Utpal Borpujari

September 17, 2008

Ibsen’s complex Master Builder gets a Malayalam makeover

 By Utpal Borpujari

Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen has been a favourite with filmmakers across the world, including Satyajit Ray, who converted The Enemy of the People to Ganashatru in 1989. But unlike this and his other most famous play A Doll’s House that provided a stinging realistic reminder to the society on some of its negatives, Master Builder has been a play that has been known for its symbolism and deep insight into the complex human mind. Quite naturally, it should be one of the toughest Ibsen plays to covert to celluloid. But that is exactly what veteran director from Kerala, P K Sukumaran, has tried, and the result is Akashagopuram (Castle in the Air), one of the costliest Malayalam films to be made ever with top-notch technicians from India and the Hollywood providing the required backup.


Master Builder (1892), written by Ibsen in the latter phase of his career, is a highly-complex story about Albert Samson, a reputed architect who uses all possible devious devised to remain at the top , manipulating emotions and destroying careers. First staged at the Lessing Theatre in Berlin on January 19, 1893, Master Builder’s protagonist is, however, not all black, and has a lot of inner angst to justify why he behaves the way he does. Kumaran, who has made acclaimed films like Athithi (1974), Rugmini (1988) and Thotram (2001), has shot the whole film in England – though with Malayalam-speaking characters –  “to protect”, as he says, “the authenticity of the play’s Western backdrop”


Shot in lush landscapes of England, the film, however, retains the flavour of the stage play, some scenes even looking a bit stage-like thanks to the manner in which the restive and restless character of Samson, essayed with the usual, effortless brilliance by superstar Mohanlal, and his coactors move around within the frame as they converse.


Backed by a highly-interesting background score by BAFTA and multiple Emmy award winner John Altman (Golden Eye, Titanic, Bhaji on the Beach, Shall We Dance, Shoot on Sight), quality cinematography by Santosh C Thundiyil, sound design by Nigel Holland (Batman Begins, Braveheart, Resident Evil). re-recording & mixing by Robert Farr (Star Wars: Episode II&III, Gangs of New York) and Matthew Gough (Harry Potter Prisoner of Azkaban, Cold Mountain), and visual effects by John Harvey and Jonathan Trussler (Kingdom of Heaven), Akashagopuram sees coming together of some of the best technical hands .


But the film, which moves at a languorous pace, gets its strength obviously from the complex characterisations and the tale of how a man’s ambitions can lead to a lot of inner and outer turmoil to the self and those around him. Giving company to Mohanlal are the late Bharat Gopi, in one of his last screen appearances, Swetha Menon, Manoj K Jayan, Geethu Mohandas and Nithya, and each of them has provided him adequate backup needed to reflect the shades from near white to near black of his character,. 

Made at a budget of around Rs nine crore, as against the Rs 4-5 crore spent on an average big budget film in Kerala, Akashagopuram is definitely one of the costliest Malayalam films ever made , though Kumaran attributes it more to the “rupee-pound discrepancy” than anything else. “What is more important than the budget is that it has been a unique attempt, if not a unique film, to make a film on such a big scale while avoiding the typical ingredients like action, sentimentalism and social drama that we often see in mainstream stuff,” he says. 

Kumaran first took up the project 15 years ago, but had to wait till now to get the finances. “Master Builder is a classic literary piece, and it is such a composite piece with so many layers that there is something surreal about it. What is more important about this play is that when he wrote it, Ibsen himself was trying out a new style to match up with new, emerging playwrights,” he says. At the same time, it has a contemporary resonance too, “just like Enemy of the People, which has recently been made into a film by a Norwegian filmmaker in the context of present-day environmental concerns”. For the veteran director, it has been a project worth taking up, whether or not it rakes in the moolah at the Box Office 

Mohanlal too is quite upbeat about the film. “It is a great achievement for me as an actor to be able to be part of this film, as my character has so many shades of human psychology that my faculties have been fully tested,” says the National Award-winning actor about his latest film.


(An abridged version of this article was carried in Sakaal Times, www.sakaaltimes.com, on 15-08-08)

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