IF YOU ever meet filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan, never ask him why he has made only a dozen films in a career spanning 40 years. That’s because the answer will make you hang your head in shame. In a scathing forward to this wonderful book on the cinema of one of India’s foremost auteurs, Gopalakrishnan writes that films other than commercial cinema get “no financing, no distribution, and no exhibition either”. He rues that even if a committed filmmaker manages to make a film on his own, there is little chance of it getting shown in theatres; “And a national or international award for a film becomes a sure indication for the common man to avoid it! In a bleak and hopeless scenario, the question…should have been, ‘How did you manage to make those films?’”
Now, Parthajit Baruah—like others before him, including Shyam Benegal (A Door to Adoor)—has ensured that we never forget Gopalakrishnan’s works and understand his journey from Kerala to the world stage. Watching his dozen films again and again will not only give us an understanding of his craft, but also a sense of history, for Gopalakrishnan has brought to his cinema all the changes that he saw around him as he was growing up. It’s as much the story of a place, as it’s a portrayal of a common man and his struggles.
Nothing is as it seems in Gopalakrishnan’s films. A simple narrative doesn’t remain simple, as the film and the story unfold. His first feature film, Swayamvaram (One’s Own Choice), released in 1972 and is the story of two young lovers, Vishwanathan and Sita, who defy social norms and run away from their village to start a life together. As their journey to the unknown begins, we are brought face to face with complex issues—individual and society, dreams and reality, old mindsets and new thinking. His second film, Kodiyettam (The Ascent), is about “a man who drifts”. A man who despite being a part of society doesn’t get involved and yet who comes to terms with “himself and society…when he realises that he can love and be loved”. The making of Kodiyettam is also a story worth recounting and remembering. The film was shot in 1975, but could be released only two years later in 1977. Funds were in such short supply that Gopalakrishnan and his crew could not go to Chennai’s AVM Studio, where it had been sent for processing, for one year. It was released only in three theatres in Kerala, but pulled people to the screen in hordes and completed 145 days at a theatre in Kottayam.
With Elippathayam (The Rat-Trap), his third film which released in 1981, Gopalakrishnan created a place for himself in the world cinema arena. Like Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar, which dealt with the story of a zamindar as his world falls apart in Bengal, Elippathayam is set in Kerala of the 1960s when feudal and matrilineal structures of society are disappearing. Like the rats who are chased and caught in the beginning of the film to be drowned in a pond, the feudal-minded and lazy character of Unnikunju—a man who insisted on his bathwater being at a particular temperature—is also chased by villagers in the end and forced to take a dip in the cold pond.
Gopalakrishnan set Mukhamukham (Face-To-Face), which released in 1984, in the backdrop of the Communist movement sweeping Kerala in the 1960s. He critiqued the practice of political hero worship and the death of an idealist, mirroring the changes in society. As Baruah points out, “Mukhamukham has a complex structure, dealing with varied issues such as youth, revolt, aging, recollection and dreams…”
In his 40-year journey, Gopalakrishnan has given us many original stories, but he has also adapted works of famous writers, including Vaikom Muhammad Basheer (Mathilukal) and Paul Zacharia (Vidheyan). All his films are filled with autobiographical elements—for instance, his Gandhian upbringing, the principles of non-violence and the value of dignity of labour.
Baruah includes a free-wheeling interview with Gopalakrishnan in the book where the master filmmaker talks about his FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) days, what he learnt from filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, who was his teacher at the Pune institute, his first love theatre, and why cinema is important to him. For Gopalakrishnan, “cinema is the greatest art form the human mind has given shape to.” It lends meaning to his life, and to ours as well, as he shares his “experience of reality” with viewers.
Sudipta Datta is a freelancer