Language: Malayalam with some English
At the Kochi leg of the multi-city International Film Festival of Kerala early this year, the inaugural nilavilakku was lit by KG George. The lighting of a lamp is a common practice at Indian events, but the organisers elevated the ritual with a touch befitting the legendary filmmaker's imagination, his stature and historic contribution to cinema: they invited 24 Malayalam film luminaries from younger generations who have won Indian and international awards in the past decade and got each one to light a candle off the flame sparked by George.
A similar desire to go beyond common practices informs Lijin Jose's excellent documentary 8½ Intercuts: Life and Films of K.G. George that was screened at the International Film Festival of India in 2017, has been on the festival circuit for a while and is now available for mass viewing on the OTT platform Neestream. The title is a nod to the 1963 Italian drama 8½ by Federico Fellini who George deems his inspiration. 8½ Intercuts splices footage from Fellini's works with the main narrative that includes footage from a selection of George's films, a torrent of interviews from his contemporaries, seniors and present-day film personalities, an in-depth conversation with the septuagenarian himself and a game-changing appearance by his wife, the singer Selma George.
At first, it appears that 8½ Intercuts is a conventional albeit high-quality chronicle of the auteur's journey as he recounts it and as evaluated by an array of artists, including his colleagues, and journalists who have followed his career closely. We hear in his voice the story of his humble beginnings in financial want, how he would travel from his home in Thiruvalla to nearby cities in his early years to watch international cinema and his time at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, where already, so says writer-director MT Vasudevan Nair, "KG George had a great reputation." Heavyweight after heavyweight joins in to speak of George's oeuvre. The depth of their collective knowledge is astounding and educational.
Then about half an hour into its running time, 8½ Intercuts has its stop-the-presses moment when the protagonist's spouse gets her turn at the mike.
KG George and Selma George
George is most respected among serious students of cinema for his character studies that delved deep into the human psyche, his profound understanding of psychology and his portrayal of women that has been lauded even by hard-to-please feminists. It is a human failing that we assume " and derive solace from assuming " that the creations of our most beloved artists mirror who they are as people. It comes as a shock therefore when, through the course of the documentary, Selma describes George in a cut-and-dried tone as a man who lacks sincerity in life and laments the incongruity of him weeping for characters in films yet having "no feelings towards his own wife". He sits beside her with a bemused expression on his face, sometimes even laughing as she speaks."He is a great artist but not a good family man," she says."He has no sentiments towards his wife or children, his parents and siblings or mine." All he wanted from marriage, she adds, were "sex and good food".
Selma's expressions of bitterness about their relationship are particularly striking because she states her opinions so matter-of-factly and in the same breath says that among all Malayalam filmmakers till date, George is "of course the best."
Authorised biographies and books/films made with the participation of the subject even if not their stamp of approval tend to descend into hagiography territory or at best be sterile and uncritical. Sometimes this has to do with the control exerted over the filmmaker/writer by the subject who is a powerful individual, sometimes it comes from the filmmaker/writer being a fan and not an objective observer, sometimes the reason is the author's own keenness for an endorsement from the famous subject that would draw more eyeballs to the end product. 8½ Intercuts stands out because of Lijin's clear-eyed view of George that is respectful yet not adulatory, and because George did not censor this final cut.
Cynics may argue that George's health is such that Selma is the one in charge " but how does that explain the filmmaker's own frankness about his flaws as a human being and the missteps in his body of work?
Selma's words and his reactions are at once hilarious, sad, revealing and honest. In an oblique way, they reminded me of a poignant scene in Celluloid Man, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's biopic on PK Nair, the iconic founder-director of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI). In that passing passage, Nair's daughter struggles against tears while speaking of how the family suffered as he dedicated himself to NFAI at the cost of time with them. George's issue was/is not time, it is attitude.
The irony of this director, who is known for his sensitive, intensely felt depictions of women, being indifferent to his own wife is a reality check for those who cannot separate their favourite art from the artist. Selma's description of George is borne out by an episode in 8½ Intercuts when he tears up while discussing the real-life parallels most people saw in one of his most memorable and controversial works, Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback (1983). Equally telling is a monologue through which he dwells on the first woman he ever loved " his evocative description of their last meeting in a park is like a visualisation of a scene for a potential film, but it is hard to figure out whether his passion is directed at the woman or the imagery he conjures up. He follows up his verbalised storyboarding with a statement so emotional about her though that it becomes clear there is only one thing to be said with certainty about this man: he is an enigma.
It is tempting to reveal more " about the husband-wife equation, the handwritten text on a page we are shown of George's diary, the commentary (largely positive but not entirely so) by the parade of talking heads that Lijin rolls out or even which of George's films he chooses to dwell on " but that would spoil the experience of watching this remarkable documentary.
The only major grouse I have with 8½ Intercuts is that, as with most contemporary Malayalam cinema, it is male-dominated. This is all the more noticeable considering George's reputation for feminist films. Of the 37 interviewees (apart from George and Selma) that I counted in 8½ Intercuts"producers, directors, cinematographers, writers, actors, journalists "there are precisely five women: actors Jalaja and Menaka, editor Bina Paul, director Anjali Menon and actor-director Geethu Mohandas.
The first woman to speak, Selma, comes half an hour into the documentary. I wrote to the director asking why Suhasini Maniratnam (who was incredible in George's 1983 classic Adaminte Variyellu) is missing from the line-up. He replied that he reached out to her repeatedly, but did not hear back from her. Fair enough, but there is an ocean of well-spoken women in Malayalam culture and journalism. Representation is not only about accommodating those among the marginalised who become available but also about persistently seeking out options.
This lacuna is disheartening because 8½ Intercuts is an achievement on so many other fronts. Lijin's storytelling is brilliant, especially in the sequencing of George's films in the narrative and in the choice of scenes from Fellini's 8½ and La Dolce Vita that are woven in. Bijibal's quirky, sparingly used music and B. Ajithkumar's polished editing give the film a racy air despite the nearly 2 hours length.
That Lijin drew such unfiltered observations from both George and Selma is amazing. As amazing is the manner in which he doesn't cheapen their candour and reduce his film to sensationalist tabloid fare. There is nothing gossipy about 8½ Intercuts. By intertwining the personal smoothly with the professional, by giving equal importance to Selma's take on George as a person and to the extensive analysis of George's works, Lijin delivers a 360-degree view of one of the greatest Indian filmmakers of all time (and, might I add, one of the greatest Indian filmmakers to have not received the Dadasaheb Phalke Award ¦ yet).
8½ Intercuts is an astonishingly frank KG George biopic rich with insights into the man and his films.
Footnote: This is a complete list of the interviewees in 8½ Intercuts: K.G. George, Selma George, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Anjali Menon, Balu Mahendra, Bina Paul, B. Unnikrishnan, Chelavoor Venu, C.S. Venkiteswaran, C.V. Balakrishnan, Fahadh Faasil, Gandhimathi Balan, Geethu Mohandas, Henry, Innocent, Jalaja, John Paul, K.B. Ganeshkumar, Lenin Rajendran, Lijo Jose Pellissery, Mammootty, Menaka, M.G. Radhakrishnan, M.T. Vasudevan Nair, Muhammed Bapu, Nedumudi Venu, O.N.V. Kurup, P.K. Nair, Priyanandanan, Psycho Muhammed, Ramachandrababu, Renjith, Sethu, Shaji N. Karun, S. Sankaran Kutty, T.V. Chandran, V.C. Harris, Venu, Zachariah.
Rating: 4 (out of 5 stars)
8½ Intercuts: Life and Films of K.G. George is on Neestream
Watch a preview here