Thirty minutes into the narrative we are introduced to Selma George, KG George’s wife. She sits next to her husband and calmly recounts their 44 odd years of married life with this line— “He is a great artist but not a great family man. He has no sentiments for his family. Marriage meant only sex and good food for him. But he is undoubtedly one of the greatest filmmakers in the country.” George listens to her with an indulgent awkward smile and almost feebly cuts in— “Selma, that’s what I am.”
That was perhaps the most stunningly revelatory part of that 125-minute documentary. However much of a cruel paradox that sounds, considering the repertoire of brilliantly nuanced female characters he has created on screen, anyone who has explored his filmography will be quick to see that the filmmaker in him always perceived these characters with a clear-eyed unemotional lens. Not for George the language of romance or deception. Therefore, it’s not hard to absorb his wife’s version of the man behind the auteur. Directed by filmmaker Lijin Jose and produced by Shibu G Susheelan, 8½ Intercuts: Life and films of KG George documents the private and professional life of one of the finest filmmakers in Indian cinema.
The film opens to 74-year-old KG George intensely watching a Federico Fellini film. Fitting, considering Fellini, according to George, has been his greatest influence. In the backdrop of black and white footage, George details his childhood, born into a financially backward family, and growing up at Thiruvalla, a small town in Central Kerala. From doing odd jobs to make money and using that cash to watch films, his love for cinema started from a noticeably young age. He would travel from Thiruvalla to Ernakulam just to watch films (Psycho, Hilda, Madame Bovary, Rashomon, China Town).
George’s stint at the Film and Television Institute of India seems momentous. “I learned from the masters,” George says. Writer MT Vasudevan Nair who used to take guest lectures, recalls that even then “George had a great reputation.”
Filmmaker Ramu Karyat whom he assisted in several films after passing out from FTII taught him the nuances of filmmaking—“He was a great teacher.”
Veteran filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan talks fondly of George’s debut film, Swapnadanam, and even shows us a glimpse of a handwritten appreciative letter Adoor sent George in 1975— “It amazed us. Somebody else had started it but George gave it a new perspective.” Swapnadanam, a psychological drama, inspired by a person in real life got him a National Award, establishing him as a significant filmmaker. Its DOP Ramachandra Babu says it was the first film in Malayalam which used hallucinatory sequences while writer Zachariah observes that in Swapnadanam “he used a modernist psychologist approach.”
The documentary is narrated through eight of his brilliant films, underscoring his versatility in switching genres and his deep capacity to dwell into the psyche of the human mind. Mammootty, who has featured in seven of his films in significant and minor roles, says it was actor Sreenivasan who put in a word for him for Mela, his first film with KG George. The actor recalls that George wasn’t overly enthused about roping him in and that he finally managed to get in with a lie—that he could ride a bike and a horse.
Mammootty observes that “George was the best actor among all the directors he has worked with and would enact each and every role for his actors.” Mela (1980) set in the backdrop of a circus, headlines a dwarf who marries a woman and takes her to the circus and later dies by suicide when she falls in love with the circus bike stunt man (Mammootty).
As he discusses his filmography, George slips into occasional fragments about his personal life and his candor oddly moves you. He owns up to being cold and unemotional, not ever being the husband or father expected of him. He had affairs before and after marriage and yet George confesses to nursing a deep affection for a woman he first fell in love with. “Only face I want to remember before death is hers.” Interesting how they intercept scenes from Fellini’s films at this juncture. It’s also mystifying as to how someone who says “women have not played any pivotal role in his life” could unearth such strong, layered, and emancipated women on celluloid.
That he is proud of each of his films, despite their commercial viability or lack of it is evident in how evocatively he attaches himself to them. If in Kolangal (nuanced storytelling of a village and its inhabitants), he used his mother’s dialogue for a character, Yavanika, a murder mystery in the backdrop of a drama troupe, was a result of the time he spent watching rehearsals at theatre clubs.
Actors who worked with him (Nedumudi Venu, Jalaja, Menaka) talk about his unique skill in moulding his actors. “If they failed to emote, he would show them,” says Venu. But for George, if there is one performance from his films which was most satisfying to watch, it has to be Bharath Gopy’s Dushasana Kurup in Panchavadi Palam. “Look at how switched from the cruel Tablist in Yavanika to this unrecognisable goofy old man in Panchavadi Palam.”
Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback, still believed to be one of the greatest meta films made in India, oddly hits a nerve in the filmmaker. He gets misty-eyed as he talks about the late Shobha and Balu Mahendra (the film is allegedly based on their affair), and the unique bond they shared. Panchavadi Paalam was his attempt to prove that he could direct a comedy. And it remains his most expensive film, shot with five cameras.
Irakal according to George, who has left leanings, was about the politics of power and people victimised by society and family. “The idea of violence generated by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency was replanted in a family setup.” Mattoral, inarguably his least discussed film about the impact of an extramarital affair in marriage, was “George being a rebel yet again.”
He talks about being an atheist, like Fellini, and we get a glimpse of an old diary in which he has scribbled— “behaved roughly to Selma. She wept.”
The documentary is skillfully edited with a cross-section of filmmakers, film critics, actors, writers, and technicians attaching their love, respect, and awe for KG George. From veterans like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, MT Vasudevan Nair, John Paul, Balu Mahendra, Mammootty, Nedumudi Venu, Jalaja to Lijo Jose Pellissery, Anjali Menon, Geethu Mohandas to Fahadh Faasil, and critics like MG Radhakrishnan, CS Venkiteswaran, their observations, and insights add more gravitas to the narrative, leaving us in no doubt as to how much he has influenced generations of filmmakers and actors.
“I was never after money and wanted to make films that satisfied me. I believe that I missed nothing.” And you look at his filmography and realise that no truer words have ever been said by a filmmaker.
The film is now playing on Neestream.
Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.