4 March 2014

Many Faces, Many Moods

Bharat Gopy

02.11.1937 - 29.01.2008
Sometime in September last year, I was contacted by fellow-blogger Cinematters, who had been given the enormous task of making an official website on the late Gopy, the extremely talented Malayalam actor, by the latter's son, Murli Gopy, an actor and scriptwriter himself. When Cinematters mentioned the project to me, informing me that he was in possession of a huge trunk of the late actor's diaries, photographs, handwritten scripts (including that of Govind Nihalani's Aaghaat in the director's own handwriting), he did it with the sole purpose of turning me blue, green and purple with envy. Ever so often, he would send me emails about some treasure he had unearthed again - Gopy's poems, his notes about the character he was playing on his copy of the script, his letters to his wife, etc. I turned greener, bluer, and more purple as each email came in. 

But Cinematters was so enthusiastic about this mega-project that it was hard not to be infected with the same enthusiasm. So when he wondered if I would write him an article, to be featured on the late actor's website, I jumped at the offer. While I have reviewed Malayalam films on this blog, I have never before written an in-depth article about any of the industry's stellar artistes. Thanks to Cinematters who provided me with an excuse and the platform, I wrote - from my heart - about Gopy. (This article was originally published on bharatgopy.com under the 'In Memoriam' label.)
 
I first watched Gopy in Kodiyettam (Ascent) and came away feeling rather underwhelmed. This was not 'cinema'.  Perhaps the fact that I was only 7 years old had something to do with it. Where was the drama? The songs? The action? Kodiyettam was not a film that a child could fathom.   As I came out of the theatre, I remember complaining loud and long that 'nothing happened'.  And was that man the 'hero'? Ugh! It was perhaps my first 'art' movie, and I cannot say I liked it very much. Years later, I watched it again, rather reluctantly, I admit. But I sat through this film, seeing layers I had not been mature enough to see before, awestruck by the sheer naturalness of the protagonist played by a (then) newcomer named Gopy. Gopy, born Gopinathan Velayudhan Nair, began his acting career in theatre. His first appearance on stage was in a play named Abhayarthikal (Refugees) directed by G Sankara Pillai. His raw talent was honed in Malayalam theatre by stalwarts such as Sankara Pillai, CN Sreekantan Nair and Kavalam Narayana Panicker.  His involvement with Chitralekha Film Society formed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan saw cinema knock at his door in 1972 -  Adoor had directed Gopy in the Malayalam stage version of Waiting for Godot. He offered Gopy  a small cameo as an unemployed youth in his debut film Swayamvaram (One's Choice). Five years later, the director gave him the lead role in Kodiyettam. Interestingly, Gopy had no idea that he was to be in the film. He was writing down the script of the film as Adoor narrated it, and when it was finished, wondered curiously who 'Shankarankutty' was to be. It was then that he learnt that the role was his.

This was just the beginning of the journey for a man who breathed life into his characters. It was not for the first time that Malayalam cinema had unconventional 'heroes'.  But in an age where plot and characterisation had taken a backseat, he was a refreshing change, albeit in a film that saw the advent of 'art' film  into the lexicon of Malayalam cinema. His 'Shankarankutty' , a simpleton who ran away from life's responsibilities including his wife and child, and his journey into self-realisation is a milestone in Malayalam, nay, Indian cinema. It won him the nation's highest acting honours and a permanent prefix to his name - Bharat Gopy.  
Strangely enough, in the intervening years between watching Kodiyettam and reacquainting myself with it, I hadn't watched any film of Gopy's at
'Shakespeare' Krishna Pillai
all. By this time, he had transcended the 'art film' tag, breaching the walls of mainstream cinema with unassuming ease. But even then, when my father took me to see Kaatathe Kilikkodu (A Nest in the Wind),  it wasn't for Gopy that I went, but to see Asha Kelunni, alias Revathi, who was the daughter of my father's colleague.  As the film unfolded, I sat entranced by Professor Krishna Pillai, as the man wavered between his happy married life and his infatuation with a wilful, spoilt college girl. Gopi was  not merely an actor playing the part. Somewhere deep inside, the actor had melded into the script, living and breathing the character on screen. 'Gopi' disappeared; there was only 'Shakespeare' Krishna Pillai in front of me, a man defeated by his own assumptions. 

I was only a teenager then, but a steady diet of films from the excellent to the execrable had honed my appreciation of the craft of 'acting'. By this time, I had moved to Kerala, and my exposure to Malayalam films increased thanks to our tenant/neighbour  'aunty', who watched every film that was released and who, acting under the impulse 'the more the merrier' carted all of us along for the ride.   

Vinod - the hapless father
And so, when Ente Mamattikuttiyammakku (For My Little Mamatti) released later that year, we were there to watch it. And I went to see it as much for Gopy as to see Nukkad's  Sangeetha Naik in her first Malayalam film. Once the film began, it was Gopy who kept me mesmerised, so much so that Baby Shalini, the cherub who played the title role of Mamatikutty didn't impinge on my consciousness at all. Gopy played Vinod, a father who loses his only daughter in a boating accident. His wife (Sangeetha Naik) cannot come to terms with her grief and Vinod watches helplessly as he loses his wife to depression. Finally, they decide to adopt a little girl from an orphanage. The little family is happy again, as the child helps them heal . And then, one day, Vinod receives a visit from a stranger - the biological parents of the adopted child have come to reclaim her. Vinod's anger, his pain, his reluctance to approach his wife with the news, his fear that she will once again revert to the darkness from which he barely managed to rescue her... Gopy transformed, once again, in front of our eyes into a distraught father, making us forget or rather, not care that he was bald and in his forties and not at all 'hero material'.

The manipulative Mamachan Muthalali
Then came Adaminte Variyellu (Adam's Rib) by KG George the same year.  What a change! Here he was Mamachan Muthalali, a ruthless businessman who was wicked without being a caricature, and all the more evil for being so. This, his third outing with heroine Sri Vidya, was one of his most chilling performances ever.  He plays dominant husband to Sri Vidya's Alice, a man who is not above using his wife to get ahead in business. His complete indifference to his wife's needs, and his violence when 'provoked' elicits an almost visceral reaction from the audience. 

The spineless Dushashana Kurup
As if to offset his grey-bordering-on-black characters, he stepped into the shoes of local politician Dushasana Kurup in Panchavadi Palam (The Bridge at Panchavadi), the following year. A satirical comedy by the same director, the film, with its exaggerated plot and characterisation, lampooned the political situation in Kerala and the quid pro quo between the ruling party and the opposition.  With veteran actress Sri Vidya as an ambitious wife egging her henpecked husband on to greater heights, Gopy brought to life both aspects of the character - cowering before his masterful wife, and puffing up his petty ego in front of his 'party' subordinates as he orders the perfectly serviceable bridge in the village to be destroyed to make way for the new one to be named after himself.  Gopy's mastery over his craft meant that he made us not only laugh at his machinations even as we understood its implications, but also, at some point, empathise with the character's motives even if we shied away in disgust. It was a mirror he held up, showing us our baser selves; after all, these are the 'leaders' we elect. 

The pompous Ayyappan Nair
The same year saw him essay the role of Ayyappan Nair, an opportunistic father in Sathyan Anthikkad's Appunni. Ayyappan Nair is the village big shot. His daughter Ammu (Menaka) and his nephew Appunni (Nedumudi Venu) have been childhood sweethearts and he is not at all disagreeable to getting them married.  Only, when a new school master arrives in the village and takes a liking to Ammu, Ayyappan Nair becomes ambitious and he gets his daughter betrothed to him.  When the schoolmaster does not turn up for the muhurat, Ayyappan Nair begs Appunni to step in to save him (and his daughter) from humiliation. The bride being nothing loth, the marriage takes place. But when the schoolmaster shows up late that night explaining that he had been unavoidably detained, Ayyappan Nair's ambitions reawaken. Gopy handed in a consummate performance and you itched to slap him as you wavered between helpless laughter and angry tears.
The guilt-stricken Shankaran
My next Gopy film (as I had come to think of them by then) was  G Aravindan's Chidambaram. This was the first film that I was going to see solely for Gopi. Philistine that I am, I am not a great fan of Aravindan's cinema.  Unlike the previous Aravindan films I had seen, Chidambaram had a sustained story line weaving the threads of friendship and innocence, lust and guilt, absolution and redemption. Having been used to Gopy 'being' the character, it was still a shock to come across him as a white-collar worker - Shankaran, the superintendent of a government farm - while Sreenivasan played Muniyandi, a worker. Besides, Gopy and Smita Patil kept me riveted to the screen. Gopy's performance as Shankaran was flawless, and he imbued his character's fall from grace with sympathy. His Shankaran ceased to be a paper cut-out and leaped out of the screen; he could have been you, or me, or anyone else, who, in a moment of indiscretion, loses both his values and his self-respect and has to struggle to regain both.   Director Aravindan is on record as saying that the artistes did the film for him; no one had any financial expectations.

The debauched Ayyappan
Soon  after this, I was discussing the film and Gopy's performance with my elder brother, and he asked if I had seen Yavanika (The Curtain), a classic murder mystery. I hadn't, though I had heard a lot about it. So, years after this seminal film released, I watched the crime thriller unfold in front of me. It is one of the finest whodunnits (and how and why) that I have seen. Yavanika had a stellar cast headlined by the ever-dependable Thilakan, Nedumudi Venu, Jagathy Sreekumar, Sreenivasan and Mammootty (in one of his earliest roles). Set against the backdrop of a theatre group, Gopy played Ayyappan, the tabalchi, a drunkard and womaniser who abuses his second wife (Jalaja) and has an uneasy relationship with his adult son (Ashokan). When he disappears, there is relief mixed with consternation. The meticulous actor learnt to play the tabla for this film. His performance was so realistic that his Ayyappan still stands out in the memories of movie fans in the state. 

Sriprasad - the master puppeteer
Having acquired a new VCR at the time also meant that I rummaged around for the prints of two movies from the same vintage - Rachana (Creation), co-starring Sri Vidya, my favourite actress in Malayalam cinema, and Kallan Pavithran (Pavithran, the Thief - with a pun on 'Pavithran' [it means 'the pure one' in Malayalam]).  Both films saw Gopy essaying characters that moved into grey territories. In the former, he is Sripprasad, a novelist, who persuades his wife Sarada (Sri Vidya) to pretend to seduce her subordinate Achuthan Unni (Nedumudi Venu) as he, Sriprasad, predicts the latter's reactions.  The outgoing Sarada willingly joins in this 'experiment' to give her husband a closer view into the human psyche. The simple man that Achuthan is, her behaviour and his colleagues' encouragement makes him fall in love with Sarada, until one day, invited to dinner at their house, he is introduced to her husband.  A chilling look at how human emotions can be manipulated, and the even more tragic consequences of such manipulation was staggering to watch. All three leads were superlative.   

The craven Mamachan Muthalali
Kallan Pavithran was another kettle of fish altogether. While the eponymous role was essayed by Nedumudi Venu, Gopy essayed a supporting role as Mamachan Muthalali, the crooked trader who sets the wheels in motion - just not in the direction that Pavitran, or even he, hoped for.  A humorous take on how a man cannot change his ways even when he wishes to do so, with director Padmarajan's trademark simplicity underlining top-notch performances from the two, Kallan Pavithran  brought home to me the sheer genius of the man who could change roles and faces with chameleon-like ease. If validation was needed, then these films offered it in plenty. As far as Gopy was concerned, these films were only a fraction of what he was capable of - a favourite of avant-garde directors such as Adoor and Aravindan, middle cinema leaders such as Padmarajan and KG George, commercial filmmakers such as Balachandra Menon and Satyan Anthikkad, he gave their offerings an equal commitment. 

The chilling Krishnan Raju
No one got Gopy when they signed him for their films; they got their characters. And what unforgettable characters! Who can forget the fiery trade union worker in Govind Nihalani's Aghaat (Impact)? In a film that saw the who's who of the parallel cinema movement  - Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapoor, Salim Ghouse, KK Raina - Gopi's Krishnan Raju left his mark.  His was a chilling performance, and an unforgettable one. 

His never-say-die spirit saw him come back from a debilitating stroke, and begin his second innings - not just as an actor, but as producer, director and author. A recipient of the National Award for Best Actor in his first film  in a leading role, Gopy collected 4 State Film Awards for Best Actor (1977, 1982, 1983 1985), a National Award each for Best Director (Yamanam [Restraint]), Best Producer (Padheyam), and Best Book on Cinema (Abhinayam Anubhavam/Acting, Experience), a Padmashri  and many more. Yet, he held the award for his book on cinema dearest to his heart. In an interview, he had once related how he had never looked at his awards in films as an individual achievement; getting one for his book, however, made him very happy. The unpretentious actor died in 2008, leaving a large, and to me, unfillable void in Malayalam cinema. 
On the sets of Yamanam
We do not have a habit of keeping written records, and much of our glorious cinematic past has been lost  to us. Most regional cinema is accessible only to the people who know the language. If, instead of remaking old films, or 'colourising' them, we instead focussed on obtaining prints of old cinema and restoring it, without cuts, with proper sub-titles, and building an archive of records about our old films, artistes, and technicians, how much more would we gain?

If you have a moment, do visit the official website to take a look at the huge body of work that this understated actor left behind, and also to appreciate the labour of love that went into the collating of all the information that is available about this actor and making it accessible to the general public. It is a fantastic website, with a treasure trove of information, photographs, filmography, tributes and articles. (Congratulations to Cinematters and his team.) If only more such websites were formed - about actors, directors, technicians, musicians, music directors, singers - with an eye to accuracy  (and the debunking of myths and gossip), wouldn't succeeding generations be the richer for it?


*All photographs are the property of www.bharatgopy.com and have been used with permission.

26 comments:

  1. I had completely forgotten Gopy. I am sure I've seen some of his films, in those wonderful days, when DD used to show good regional cinema at Sunday afternoon. Your admiration for the actor is palpable in your description and makes one want to watch all the movies described here. More since, cause I know that Malayalam cinema is always a good bet for watching good movies.
    Thanks for the re-introduction.
    Yavanika with sub-titles is not available somewhere, is it?

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  2. "If, instead of
    remaking old films, or 'colourising' them, we instead focussed on
    obtaining prints of old cinema and restoring it, without cuts, with
    proper sub-titles, and building an archive of records about our old
    films, artistes, and technicians, how much more would we gain?
    "

    So true. I was talking about this to another film enthusiast the other day. The way old cinema - barring the more popular 'classics' - is ignored, is terrible. Another grouse I have (which you do touch upon in this sentence) is that of subtitles. Even award-winning films are often hard to find with subs. Last year, I came across - on Youtube - a Konkani film and an Assamese film, both of which had won the National Award. No subs, and despite much searching on the Net, no signs that a subbed DVD could be bought anywhere. :-(

    Coming to this tribute, Anu: that made for very interesting reading, even though I must admit (very shamefacedly) that I have never seen any of Gopy's films. Three sprang out at me: the one about the couple who adopt the little girl (that sounds so touching and beautiful); the one you mentioned as being a great crime story (obviously!) and Rachana, which sounds pretty much like the Sanjay Dutt-Aishwarya Rai-Zayed Khan starrer, Shabd (which I wouldn't have seen if I hadn't been researching an article I had to write. It turned out to be a surprisingly better film than I'd imagined it would be).

    Now you've given me another bunch of films to watch. Who's going to give me the time to watch them, huh?! Bad girl, Anu. Bad girl.

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  3. Rama Chandran5 March 2014 05:52

    All the people mentioned are my friends,including Gopi.

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  4. Rama Chandran5 March 2014 05:55

    And I saw a movie scripted by Murali Gopi,his son,Left Right Left-one of the finest scripts in Malayalam.I stopped watching movies after that.

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  5. Rama Chandran5 March 2014 06:10

    Appol,Sandya Mayangum Neram?Marmaram?
    Gopi directed 2 movies-Njattadi and Ulsava Pitennu.What abt them?I watched the preview of Njattadi.

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  6. Rama Chandran5 March 2014 06:16

    Ur depending on Cinematters for ur articles,hence ur article on Songs of Yore became mediocre.

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  7. Thank you, Harvey.

    Yavanika with sub-titles is not available somewhere, is it?
    Unfortunately, no. The film is available in its entirety, but as usual, no sub-titles. :( All I have is a VCD of the film; I don't even think they have released the film in a DVD format.

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  8. Madhu, there is nothing to be ashamed of - as long as regional cinema does not have a way of getting a wider reach through good sub-titled prints, who is going to watch them? It is a shame, though, that we keep our films so segregated. It is strange though, that the Assamese and Konkani films you mentioned above are not sub-titled. If they won National Awards, wouldn't you think they would be? :(

    Yes, Rachana is Shabd though not many people know of it. But the director is a Mallu so I'm sure it is deliberate. I can assure you that the 'inspired' version came nowhere close to the psychological and emotional tension of the original.

    Who's going to give me the time to watch them, huh?!
    *grin* I love it!

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  9. Rama Chandran. I am a fan of your comments. It is my dream to one day write a "finest" comment after which you will stop commenting.

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  10. Songs Of Yore5 March 2014 22:22

    Anu,
    My familiarity with Regional Cinema (especially from South) is more by serendipity than conscious effort. DD in olden days used to be a very good source. They have again resumed with 'The Best of Indian Cinema', but at an unearthly hour, 11PM. Yet two recent films I found very charming and sat through. One happens to be a Malayalam movie, Nizhalkkuthu (probably not your great favourite), and the other, Koormavatara. I just thought there is so much of real cinema outside Bollywood in our country, which we are missing. Apart from the unearthly hour, they showed it without any introduction. I commend your outstanding piece, which gives someone like me, who would like to be guided, an introduction to at least one great personality from Malayalam cinema. If I see his name now, I would have some familiarity and would be more interested to watch. Thanks a lot.


    AK

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  11. I'm sorry to have spoilt that anticipation, AKM.

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  12. DD in olden days used to be a very good source.
    Same here, AK. In fact, during the early days of the cable explosion, I used to mourn the death of DD. The number of films, in the number of languages, that we were exposed to was beyond awesome. As for Nizalkutthu, I did like it, but yes, it is not one of my favourite Adoor films. I thought Oduvil Unnikrishnan did a fantastic job as the hangman. But the sort-of-fantasy romance between his daughter and the orphan boy, or the freedom fighter son seemed a bit too stodgy/underdeveloped respectively. I remember you wrote to me about Koormavatara - it's on my list of 'to be watched' movies, but I have not been able to source it yet.

    an introduction to at least one great personality from Malayalam cinema.
    You remind me, much to my shame, that I haven't given regional cinema, especially from my own native land, the representation on my blog that it deserves. :( I should do other such pieces.

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  13. Brilliant performer, and one of the finest actors this country has produced. He will remain an icon forever.

    A few wonderful films I want to add -struggle to remember the name of the movie where he plays a respected tahsildar who, bitten by the gulf bug goaded on by his wife played by Madhavi, tries to learn multiple trades (tailor, driver etc) to source that elusive visa; one of my favourites. Another being Ormakkayi, where he plays a deaf 'n dumb artist. Not to mention one of his comeback hits, Rasatantram.

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  14. Isn't the first film you are referring to, Akkare? It also had Mohanlal, Mammootty and Nedumudi Venu. Beautiful film, but sad, really. Yes, he was really an icon.

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  15. I have heard about Gopi but not seen any of his films, but I do know that he was a very popular actor. I bet you enjoyed writing this article for the blog, such articles are always very interesting. It is quite an in-depth piece makes me want search for some of his films on You Tube.

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  16. I did enjoy writing this, Shilpi. And yes, some of his films have been uploaded on YouTube. But I wonder how many of them have sub-titles. :(

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  17. I've heard about him but didn't really know that he was as popular as other "biggies"! More recently, I happened to watch Ente Mamattikuttiyammakku when it was aired on a Malayalam TV channel. The film's Tamil remake made me watch this one! The man was amazing and looked natural in not just acting, but in appearance too. Very rare to see a hero appearing without a wig while playing the role a middle-aged man.

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  18. Yes, that was his strength, being natural. I think his very 'ordinariness' helped him just blend into his characters.

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  19. Anu, remember our discussion about Sivaji Ganesan in your Muthal Mariyathai post? Read this to know what was this man's take on Sivaji. http://bharatgopy.com/press-interviews/acting-is-not-mechanical-efficiency/ interesting isn't it?

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  20. Yup. It is. I'd read it before; my post on Gopy first appeared on that site.

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  21. I see! In fact, the site also has your image (a bit enlarged than "Google"!)

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  22. Yeah, CM stole it from my Google+ profile when I wouldn't send him one.

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  23. "Apart from one professional networking site, and my blog, I do not have an online presence. :)" Then what about the Youtube channel?

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  24. Meh - the playlists? I would hardly call that a 'presence'. I do that so my readers can just listen to the songs if they want to. It's not as if you learn something about me from my YouTube channel as you can from FB or Twitter or one of the other social media.

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  25. True! Remove the "My story" link from your blog, it will be even more difficult :)

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  26. (Grin). Not much you can learn from that either, other than that I like movies and music and books. And since my blog is mostly about movies and music, you can tell that anyway. :)

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