R Gopalakrishnan holds an original negative of a still from 1952 Prem Nazir-starrer Achan against a beam of blinding light. “This is Nazir and this would be BS Saroja,” he says, effortlessly identifying the actors in the unprocessed frame.
The veteran still photographer and documentary filmmaker is a magpie collector of film memorabilia, the highlight being close to 4 lakh stills he has gathered so far. “I entered the film industry as a lensman in 1979. Though primarily a still photographer, I was more interested in locational coverage. I would simply turn my camera towards anything that attracted my interest as a lensman,” he says.
As if to illustrate his point, Gopalakrishnan fishes out an otherwise undistinguished close-up shot of Bollywood and teleserial actor Nitish Bharadwaj wearing shades. However, a closer inspection shows legendary director P Padmarajan reflected on the sun-glass. “This was captured some time during the shooting of Njan Gandharvan,” he says. “Each photo has a story behind it.”
With most of the hard copies safely stored in cardboard boxes at his residence in Vazhuthacaud, Gopalakrishnan says the lion’s share is “saved with back-ups” in a couple of hard disks, amounting to 16 terabytes of material in total. “In fact, about two-thirds of the stills in the collection are photos I clicked myself while some iconic ones were directly bought from film photographers in Chennai, who, much to my surprise, had kept them in decent condition despite being of no apparent use for them,” says the 59-year-old.
Among some of the rare and iconic original stills in his possession is perhaps the only surviving still from JC Daniel’s Vigathakumaran, considered to be the first Malayalam feature film. Tharangini, a music recording company founded by playback singer K J Yesudas, had featured several of the snaps clicked by Gopalakrishnan in cassette covers, he recollects.
Gopalakrishnan, who previously worked as a photojournalist for film magazines and publications, also keeps a broad range of film memorabilia that includes collections of around 6,000 movies in compact disks and DVDs, photo film roles, well-sheaved song lyrics, release notices and film magazines. He’s also collaborating with poet and former minister M K Muneer in bringing out a muti-volume work on the history of Malayalam cinema.
He puts to use the five scanners he keeps for digitalising some of the prints. “Many researchers and publishers approach me for photos. I sometimes e-mail them if required,” he says.
Gopalakrishnan, who’s currently working in upcoming 3D fantasy film Professor Dinkan, recently brought out a 976-page book Nithyaharitham that traces the life and times of Prem Nazir.
The tome features about 2,000 photographs of Malayalam’s evergreen hero culled mostly from his treasured collection.
So, the face he has zoomed in on the most? “That must be K J Yesudas, he says with a chuckle. “I can’t keep track of the number of concerts of his I have attended.”