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March 25, 1999


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'Alas, realistic movies are dead'

Shobha Warrier

Ashok Kumar Click for bigger pic!
Twenty-five years ago, Ashok Kumar, son of Kedarnath Agarwal, a Hindi poet, decided to take a train to Madras. He wanted to learn film-making. Even though he had spent most of his life in his father's library reading poetry, what went through his mind then were not words but images -- moving ones.

But his parents, who had seen films only in the theatres, were shocked to hear of his passion for cinema. They tried to dissuade him and finally relented making it a condition that instead of going to bad Bombay, he go to Madras, where at least there were some relatives to ensure his well-being.

Ashok Kumar joined the Institute of Film Technology, Adyar to learn cinematography.

"The only reason why I joined the institute was because I somehow wanted to enter the film world. I knew I'd be able to become a film director only if I learnt the technicalities of film-making first. But in those days, even after we passed out of the institute, we were not allowed to enter the film studios."

But in the film institute, he did get to see some world classics and films by great Indian directors like Satyajit Ray.

"We didn't like the films made then. We found them very dramatic and unrealistic. At the same time, a revolution was taking place in the Malayalam film industry. I too wanted to be a part of the avante garde movement. And I did too. I was fortunate to work with great filmmakers like Ramu Kariat, Adoor Gopalakrishan, M T Vasudevan Nair, P N Menon, Bharatan, etc.

"We were the people who took the artists from the interiors of the studios to the wide-open world. We used natural light to shoot; we did not apply any make up on the artists. We called it the parallel movement because the films we made were different from the films the masses liked. Those, we called popular cinema. The masses want only colour, glamour, stars, dance and music in films, not realism. Our movement died because people lost interest in realistic films. We had no audience."

Click for bigger pic!
For someone from north India, Ashok Kumar made his mark with a Malayalam film, Janmabhoomi, in 1971. His teacher at the institute, John Sankaramangalam, was the director. The film went on to win a Presidential award. Ashok Kumar also won the President's medal for the best black and white cinematography for the same film.

"I lost all my money in the film? But who cared about money then? We were an idealistic bunch of artists with only one desire in our mind -- to make good films. Nobody was willing to finance my film. Finally, it was my mother who gave me 1.5 lakh (150,000) rupees. In those days, we could make a film with that much money. I spent another 1.5 lakh rupees to distribute the film since nobody came forward to distribute it. The film was about the settlers who moved from Travancore to Cochin in search of work.

"I still remember the first day of shooting of Janmabhoomi in Perunthalmanna. We were to start shooting by six in the morning. But I got up by four because I couldn't sleep at all. So excited was I. It was my first day of shooting and it was my first film. We reached the site well ahead of time since nobody could wait till dawn. But there was not enough light for us to start. We anxiously waited for the sun to come up." Anyway, it was worth all the trouble and wait as Janmabhoomi was rewarded with awards, both at the national and state level.

Ashok Kumar shifted slowly from parallel films to commercial cinema.

"I enjoyed shooting films non-stop for 25 for just Rs 2,000. But I wasn't married then. In those days, I wanted only one thing -- to interact with great artists and writers. I respected artists a lot. I still remember the day when P J Antony, the national award winner for Nirmalyam, offered me a glass of arrack, and said, 'Ashok, drink'. I drank it. Even if he had given me poison, I would have drunk it then because I respect great artists. But after marriage, I needed the money. But let me stress one thing, money is not important all for a creative artist."

Ashok Kumar Click for bigger pic!
His entry into the Tamil film industry was through well-known director J Mahendran. Ashok Kumar was called to shoot Mullum Malarum, but he could not accept it then. But he did Mahendran's next film, Nenjathe Killathe, in 1981. That was his first Tamil film and the heroine of the film was his assistant, Suhasini.

Ashok Kumar won the national award for best cinematography in colour for that film. He also shot first Indian 3-D film, My Dear Kuttichathan, known to Hindi audiences as Chota Chetan. Having shot in black and white in the early days of his career and later on switching to colour, he was familiar with both. But he still felt shooting in black and white was more challenging.

"Because we have to create depth by light and shadow but in colour depth is created by the colours itself. Shooting with colour films is very easy. So even today, my favourite is P N Menon's Kuttiyedathi, which I shot in natural light and in black and white."

But he had forgotten the parallel film movement by the time he started shooting films with Tamil superstars Rajnikant and Kamal Haasan. "I did all those movies because I wanted to see the glamour in the commercial set-up. But I still like working only for low-budget movies. You see real art only in low-budget movies. But, alas, realistic movies are dead. I feel tired in the commercial set-up because I can't wait, wait and wait for the big artists to come to the sets. None of them are punctual."

His latest blockbuster in Tamil was Shankar's Jeans, starring Aishwarya Rai and Prasanth. Though the film didn't do too well, all those who have seen the film felt Ashok Kumar had made Aishwarya look angelic. Did she look, as heavenly from behind the camera?

"She looked beautiful. But we had to take more care about her make-up and lights. We used only soft lights for her. That made her look much better. Even otherwise, she's beautiful. Ah, any man would like to look at her."

Pictures by Sanjay Ghosh

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