About the Author.
I first watched him 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 – he 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.
Bharat Gopy in Kodiyettam (1977).
Strangely enough, in the intervening years between watching Kodiyettam and reacquainting myself with it, I hadn’t watched any film of Gopy’s at 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. Gopy 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. ‘Gopy’ 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. 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’.
Bharat Gopy in Ente Mamttykutty Ammakku (1983).
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 Srividya, was one of his most chilling performances ever. He plays dominant husband to Srividya’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.
As if to offset his grey-bordering-on-black characters, he stepped into the shoes of local politician Dushasana Kurup in Panchavadi Palam, 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 Srividya 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 shy away in disgust. It was a mirror he held up, showing us our baser selves; after all, these are the ‘leaders’ we elect.
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. 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.
Bharat Gopy in Appunni (1984).
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 Gopy. Philistine that I am, I am not a great fan of Aravindan’s cinema. Having been used to his ‘being’ the character, it was still a shock to come across Gopy as a white-collar worker – Shankaran, the superintendent of a government farm – while Sreenivasan played Muniyandi, a worker. Unlike most 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. 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 be 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.
Soon after this, I was discussing the film and Gopy’s performance with my elder brother, and he asked if I had seen Yavanika, 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. 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). 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.
Bharat Gopy in Yavanika.
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 Srividya, my favourite actress in Malayalam cinema, and Kallan Pavithran ( Pavithran, the thief – with a pun on ‘Pavithran’ [it means ‘pure’ in Malayalam]). Both films saw Gopy essaying characters that moved into grey territories. In the former, he is Sri Prasad, a novelist, who persuades his wife Sarada (Srividya) to pretend to seduce her subordinate Achuthan Unni (Nedumudi Venu) as he 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.
Kallan Pavitran 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 Pavitran 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. No one got Gopy when they signed him for their films; they got their characters. And what unforgettable characters! Who can forget the venomous trade union worker in Govind Nihalani’s Aaghat ? In a film that saw the who’s who of the parallel cinema movement – Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapoor, Salim Ghouse, KK Raina – Gopy’s Krishnan left his mark.
Bharat Gopy in Aghaat ( 1985).
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), one Film Critics’ Award for Best Supporting Actor (Kallan Pavitran) , a National Award each for Best Director (Yamanam), Best Producer (Patheyam), 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.