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Deccan Herald » Fine Art / Culture » Detailed Story
Kathakali comes alive on screen
Adoor Gopalakrishnan talks to VASANTHI SANKARANARAYANAN about his latest documentary film Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who is an internationally well-known film maker and is the initiator of New Wave Cinema into the Indian scene has made a documentary film on the 80-year-old Kathakali artist, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair.

Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, who has been performing and teaching Kathakali for more than 40 years is the best living Kathakali exponent and this documentary which is conceived as a monologue by the protagonist is a well researched and aesthetically presented document on the art form as well as the artist.

The duration of the film is 73 minutes. The film has been produced by Sangeeth Natak Akademy. After an interval of 30 years the Akademy has come forward and financed a film on a living legend in Kathakali.

Gopalakrishnan comes from a family which has been patrons of Kathakali for four generations. He has been watching Kathakali performances from a very young age and his love and dedication for this art form is evident in the previous two films he made on Kathakali artists– Guru Chenganoor Raman Pillai in 1974 and Kalamandalam Gopi in 1998.

It is a rare case of proven technical expertise merging with actual experiential and emotional knowledge of the theme– “a great filmmaker making a film on a great artist.”

This interview was taken when Adoor was in Chennai in connection with the presentation of this cinema:

This is probably one of the longest documentaries on a performing artist. Why did you choose to make it so long?

This length was essential to bring out the salient aspects of the artist and the art form to which he was completely devoted to. A film on a great artist can be made on video with a budget of Rs 20,000 also. I can use clippings from films made by other people and treat it as a home video. But, that would not serve my purpose. I want this to be a lasting document on Ramankutty Nair and Kathakali itself. So, this was the absolute minimum length needed for that. Kathakali is a highly evolved art form and even clippings of actual performances cannot be too short or abrupt.

How long did it take you to shoot this film?

Ten days and ten nights. We worked three shifts, the performance parts shot at night and the other parts during the day. The film was shot in two locations– Vellinezhi, a village in North Kerala, which is the native place of Raman Kutty Nair, and Kerala Kalamandalam, one of the prime institutions of Kerala, involved in the training of Kathakali.

What was the inspiration to make this film?

When I made the film on Kalamandalam Gopi, a disciple of Ramankutty Nair, in which the latter danced along with Gopi, I felt that it was not fair to have shot a film on the disciple first before making a film on the guru. From then onwards I had been wanting to make a film on this great artist. Also, the fact that he is the greatest living Kathakali artist of today was another motivating factor; he is 80 years old; if I did not make a film on him now, I may not have another opportunity to do the same.

When I shot the film on Guru Chengannoor, he was 92 years old. Still he was performing and lived for another four or five years. But, had I not shot that film at that time, there would be no record or document on that great artist. So, I decided that the time was imminent and I had to shoot this film at the earliest.

Was it not very difficult to mount an operation of such dimensions in a small village like Vellinezhi?

Yes, it was. We, the technicians and the artists stayed at Cherplacheri, a neighbouring town. In fact, that way it was one the most expensive films that I have made. Every day there were 120 people on the film site including the actors and the crew. Special camera had to be used to capture the nuances of the Kathakali lighting, music, the synchronisation of sound, movement and light.

Film is in effect a two dimensional medium whereas a dance drama form such as Kathakali is a three dimensional form. How would you go about balancing the two?

It is not a question of dimensions. An art form such as Kathakali is highly evolved. So cinema— which is a comparatively a modern form and uses technology to capture the images— has to respect the space and time factors of that art form. The camera should not be intrusive; it should not violate the space or time of Kathakali. For example, showing close-ups of the face, eyes etc would be totally out of place and insulting. There is a rhythm which is related to the particular space; an internal rhythm which comes from an internal space. The audience should have the feeling of watching a performance, not the filmmaker copying the performance.

What do you do to maintain the equation?

Just respect the connection between the art, the artist and the viewer. It is a triangle where harmony should prevail and not discord. If one understands this relationship everything will fall into place.

What is the structure that you have used in this film?

I do not want to take away the element of surprise from you when you watch the film. So I would rather that you watched it and found it for yourself. However, I would say this much. It is presented as a monologue by the artist on his life and art, a looking back on his life and his performances. You can see that there is a very intimate and inalienable relationship between the art and the artist. Asan was so dedicated to his art form, that one could almost say that his life was practicing and teaching the art form. Without Kathakali, there is no Raman Kutty Nair, without Raman Kutty Nair, a great many memorable moments in the history of Kathakali cannot be recorded. In one sense all the memorable moments in Kathakali performances have been recorded in this film. A real lover of the art form who has been following the trend and watching the performances would understand what I am saying. So, in that sense this is a historical document on Kathakali itself.

Tell me something about your background and relationship with Kathakali from a very young age?

My family has been patrons of Kathakali for four generations. We used to organise Kaliyogams (Kathakali performances) on a regular basis. On the birthdays of all family members we used to have performances. So, I have been watching Kathakali from the age of five or six. Then it became a matter of participating in Cholliyattams ( the acting out of librettos to choreography, the flow and the facility of hands and body gestures). We had what are known as “Malamadeivangal”(tribal Gods) who were protectors of families. Ours was Karna. There was a belief among the people that when we organised Kathakalis on these protector Gods, we will never be able to complete them. It may be a superstition, but people believed it and I have seen it happen in reality.

Do you feel happy about the way this film has been produced?

Yes, I do, because I could do the film in the way I wanted. There was no interference from the producers and there was enough money and support to do it in the way I wanted.
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