali and have made several documentaries on Kathakali artistes like Guru Chengannur and Kalamandalam Gopi. Was Kathakali always there right from your childhood?
My earliest experience of Kathakali is that of watching it from my mother's lap. For my mother Kathakali was almost part of her daily life. So, even as a child, I developed a liking for it as I watched it in performance and listened to my mother as she explained what was happening on stage to the women sitting around us.
In those days, at my taravad (joint family house), we could watch a number of Kathakali performances- both with make-up and costume and also without them (Cholliyattam). On any special occasion like an elder's birthday, a performance was an essential item. We had the basic unit (a troupe comprising of performers, accompanying instrumentalists, trainees, singers, greenroom hands, gurus etc). We only had to gather the 'stars' as guest performers as is the general practice even today. The costumes and headgears my uncle had got made were of high quality. Whenever the legendary Krishnan Nair, who was a rising star in the Fifties, had any performance nearby, he used to insist on borrowing these very ones. Those days the glittering parts of the headgear were made out of the shell of insects like the blue beetle, not gilt paper as it is done now. Their glow in the light of the oil lamp was very unique. A number of labourers used to be sent out to the fields to hunt for blue beetles every time a headgear had to be got made. But the tragic part of it is that I grew up in a period when all this was considered worthless. What was considered 'worthwhile' was western theatre. So, we spent our time reading, studying, writing and producing such plays. We were always looking towards the west. I feel it was a great loss. It was thrust upon us that proper theatre should have unity of space and time. And we were totally convinced of that, no doubts or hesitations. So, Koodiyattam or Kathakali did not mean much to us. We had acquired different yardsticks of quality judgment, and these arts questioned such rigid conceptions of space and time.
Curiously, one doesn't find any kathakali performance in your films.
I think your approach to films is deeply influenced by Kathakali, its basic elements and mise-en-scene that combine rigorous delineation of characters on the one hand, even while maintaining the possibility of improvisation during performance. So in a way, it is very much open and also rigorous at the same time. This, I feel, is a characteristic of your films also, especially the way you present your characters and organize your scenes...
For e.g., when a pacha character comes on stage, his 'character' is very much defined. But in actual performance, it is the narrative context that determines expression, and the possibilities for improvisation are infinite. This precision about characterization is present in your films also, I think...
Yes, the most popular characters in classical arts like Kathakali or Koodiyattam are all villains like Ravana or Bali, and seldom the satvic characters like Rama. For satvic characters lack drama and conflict in their personality, and as a corollary, in their representation.
Unlike art forms like the Japanese Kabuki, the presentation of which is more spectacular, Kathakali requires the minimum of properties and sets. You can perform it anywhere with the minimum of resources and stage settings.
Recently I made a film on Koodiyattam-the oldest living theatre in the world for UNESCO. It was basically an effort to document the theatre art form. A three-hour long film resulted though I had shot almost ten hours of it. But then they wanted a smaller version of 10 to 15 minutes duration. It was not impossible, but was not fair to the art, I thought. Instead, I suggested they watch any 15 minutes from the film. That would be more in keeping with this theatre art that takes a few weeks to enact an Act.
This great performance tradition of Koodiyattam and Kathakali, where there is infinite freedom to improvise, where time and space is fluid, has all this helped in developing a 'Malayali' film idiom or language?
Kathakali engrosses me completely. While watching a performance, I forget everything else-the external world, all the personal problems... There is hardly anything in it that relates to the present and there is no effort at being realistic. I think the percussion and the ambience as a whole transport us completely into a different world. And it has always been such a creative stimulus for me. Here each role is being defined anew by the actors each time they perform it. Now Gopi is defining how a Nalan should be. Earlier it was Krishnan Nair. Tomorrow it will be somebody else. It keeps on changing and evolving.
And there is never a performance that is 'the' performance making the act of recording often irrelevant.
Once I went to Kadammanitta to watch Padayani. In the late evening they were all busy painting makeshift masks and making the costumes and those huge and spectacular headgears. All that is done on fresh arecanut sheaths and tender coconut leaves lending the make-up a certain ethnic authenticity. They take on a special glow in the light of the oil torches. Once the performance is over, those headgears and perishables are simply discarded. That night, when I came away I brought some of the masks with me. But after a day or two, they just withered and shrank. A Padayani performer doesn't have to create anything for preservation. He is confident that he can always create it anew, anytime, and always afresh. It is a great concept. Take our 'kalamezhuthu' for instance. We draw this colourful and wonderfully intricate Kalam only to erase it at the end of the ritual. This obsession with preservation is totally western-this idea of plucking something from its natural context and keeping it. For us it is part of a continuum. Our climate is not quite kind to the idea of preservation either. These torrential rains and sultry summers don't allow any kind of preservation. It destroys and in turn replenishes too. A summer would dry up everything. But rains would give everything a rebirth.
Has contemporary Indian art lived up to this heritage?
For example take the crow. Ours is a lifetime association with this ubiquitous bird. There is no event in life where this bird doesn't have a signification. Its crowing signifies the arrival of visitors, birth, death, betrothals - everything in our life.
Or take the coconut tree-a tree that is closely linked to our lives. Everything about it is significant. Its position in relation to the house, its girth, height, slant, the rings on its trunk and so on. Then think of the house-lizards. Their droppings, the 'tche - tche' noise they make, their own falls-a set of meanings and relationships are associated with it all. The cow and various other domestic animals are all inextricably intertwined with our lives and fortunes. So all these motifs form a natural part of our views and attitudes on life and hence films as well.
The hooting of owl is associated with a particular time of the day. Likewise the mood and temper of a situation can be suggested through bird and animal sounds. The crow is an interesting bird that way. There are crows that yearn to sing like other birds. I have listened to them with sympathy and understanding and I must say that they were quite sweet. Once I heard a caged mynah imitating the crow struggling to croon like a bird in all sarcasm!
And then there are the natural phenomena like the rain and the sun. All my films have rain at some point. I feel that the film is not complete without a rain. Maybe to set a mood, an ambience, to suggest something. The effort is to evoke the associations these elements resonate in us.
In my films I have used crows, dogs, house-lizards, and other birds in various ways. I don't know if everyone understands it. But still, it is part of my way of story telling. For example in MUKHAMUKHAM, there is a scene in which the head constable takes the liberty of demanding tea to be served. He is not a welcome guest and is told that there was no milk left in the house as the calf had finished everything. At that moment the bleating of a calf is heard in the background. An audience familiar with rural life would immediately realise that the calf is bleating for its mother's milk and the head of the household was simply lying to the constable.
What about the dimension of space?
Have you ever felt it as a conscious challenge, the attempt to narrate differently as against the Hollywood or Western ways? For example take the kite sequence in KODIYETTAM, a delightfully lengthy sequence, which is pure cinema with no diegetic immediacy to it. And there is also something very much Malayalee to it.
Coming back to the question of cultural specificity, the same sound may signify different things to people from different cultures and lives. So a certain 'lived experience' is vital to the understanding of a film in all its details and complexities.
We enjoy Japanese films because we already share a common culture with the people of Japan. We think we understand western films because we have been prepared for it through the colonial rule, English education, spread of Christianity and the wealth and resources of the West. But coming to think of it, hardly any serious effort is made even by critics in the West to prepare themselves for our films-they are just films from the third world. And everything is subsumed by that abstraction, 'third world'. One can see the difference in the approach of critics who have visited India at least once and those who haven't had any such exposure.
In our all out effort to equip ourselves with things that are modern and imported, we have lost a discerning audience for our own works. In the past, Kathakali and Koodiyattam survived and thrived because a community of discerning and devoted home audience was there all through. When our meaningful cinema loses such an audience, that is reason for alarm.
May be this is a universal phenomenon when a monoculture is hegemonising the world and all the so-called little cultures are being swept away.
It is a fall-out of the colonial psychosis, this inferiority complex. In Malayalam, we have so many books and articles on Bergman and Kurosawa. We don't have as many even on Ray. This is fine as long as you don't consider our own works in the language of lesser importance. But unfortunately, we don't even bother to teach our children their mother tongue. The problem lies not in the exposure to the wide world outside but in our attitude and the wrong lessons we learn from it. Appallingly, it is inhibiting us rather than opening up.
Either way-that of imitating the west and trying to beat them at their own game, or to presenting ourselves as esoteric, are dangerous.
Maybe it is precisely this make-believe, the exaggerations that we enjoy.
Was it there in the seventies when you were beginning to make films?