Lalli, a laborer from Kerala and committed communist, dreams of revolutions, social change and equality among people. In his sleep, he sees himself flying the red flag and rousing the dominated. After an agent, who’d promised to help him migrate to Dubai dupes him, Lalli is stranded in Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi). He works as a loader, and talks to people about justice and inequality. When theater director Anamika Haksar wrote the character, based on a real experience, for her debut film, Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoonshe knew the right actor to play Lalli.
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Haksar had first watched K Gopalan in 1995 when he was performing theater sketches of Anton Chekhov and Malayalam writers in Thrissur and followed him through several powerful productions, such as Sankar
Venkateswaran’s The Water Station (2011), a two-hour non-verbal play in which Gopalan essays a man who’s weighed down by a load but takes the audience by surprise by breaking into a dance. “He is able to penetrate into the character of another,” says Haksar.
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The satirical film merges enacted scenes with animation and weaves dream sequences to create allegories. The story revolves around the lives of people who populate the streets of Old Delhi — migrant workers such as Lalli. For Gopalan, 53, the role of Lalli was a natural progression from the conflicts of his own life. “In Kerala, most people in theater are from the Left.
I was in school when I became a part of Leftist organisations, interacted with members of the CPI (M) and also knew Naxals. I used to perform street plays. I dropped out of school early to do theater. Lalli is a character compelled by the Leftist vision, which involves asking questions to those in power,” he says.
One of the finest performers in theater, Gopalan’s work has been marked by a deep awareness of social and political issues. In 2009, in Deepan Sivaraman’s Spinal Cord, a gritty retelling of Gabriel García Márquez’s novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981), he played the 90-year-old mother of a man, who had been murdered in a case of honor killing. He won the Best Actor for the role at the Mahindra Excellence for Theater Award 2010. Last year, Gopalan was honored with the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi.
Most of Gopalan’s ideas were built by the legendary Jose Chiramel, who ran Root, a parallel theater group that emerged out of School of Drama, Thrissur in 1988-89. Gopalan “lived and breathed theater”, spending days and nights learning techniques such as improv. He would also frequent the School of Drama with Chiramel and hang out with students such as Sivaraman. “I found him to be an interesting personality. Though he had never been to college or university, Gopalan was very well read about politics and history. He was also a remarkable singer and painter,” says Sivaraman.
In 1995, Gopalan, Sivarman, PG Surjith, James Elia, Jose Koshy, CR Rajan and a few others formed Theater Eye, a youthful and politically-idealistic group. The first few productions included Hattamala Nattinapuram (Beyond the Land of Hattamala) of Badal Sircar and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The players went to remote villages in Kerala, to Delhi, Mumbai, Vadodara and other parts of India. Theater Eye lasted for around five years, after which the members came together in Spinal Cord under a new banner of Oxygen Theater Company. “There are many actors who don’t know good theater from bad and do all kinds of work but Gopalan is different. He’s been careful about working with serious, thinking directors who are involved in developing the form. He has refined his art over the years and is, today, a very stylish performer,” says Sivaraman.
Gopalan was also a part of a Thiruvananthapuram group, Abhinaya, after which he went independent. His recent works include solos which, like his paintings, revel in the abstraction of body. He’s spent hours working on his own body, doing physical exercises and yoga — evident in Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon, where he loads goods, dances and, in a dream sequence, challenges a figure of authority to combat. “The first element in a play is the body inhabiting a space like a paintbrush on canvas. The body’s wrestling with reality and abstraction is similar to man’s own spiritual and material tussle,” he says.
A defining trait of Gopalan’s art is his constant presence in Kerala. Despite traveling widely with the Paris-based Footsbarn Theater’s production Indian Tempest (2012), Gopalan returned to Thrissur and has “no desire to go elsewhere”. “I haven’t found people with whom I can vibe and communicate,” he says.
He also stayed away from films and television until now. Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon marks his entry in Hindi films, though he now has a number of other films in Malayalam, including this year’s sociopolitical thriller Pada by Kamal KM and a production with Mohanlal that has not been released. “I don’t have answers to why I’ve come in so late into films. In Kerala, theater is not a part of everyday life. It is a luxury that few can access. With films, you can reach a wider audience. Anamika’s film is not just fiction but visual politics,” he says.
Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon, with a stellar cast — Gopalan, Ravindra Sahu, Raghubir Yadav, Lokesh Jain and Arun Kalra — released commercially on June 10. The film opened at MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in 2018, and traveled to global festivals, including to the New Frontier Program segment of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Dreams sway into reality and timelines merge as Haksar tells a gripping tale through magic realism. “Humans have a desire that the world becomes a better and equal place — these ideas make up magic realism. If one person’s dream is infringed upon by another person’s thinking, there is a contradiction. It is fascism if your own dreams aren’t your own. The film attempts to communicate that,” says Gopalan.
With inputs by Shiny Varghese