Veteran filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan explains why he is against certification in films, talks about the lack of ‘bold distributors’, argues that some ‘friction’ is needed to train the taste of the audience and calls for private, not government, initiatives to promote non-commercial cinema
SHUBHRA GUPTA: When you visit Delhi and other parts of north India, do you feel that the audience here is now more receptive to films from Kerala than before?
Those must be the highly commercial films… I am not concerned with them. They do not help Malayalam cinema in any way. They are just like the commercial films that Bollywood produces. These are not Malayalam films; it’s just that the characters in the film speak Malayalam. That doesn’t give much hope.
SHUBHRA GUPTA: No hope?
No. Actually, very often it happens that there are some interesting elements in a (Malayalam) film but they are very badly executed. Also, there is a typical mould in which they (Malayalam filmmakers) try to fit in everything. That spoils it.
There have been many interesting stories, novels that have been made into films, but if you look at them closely, you realise that the originality is lost because the filmmakers try to follow a commercial formula. They feel a film needs to have certain things—at least five or six songs, a hero and heroine, they should run around, a couple of comedians etc.
SHUBHRA GUPTA: 1970s-’80s was a golden period for cinema in Kerala. Do you feel that those kind of films are not being made anymore?
Even within Kerala, it is very difficult to make a very offbeat film. Even if they are made with the stalwarts, they do not even manage a release. See, earlier you could go and book a cinema hall, and as long as the film runs with a particular number of people in the audience, it will be sustained. Today, theatre owners are very suspicious about an offbeat film, the ones in which there are no stars, and more so if you win the National Award. National Award means that the film should not be shown, that is the idea.
SHUBHRA GUPTA: But all your films have won National Awards. So did they not get released?
When I got a National Award for Swayamvaram, just the award and the news it made attracted the audience in Kerala. It was an instant success at the box office. Years later, I got the National Award for Anantaram and Kathapurushan, but the response of the audience was lukewarm. By that time, the audiences and the theatre owners probably got an impression that National Awards were a mark of quality and that the film should be kept away from the theatres. And then, they were ready to show rubbish which would attract more people. We cannot blame them for that.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: We have seen a lot of the so-called ‘offbeat’ Hindi films succeed at the box office recently. Have you watched any?
I have seen a few Hindi movies. There are actually very interesting things happening in Hindi films now. We cannot place them all under ‘Bollywood’ anymore. Because they (films) get made in Hindi, they also get a chance to be shown at the multiplexes. In fact, there is no bold distributor in India who would pick a film in any language, from any of the Indian states, and then distribute the subtitled film to multiplexes. They can make profits out of that too, but they (the distributors) are not bold enough to do it.
LIZ MATHEW: Earlier, there was a lot of Left influence in Kerala, there was a different culture, it was seen as a progressive society. But of late, do you think the standard of debate in the state has gone down?
Actually, we have very wrong notions about the 100% literacy rate in Kerala. Look at the cultural scene in Kerala… there is no theatre movement. There are people who have the taste and the potential to be playwrights, but they are writing stupid serial scripts that get them easy money. It is a very dangerous situation that we are in, because these soaps are being consumed lavishly. There are more than 30 television channels, but none of them will ever show any National Award winning films. The audiences are also being systematically trained in watching bad films. There has been a systematic degradation of values, culture and taste. It has all become a real social threat, we cannot get out of it. We are trapped.
SHAILAJA BAJPAI: The Shyam Benegal committee has been set up to make suggestions to revamp the censor board. Do you think we need to rethink the concept of censorship, and that it should be limited to certification?
Shyam Benegal has already made it clear that it is not the ‘censor board’, it is a certification board. As far as I am concerned, I am against certification too. What do you certify? There are a couple of people sitting and deciding what is good and bad, the interpretation of the rules… These people are insisting that if somebody is shown having liquor, there should be a message at the bottom which says that drinking is bad for your health, as if we don’t already know that. If at all you have to put the message out, you should say don’t become an addict. But cinema is not a blackboard where you can write anything. On Internet today, you can download anything. In fact, when we see a message that says ‘drinking is bad for your health’, suddenly you are reminded of your drink in the evening. And then, there is that terrible short film that you have to show about cancer. My god! There is no sensitivity at all.
SHUBHRA GUPTA: In your opinion, what would be the way forward for films in a society that is not interested in watching films that are not commercial?
The government has practically withdrawn from every area where they were supporting (non-commercial) cinema. Look at the institution where students are being trained, what has happened to it…
SHUBHRA GUPTA: The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII)…
What is there to hope for? Look at the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) and other institutions like the National Film Archives… They were indirectly helping the new movement in India. They (the institutions) have practically stopped this kind of activity, they are involved in other things now or probably nothing.
SHUBHRA GUPTA: Do you think the government is responsible for this? Is there a need for public-private partnership?
It is wrong to look up to any government to do anything about it because our experience in the past has been very, very frustrating. There should be private initiatives. For example, these (offbeat) films can be subtitled, and some imaginative distributor should pick them up and start a distribution network. If even one such film would have been shown in the big cities, where there is enough audience to see them, it would have brought back the money, and sustained a movement like that. Such an initiative should come from the private sector.
AMRITH LAL: You’re considered one of the founders of the film society movement in Kerala. How do you see their importance in nurturing a good cinema culture?
Film societies have done a lot in promoting film culture. Earlier, they were the only opening to world cinema. Otherwise, in Kerala, they only had access to Tamil and Malayalam films. More than promoting a film culture, many people got interested in making films, because of these societies. Today these societies don’t have the same influence because it’s not the only window to the world of cinema outside. Today you have many other openings—you can download films, watch them on channels… also, film festivals have become common now in Kerala.
SHUBHRA GUPTA: Can the general audiences in Kerala access Hindi films with subtitles?
Yes. But they don’t need subtitles. That is the great advantage about Hindi films— you don’t need to follow the dialogue or understand the meaning of the songs, because it’s the same thing. There is no problem, no friction between the audience and the films…
SHUBHRA GUPTA: So are you saying there should be friction?
Friction comes when you are saying something new and you are not used to it. That’s what happens in offbeat films. You are not used to looking at reality like that. For example, if a death scene is shown, it is immediately followed by a particular kind of background score. The audience is used to that. Unless that background score comes, you are not happy, you are disturbed. If someone is happy, there has to be another kind of music in the background. All these are stereotypes.
AMRITH LAL: What is that one component in a story that interests you?
I borrow stories very rarely. Of the 11 films that I have made, only three scripts have been borrowed. That was the time when nothing interesting occurred to me, so I would recollect what I had read in the past. One was (Vaikom Muhammad) Basheer’s novel Mathilukal (1965). It had a very interesting story and had created a sensation in Kerala. I was one of those who were thrilled by it and I recollected the story sometime in the ’80s, nearly 25 years later. But because of the popularity of the story, a lot of Malayalam producers wanted to make films based on it. Some even wrote scripts, but when they realised they cannot show a heroine in the film, they all backed out. When I went to get the rights of the story from Basheer, he asked me who is going to be the heroine? I said no heroine will be seen in the film. “Aah, then the film will be good,” he said.
SHUBHRA GUPTA: How important is it for you to have stars in your films?
I don’t think about who is going to act in the film before I write the script. When I have completed the script, or sometimes even when the script is in progress, some artist I know, or who I like, emerges. So for instance, in Mathilukal (1989), I wanted Mammootty because he had worked with me on another film—Anantaram (1987). He had a secondary role in that film. He showed a lot of interest in working with me and I really appreciated that. In spite of being a top star at that time, he was interested in working with me. So that was also the reason why I cast him again. For both the films, Mammootty got the National Award for best actor. Six of my artistes have won National Awards for acting, that is quite a good record. They are not stars when they work with me, they are actors.
UNNI RAJEN SHANKER: You have made 11 films in a career spanning almost 45-50 years. Can you talk about the pace of your filmmaking process?
When I left the film institute (FTII), I thought I would do at least one film a year. I thought people would approach me to make films because I am very qualified. Through my friends, I reached out to some people and soon learnt that they (producers) wouldn’t finance my films because they believed that someone who had formally studied filmmaking would not be able to make films. They did not trust our training and looked at us with contempt.
It took seven years for me to make my first film. That was in 1972. After Swayamvaram, it took me five years to make my next film (Kodiyettam), and it was a big success. Then we started a studio of our own, with our own equipment, camera, lights and so on. We had the equipment but no money. We shot it over the next few months. Whenever we had a little money, we would buy the film roll and go out and shoot. All the negatives were piled up in a lab in Chennai. We did not want to go to a lab for processing the negatives because we did not have the money. So the negatives of Kodiyettam kept lying there for over one year .
In between, I made a couple of documentaries, made some money, and we went to Chennai to work.
In 1982, I made Elippathayam. When the film was made, there was no big star in it, but it did fairly well at the box office.
Satyajit Ray, who was very fond of me, told me, ‘Adoor, now you have the acceptance, why don’t you make one film a year?’. I said, ‘Manikda, this is my wish too, but it is not practical, because I have to write my script, work on ideas…’. In 1984, I made Mukhamukham and Ray happened to see it. After seeing the film, he told me it takes real courage to make a film on a man who sleeps all the time. Then he asked me whether the film was based on a published work. I said it was my own idea and script. He then said, ‘Now I understand your pace of filmmaking.’
SHALINI LANGER: You spoke about friction in the film viewing process. How difficult is it, in the current atmosphere, to handle certain issues that could lead to friction?
It is natural to have friction when you are saying something new. Unfamiliarity brings in problems. It is natural that when they are faced with something new, you will have friction. It is not a bad thing, because after that new information comes to you. If you are exposed to a different kind of cinema, you start to accept it. That’s how you train a good audience.