Acting is not mechanical efficiency.

This article originally appeared in the Friday Features of The Hindu, dated October 7, 1988 – a republishing of an interview that happened earlier, presumably in 1986. Bharat Gopy speaks to Unny, setting out his views on the challenges that a creative actor faces.
Bharat Gopy in Aghaat
TH : While the Malayalam cinema has made a mark within and outside the country, why does the Malayalam theatre lag behind?
BG : Primarily the playwrights are to blame. What came in the name of modern theatre here was basically “imitation theatre.”Our playwrights were bound by the idioms of the western theatre. They paid no attention to our folk and classical traditions.For instance, look at their obsession with the Brechtian Theory of Alienation. There is nothing wrong in learning all this.But why don’t they realize that the same technique is employed in Kathakali ? During a Kathakali performance, the boy who carries oil to refill the nilavilakku every once a while is performing a meaningful role. He makes you realize that what you are witnessing is a performance. If this is not alienation, what is? We have to imbibe from our classical and folk traditions of performing arts, and evolve suitable formats to express contemporary reality. Kavalam Narayan Panikkar is one person who has worked in this direction, and he is being widely acknowledged.
TH : How different are the demands made by cinema and theatre on the actor?
BG: Theatre and cinema are totally different experiences, for the aactor as well as for the audience.In a play, your acting should be targeted to the row of viewers about 20 feet away from the stage. If you do it for the front rows, the people at the back would not register anything.If you overdo things to reach out to the back, the front rows would find it unbearable.This is the physical limitation of the theatre.Also, the actor in a play gets easily carried away by the continuity of action.With sheer practice you can achieve competence on the stage, but cinema provides the real test for the actor.

The Challenge.

TH : But, don’t you think that film-acting is more restrictive ? film-making involves a lot of thechnicalities and shooting often proceeds in a disjointed manner where the sequence in the script is seldom maintained.
BG: This is precisely the challenge for the creative actor.I make it a point to find out the specification of the lens, so that when I face the camera, I know the size of my image that would ultimately appear onscreen. If it’s a 28 mm lens, the entire room I am occupying would be within the camera range.So, as I talk, I must affirm my speech with gestures. In the case of an 85 mm lens, i.e a close shot, every twitch of my facial muscle matters.I could act just with my eyebrows.And when there is a retake, the creative actor will not repeat himself. Every take, each moment of action, is an independent creation. Good acting is not a matter of mechanical efficiency.Nobody, not even oneself should be able to duplicate it. Thus, every technical limitation of the medium could be turned to one’s advantage.
TH : How far do you identify yourself with the character?
BG: You can get involved in the character, never identify with it.If I have to think of myself as a rowdy to do the role of a rowdy, I will not do justice to the script. Acting is a conscious process.I am cent per cent Gopy before the camera. The moment I forget this, I lose control. A good actor must have a sense of proportion. He should not give more or less that what the role demands. And he must be able to switch on and off. You cannot do this if you are one with the character.

Talent Adjustment.

TH : How do you function in the company of other actors ?
BG : This is not as difficult in cinema as it is in theatre.I call it ‘talent adjustment.’You go up or come down to the level of your fellow actors so that a certain balance is achieved. This is not difficult once you have a sense of the total effect of a scene.
TH : How do you manage dubbing?
BG : Except on two occasions, I’ve always dubbed the voice myself, because it is an essential part of acting. It is not a mechanical process of imparting voice to a visual sequence. Dubbing is often done weeks or even months after the shooting.You can see your own image on the screen, reflect over what you have done earlier and add the right shades of meaning to it by improvising.Even while I perform before the camera, I consciously provide for moments which can be used during the dubbing.Film-making is unique : it gives the actor enough scope at every phase to reflect over and improve performance. Which other medium gives you the luxury?
TH : Certain off-beat film-makers claim to use actors as puppets and do not acknowledge acting as an input in their films. Comment?
BG : I cannot stomach this. You can certainly make a movie conceived in a manner that affords neither scope nor need for acting. But if you are telling the story of man and picturising it through elements related to human existence, there has to be acting in it.
TH : How far has observation and real-life experiences helped in your acting?
BG : A keen sense of observation and a rich life-experience are totally unnecessary for an actor.There is nothing wrong if they are there.But if the actor relies on them and accepts them as a norm, he/she will go wrong. During the filming of “Yavanika”, I did not touch liquor.I didnot have to go through the experience to portray the character who is drunk or drinking all through the movie. I do observe life around me – people, their movements. But this is in relation only to those particular persons.I never lift these gestures and gesticulations and transplant them onto a character. I insist on reading the script, not just to know my role but those of the others too. Once I have a conception of the character, his mannerisms and movements spring to life on their own. I do not look beyond this conception to discover elements from real-life situations.
TH : Who is your favorite actor?
BG : I like Sivaji Ganesan for the sheer range characters he has handled.He is the only actor in the country who has a different gait for every role. I think this is very important for an actor. He is often accused of overdoing roles. It is actually stylised acting.When you have to be true to a certain milieu or a situation, you may have to exaggerate to the level required and the result is stylisation. In “Sandhya Mayangum Neram” I faced similar problems.I had to portray a judge who starts assuming personal responsibility for his sentences, develops an intense sense of guilt and seeks an insane way of atonement. Not even once in the movie is he shown to be normal.The situation is not life-like.The actor cannot give – the viewers cannot expect -a realistic presentation.

Sivaji Ganesan in Veera Pandya Katta Bomman.

TH : As an actor you have interacted with some of our best creative minds – Mani Kaul, Aravindan, Govind Nihalani. How do you cope with their divergent styles ?
BG : Kaul and Nihalani gave detailed scripts before the shooting. I could mull over and interpret the role. Only the activities within a particular shot had to be specified.Aravindan knew me well personally and as an actor, and so he never felt the need to instruct me at any length.All three reposed confidence in me and gave me enough elbow room to perform.So the divergencies did not matter to me.

No Guru.

TH : Mani Kaul credits you with a unique personal approach to acting. Can you explain?
BG : I am conscious of the range of my skills. Beyond this I donot stretch.Within this I try and give my best.I donot allow any false element to creep into my art.Though acting is make-believe, there should not be anything untrue about it. The actor must receive instructions from within.Acting for me is an occurrence that takes place while am facing the camera or the audience.I have had no guru. I cam to acting as an adult. As an actor, I was born at the age of twenty and am still in my youth. So I started with a crystallised style that has not changed substantially.
TH : How did you tune your faculties to the serious as well as commercial streams of cinema?
BG : I have avoided the crass commercial stuff, though my judgement did falter in the case of three or four films. That apart, I have always found it more satisfying to perform in commercial films.The directors of these films do not condescend and leave you alone to do your bit.But then you must be doubly cautious. You might get carried away or make mistakes, and no one would stop you.
TH : Your plans for the future?
BG : The acting phase seems to be over for me.There is a proposal to make a tele-film based on a play by Kavalam Narayana Panikkar and I propose to start shooting my second film in October.The first one I directed, “Njattadi” never got to the theatres for certain technical reasons. The films that I am working on now will be story-oriented.There will be no element of obscurity or intellectual pretensions. I would like to call it a humane film.You can see it without the help of the critic-interpreter. I will not be going around issuing statements to enlighten the public on how to view it.
TH : How would your experience as an actor influence your film-making ?
BG : It gives me an advantage.An actor intensifies his/her power of suggestion, which is central to the craft of acting.As a director, when I interact with my actors, the same faculty can be employed to get the best out of them.For my first film “Njattadi”, the actors were ordinary people who had never faced a motion-picture camera before. I got some brilliant performances without any problems.
TH : As a creative artist what is your reaction to contemporary reality?
BG : As a citizen, I have my own reaction to social and political developments and hold rather unorthodox views on the imbalances in the system. If I give artistic expressions to these views of mine, the responses would be either cathartic or plain hostile.When most of your viewers are likely to be beneficiaries of a system that you seek to attack, what else can you expect? Look at the kind of hostile reaction Govind Nihalani’s “Tamas” received from the influential sections of our society.

The Opening Sequence of Tamas (1987)

All the same, I believe that it is the duty of an artist to find ways of levelling up the cultural life of the community. Its truly a task, though.


About Bharat Chronicler

The in-house master of ceremonies, online janitor and chronicler of the life and times of Bharat Gopy - playwright, author, director, producer and actor extraordinaire of Indian Cinema.

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