TN Gopakumar -or Gopan/Gopu as he was known to his friends, belonged to that rare breed of journalists who combined creativity with a deeply ingrained commitment to social causes.
A verse from one of his favourite revolutionary songs from Tamil movies could actually give us a glimpse into why he chose to focus on those who otherwise would not have made it to the visual periphery of Kerala’s mainstream society.
When God gave,
He gave not to one,
He gave to the (native) land.
But as long as there exist
those who have nothing,
The rich will insist
they too have nothing to give.
But does the sky deny its twilight to the poor?
A year has gone by, with him no more. It seems almost as if with the passing of Gopakumar in January last year, an era in visual media has drawn to a close.
A name that had already made its mark in the print media, Gopakumar surprised most of his colleagues in Delhi by opting to join Asianet, at a time when cable TV was a fledgling concept in India.
Asianet was the first privately owned regional (Malayalam) television channel and the second to broadcast in India after Star India Private Limited at the time.
For a person who was initially deeply uncomfortable in front of the camera, Gopakumar’s success as an anchor made him almost legendary in journalistic circles.
Prominent media personality and founder of Asianet, Sashi Kumar was not very sure whether he was doing the right thing by luring Gopakumar from the confines of a cozy working environment into a venture that was literally a shot in the dark.
But as Gopakumar cheekily chose to put it, when asked about the transition: “I was at a stage where I was contemplating a move back to Kerala for four reasons.
- I wanted my kids to get themselves acquainted with Malayalam, their mother-tongue.
- I was tired of hearing Hindi day in and day out.
- I was done eating rotis.
But the fourth reason was what actually seemed close to his heart –the fact that G Aravindan who is considered one of the pioneers of Malayalam parallel cinema and a very dear friend, was residing in Thiruvananthapuram.
But sadly, before Gopakumar could move to Thiruvananthapuram, death had already snatched Aravindan.
Anyway, Sashi Kumar was insistent that Gopakumar host the first show that was titled Kannadi (mirror in Malayalam).
Sashi recalls: “Among the very first series of programmes that emerged in our brainstorming sessions to evolve the Fixed Point Chart (the programmes for each half hour slot of the day and for the week, and repeated thereafter for the month and so on) was Kannadi.
We entrusted it to Gopan and he took to it with passion and vigour. The programme soon became synonymous with the man. It was meant to hold a mirror to what we do to ourselves.
Gopan made it an investigative, humane and a transformative exercise, often forcing policy changes and remedial interventions by the authorities and lending succour and relief, both moral and financial, to those in trouble or need.”
As Editor-in-Chief of Asianet News, Gopakumar ended up producing and anchoring the weekly show for 20 long years, with only a short break in between, when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2014. The show soon resumed when Gopakumar rejoined the sets after treatment, and he continued as its host till his demise.
An interesting tidbit that often did the rounds regarding him was how whenever he had to go to the Gulf (where a sizeable Malayali population exists), people used to call out to him as Kannadi.
Thanks to Gopakumar’s concerted efforts, a Kannadi fund was soon in place, with countless viewers both in India and abroad donating liberally. The money collected was exclusively used to cater to the needs of those in genuine need.
“There are very few slots in a TV channel of which one can conscientiously say that just that one programme makes the whole channel worthwhile, more than in the narrow commercial sense,” says Sashi Kumar.
When Gopakumar died, Kannadi had just 10-20-odd episodes left to reach the magic figure of 1000. In its tribute to this towering personality, Asianet shot the rest based on earlier episodes that focused on the fringe-folk whom Gopakumar had brought into the limelight. The remaining episodes sought to highlight their latest status in life, which thankfully was better than before.
And once the 1000th episode was shot, the channel wound up the show in honour of the man who was its lifeline for two decades.
Born in 1957 at Sucheendram in the Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, Gopakumar was the son of Vattappallimadam Neelakanta Sarma – a renowned Sanskrit pundit, temple priest and an Ayurveda physician, who was looked upon by the natives as some sort of a local deity.
Neelakanta Sarma went on to father nine kids with two wives, and Gopakumar was his eighth progeny. His mother was L Thankamma who had married Sarma after she was left widowed by the death of her first husband Comrade P Krishna Pillai – a-well-known Communist leader of the time.
The Red legacy that came attached with his mother’s past ensured that little Gopan had access to many world classics, with many Communist leaders dropping in at home to call on his mother.
Tolstoy and Gorky were gifted to him at a very young age, making him a very voracious reader. He easily devoured 100-120 books in a year, a fact that he used to diligently record in his diary, citing the name of the book and its author.
This world of books that dominated his life is what he believed led him to the journalistic field. Born to a Brahmin father and a Nair mother, he was proficient in Malayalam, Tamil and English, with Sanskrit taking on the hues of a familiar voice since birth.
Since Sucheendram hovered on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, only ten copies of Kerala Kaumudi (a popular Malayalam newspaper) would be delivered to the scattered Malayali families living in the vicinity.
So every morning, Gopakumar would make sure, he was right there by the newspaper agent to get his copy. Such was his love for his native tongue, which was surpassed only by his deep admiration for the Tamil language.
According to Gopakumar, Tamil was classically a superior language when compared to Malayalam, but this did not make him blind to the commendable strides made in Malayalam literature within a very short timeframe.
Beginning his career with the Indian Express, he ‘rolled’ through Mathrubhumi, News Time, Statesman, The Independent, and even did a short stint with the BBC.
When the BBC offered him an option to join the South Asian news desk at London, he chose to stay back in India with his wife and kids.
Heather was an Anglo-Indian lass who stole his heart in college. That her brother Norman was his cricket-mate helped speed up the romance.
Recalling his marriage at the Sub-Registrar’s office at Killipalam in Thiruvananthapuram in an interview, Gopakumar chuckled over how he found it difficult to find two witnesses to sign the marriage register.
He managed to get only one, and had to make do with an employee of the Registrar office itself for the other!
Gopakumar was a person who valued his family and friends very much. He considered himself fortunate to count among his friends, creative greats like Aravindan, Chintha Ravi and Pavithran, among others.
He was also very close to Heather and his two daughters, Gayathri and Kaveri, whom he used to try and include in all his travels whenever possible.
With four decades of journalism to his credit, Gopakumar had also penned around 15 books. Sucheendram Rekhakal and Volgatharangangal won him the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award for the Best Autobiography in 1998 and Best Travelogue in 2011 respectively.
In 2001, he had even directed a Malayalam movie Jeevan Masai, based on Tarasankar Bandopadhyaya’s Bengali novel Arogyaniketan, as well as a tele-serial Verukal for Doordarshan, which was based on Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s novel by the same name.
Malayattoor was initially very reluctant to agree to the project, but after getting to know the formidable reputation that Gopakumar enjoyed in professional circles, he was more than happy to let the latter interpret his novel for the visual media.
As all creative men are known to be, Gopakumar had his own share of idiosyncrasies.
Gopakumar did all his writing at night. The 9pm to 3am night shift was something he had always looked forward to.
While others preferred to take Sundays off, he would jump at the opportunity to work on a holiday, as he knew a well-crafted story would find ample space in Monday’s edition.
He was known to be obsessed with his tall stature. With a deadpan expression, he recalled how in China, they made him feel so tall, while New York and Manhattan always found him seated, so as to avoid being peered at from above by even taller men and women.
In an interview, Gopakumar solemnly referred to the camera as a hostile instrument that refused to laugh or talk to him. He never forgave the camera for not conversing with him in the same manner as he did.
Till the end, he was never fully convinced that he made a good anchor. He always felt he would have been a really good documentary-maker, if given a chance.
By his own admission, it took him a long while to convince himself that the cameras placed all around him as well as those who manned them, were not out to hurt him.
He hated to procrastinate. He believed what could be done today was better done today itself, as tomorrow brought its own share of burdens.
Though known for his short-temper, Gopakumar was also known to quickly calm down, thereby making anger an ineffective tool for him to deal with others.
He also had the reputation of desisting from small talk with political leaders. And he never shied away from attending calls, however busy.
Gopakumar was a man of many facets, one who wore his achievements very lightly for someone of his stature. As Sashi Kumar wrote for The News Minute: “He really had no business to leave so early. But then it was not his doing.”