interview: adoor gopalakrishnan


MATHILUKAL was the first film that was based on a story written by someone else. Why did you choose Basheer?
It was a time when I was trying to write a script based on one of my own ideas but it did not quite work. Then I thought of Mathilukal. I had read the story when it was published first in the Kaumudi annual number in the year 1967, as I can recall. Many people thought of making it into a film but the fact that the heroine never appears discouraged them. Basheer told me that some filmmakers even thought of six different heroines to play the character. Every time the hero talks to her over the wall, a different actress was to be shown! Ultimately the project was dropped.

I read the story again and still found it stimulating. There was a real challenge in filming it, basically that of creating a character without showing her. Secondly it is about the working of a writer's mind, it is a journey through his mindscape. So it was an opportunity to recreate Basheer the writer and the man proper. I read all his works, and then sat down to write the script. When I met Basheer to acquire the rights etc., he readily agreed and asked at the end, ''You will show me the final script, won't you?" I didn't say yes or no; but on the way back I told Dr. M M Basheer (well known literary critic and a friend of the writer) that it would be difficult, and asked him to convey it to Basheer gently. Because every writer has certain favourite things which he wouldn't want to forego; but as far as a film is concerned, the story is only a starting point. We bring a lot many new things to it and that is how a script is developed.

After completing the film, I was particular that Basheer should be the first to see it. I screened the film at Kozhikode for Basheer. After seeing the film, everyone got up, but Basheer was still sitting. I went near him and he said, "not a dull moment". At the press meeting after the screening, Basheer was the one who answered most of the questions about the film. It was a good experience, associating with a great writer. He wanted me to make films based on some of his other stories also like Entuppappakkoranendarnnu and Pathummayude Aadu. But I told him it was difficult to do justice to them, to make a film that is as good as or better than the story.

While on the way to watch the movie, he was eager to know whether the film had retained the same ending as the book. The story ends with the protagonist standing outside the jail gate, a rose in his hand. But the film has a different ending. It ends with a dry twig being thrown up on the other side of the wall. I thought the shot of the dry branch rising and falling against the vast blue sky summed up the spirit of the film. After seeing the film, Basheer liked the way I ended the film.

After completing the film, I was particular that Basheer should be the first to see it. I screened the film at Kozhikode for Basheer. After seeing the film, everyone got up, but Basheer was still sitting. I went near him and he said, "not a dull moment".

Why did you choose MATHILUKAL of all his stories?
Actually I thought of Entuppuppakkoranendarnnu. But when I read the story again, I felt that the kind of innocence Basheer was talking about in that story no longer existed. It also happens to be a great literary work that is difficult to equal in a film version. 'Pranayappani' (love fever) of the heroine as depicted in the novel works like magic on the reader. I can't think of anything that I have read that matches it in its intensity and feel. It is simply the gift of a writer's craft at its best.

I found MATHILUKAL, at least initially quite a challenging subject to make a film on. To have an unseen woman as the heroine of a romantic tale was fine as reading material. But how would one translate it into a visual narrative? And when I delved deeper into it, I could read more complexities into it.

In MATHILUKAL, one could look at the space that the protagonist is occupying in the film as that imagined by him, from the way it is cut off from the rest of the world, the way an array of characters present themselves before him.
I have built up a rationale in the film. He starts writing only when he becomes lonely after everyone of his prison mates has been released. Earlier in the film, he tries to write also but he is not able to. There is another sequence where he is shown pacing up and down the jail veranda on one afternoon, the inner turmoil writ large on his face. When others are asleep in their open cells, here is Basheer awake and alone slowly drifting into his private world. The background score evokes solitude and the restlessness symptomatic of a writer's mind. I am also subtly suggesting the schizophrenic traits that occasionally surfaced in Basheer's life.

In the film, Basheer treats all the characters, right from the Jail Superintendent to the murder convicts, with equal concern and camaraderie.

Basheer has confided that there really was a woman on the other side of the wall. But she was convicted of murdering her husband with a 'chiravatthadi' (the kitchen utensil used for scraping coconut). These details have been held back in the story, as it would go against the romance that was to be built around the character.

Many critics felt that the jail life depicted in the film was too cosy.
What is shown in the film is in keeping with what Basheer wrote. He is a free soul whether inside the prison or outside of it. He plants and nurtures roses, cratons and even buds plants in the jail compound. It is the creative mind of a writer that transforms an inhospitable place into a beautiful world.

To start with, he was imprisoned along with other politicians. There are indications in the film itself that the struggle was about to end. Everyone is expecting independence. The British will leave, and these very political prisoners will be the rulers of tomorrow. So the jail administration is not very harsh on them. They actually help them in exchanging letters etc. Moreover, Travancore had never been under direct British rule. Naturally the Travancore prisons were not very harsh with such prisoners. Basheer was imprisoned for being critical about the Maharaja. He was not imprisoned for theft or murder. And he enjoyed all the liberties of a political prisoner.

It was also made at a time when 'wall' was a predominant image with the fall of the Berlin wall. How was it received outside India?
While it was screened at the Rotterdam festival, a woman director wondered how I could get the film through the Indian censors! And more interestingly, she thought that the man-woman relationship depicted in the film was extremely sensuous, and it was in sharp contrast to what the west could produce with all its permissiveness.

What were the other challenges in translating Basheer into film?
A major challenge was the lengthy dialogue sequences between Basheer and the unseen woman across the wall. All that you had at your disposal was a bare wall and the hero on this side of it. I had to meticulously work out a mise-en-scene that would make my audience forget the bareness and be carried along by the wordy exchanges.

When you adapt a story, it is very important that the filmmaker sifts out of the original and extract a text which is all his own to follow. For instance, in the story there is a sentence: "I have kept watch over death". This single sentence has become a long sequence quite central to the film beginning with the head warder waking up Basheer in the early morning. The convict to be hanged before daybreak had asked for tea. The viewer is made to be with Basheer until the last bell rings for the convict. The whole sequence is built up through little movements, exchanges of looks, dialogues in monosyllables etc. to get the viewer involved.

I think the use of KPAC Lalitha's voice for the woman on the other side of the wall to some extent takes the magic out of it, for Malayalees are very familiar with her voice, and will identify it immediately with her image. Don't you think so?
This was a complaint many Malayalees had. But they did not seem to realise that if it was the familiar voice of Lalitha they heard from the other side, it was Mammootty standing on this side playing Basheer. Don't you find it a little strange? At the time of release of MAHILUKAL, Lalita was seen practically in every film and everyone could immediately identify her voice. But then my film has a life even after its time of release, I believe. The film will be appreciated for whatever it is worth once these prejudices are gone or when the audiences of today pass over.

Not that I did not anticipate this problem. I had made every effort to use a new voice. But I could not find one that was as sensuous and expressive as Lalita's. I had auditioned a bout sixty people from different parts of Kerala. And then finally I decided that a familiar, yet good voice was better than an unfamiliar bad voice.

How do you decide upon the casting of actors?
Physiognomy is the most important thing. The question is whether the person looks like the character. But while writing the script I never think about the actors. It is after finishing the script that I look for the right actors to play the roles. If established actors are not suitable I start looking for new faces, maybe from theatre or through enquiries. If I don't know the actor at all, I would give him/her a small role and see for myself whether that person has the potential to do a major role.

I have always felt that non-stars have done splendidly in your films when compared to the stars. For example Gopi in KODIYETTAM and Karamana in ELIPPATHAYAM appear as made for the role. Whereas I don't feel the same about Mammootty in MATHILUKAL.
In VIDHEYAN I thought his physique suited the role well. The role needed someone of his physique and appearance. Then I also changed his appearance thoroughly to suit the villain's role. But as distinct from the story, I gave him some redeeming features in the film. There was no element of remorse in the story. He is like a serial killer in it -killing, raping and running amuck. In the film he actually kills only one person-that is his wife. With this murder there is a change in his character -he has doubts. Actually I redefined the character to make him more credible, so that the viewers are able to relate to him. And there is a total reversal of roles in the film.

In the beginning we find Thommi squatting in front of the toddy shop; in the end, we find Patelar in the same position near the waterfalls. He is squatting meekly watching over the rice boiling in the pot while Thommi is bathing in the river naked and in pure abandon. He has grown dependent on Thommi. He has found a comrade in him and manages with him a certain degree of exchange as well. Patelar is also a victim here.

It is Thommi who makes him possible, for you need a slave to create a master. So you needed an imposing figure in the role of Patelar. And Mammootty perfectly suited it. Body and appearance are very important physiognomy in general. Here the propensity to violence is also a major factor.

It was the case with MATHILUKAL also. My effort was to cast someone who suits the self-image of Basheer during that period of his life. In his writings, Basheer always talks about his appearance as handsome, well built and strong. But the popular image we have of him is that of an old man. In the film, he is in his youth, so I thought Mammootty suited it eminently. I couldn't be happy with a lesser actor in that role. It was my intention to capture the image Basheer had of himself.

When he saw the film, Basheer joked to his wife, "Mammootty is not as handsome as I was but he approximates!"

And the two characters Mammootty did in MATHILUKAL and VIDHEYAN are opposites. While one is a self reflective, creative person, the other is a ruffian, devoid of any sense of sophistication or finer feelings.

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