A chance poster has the power to change the course of one’s life. Adoor Gopalakrishnan was travelling along the coasts of Kerala when he came upon a billboard of the Film Institute of Pune. It was a moment that changed forever the fate of an 18-year-old Gopalakrishnan and that of Indian cinema.
But a master film maker was not born overnight. When he joined the Film Institute, as it was known then in the ’60s, it was to hone his skills as a playwright. He was an amateur of sorts with two published plays to his name. At the institute however he discovered the best cinemas from around the world and, more importantly, he came in touch with Bengali film maker Ritwik Ghatak. It took him a year during the course of studying to realize that he could not pursue cinema and theatre at the same time. “Post the realization, I weaned myself away from theatre,” smiled Gopalakrishnan as he relaxed at a hotel room in Delhi. When I met the venerable man of Malayali cinema, he was taking a breather with the premiering of his latest film, Naalu Pennungal (Four Women), at the Public Service Broadcasting Trust’s film festival in the Capital.
He was done with travelling at the time having just returned from Israel where he was guest of honour at the Cinema South Festival 2008 in Sederot. Three of his films, Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill), Vidheyan (The Servile) and Dance of the Enchantress (a documentary), were showcased at the festival. “Immediately after a film is completed, I am on tour. But I don’t travel for travel’s sake. Yet in a way, I am always on a holiday,” noted Gopalakrishnan. You believe it when he rattles out the places he was looking at zipping across in the upcoming months. The long line-up included Jerusalem, Brisbane, Hamburg, Brussels, Athens where Naalu Pennungal was to be showcased at film festivals.
Gopalakrishnan at the time was into a lot of reading and re-reading of short stories by late Malayalam novelist Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. Four of them became the subject of Naalu Pennungal that tells a tale of four village women in mid-twentieth century Kerala. The titles — The Prostitute, The Virgin, The Housewife, and The Spinster — are rather elemental but they paint the stories of women who live by the paradigms that society has set for them. The Spinster for instance has actress Nandita Das playing an upper middle-class woman who has to deal with being single.
“When you watch the film, it is about individual stories. Put them together and you see progression in theme, time, conflict and levels of awareness,” pointed out Gopalakrishnan. The film world premiered in Toronto in 2007 and since then was shown in London, Nantes, Rotterdam, Goteborg, Manosque, Deauville, Miami, Seattle, Barcelona, Dubai and Goa.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan was still on the short story trail. His next film Oru Pennum, Randu Annum (A Woman, Two Men) that was almost ready for release was also drawn upon Thakazi. “A short story is always sharp. It allows me the scope to introduce new characters and new resolutions,” pointed out the doyen of Malayali cinema. And however much he does not subscribe to the idea of adaptations, he allowed himself to be influenced by Vaikkom Mohammad Basheer’s novella Mathilukal (The Walls) in his film by the same name and Paul Zacharia’s long story for Vidheyan.
“Inspirations can come from anywhere. In 1992, I came across a small item in a newspaper about the last hangman in India. It captured my fancy and I worked on it for over 10 years and thus Nizhalkkuthu saw the light of day some time in 2002,” he said talking about the film that travelled to 15 festivals around the world including the ones at Toronto, London, Rotterdam and Rome.
It is ironical that his niche audience is international. His films are nationally distributed in France but they hardly travel within India. Gopalakrishnan emphasized: “The audiences are there. But we have unpardonably failed in taking the films to the audience. What is needed is a distributor with an understanding of international cinema. Most of them tend to run after big star names.”
There’s also another irony to his life, he points out. “I never thought I would be associated with cinema in any way,” he acknowledged. Theatre was his first love at the age of 8. He recounts memories of weekend meetings of a group of three boys — Ravindran, Narayanan and Gopalakrishnan — at a cashew grove. They enacted plays there, referring to themselves as the RNG Company.
“The fact that I was into theatre was not an aberration,” he said. The reason: His family was a patron of Kathakali for generations and they even had their own Kaliyogam (Kathakali troupe). “But I had all the opportunity of watching films for free,” he adds. His uncle owned theatres at Adoor, Enath and Parakkode. However it was only at the Film Institute in Pune that he started watching films. And he found inspiration in the three Bengali bigwig film makers Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak.
Since then he has been living cinema. So much so that when he returned home, he pioneered a wave of new cinema culture by founding Chitralekha, Kerala’s first Film Co-operative Society for film production, in 1965. He said: “I simply wanted the audiences to see world films and keep pace with them.”
The 67-year-old had an affable smile crinkling up the corners of his mouth oft. Even when asked about his complete lack of interest in Bollywood. If anything, the smile grew wider as he spoke at length about his experience of watching a recent Hindi film. “I couldn’t sit through even 10 minutes of it. There is so much of money now in the Hindi film industry that directors do not know how to use it except for splashing them on ridiculous film sets,” he smiled. “On a serious note, I would not be able to make a film in Hindi because I do not know the nuances. I am an outsider to it.” If he makes films only in Malayalam, he pointed out, it is because it is a part of the culture he was bred in.
Fittingly, said film critic C S Venkateswaran, who edited the book on the ace film maker called A Door to Adoor, his films map the subterranean history of his home state. “Adoor brought in a new wave of cinema in Kerala. For instance his second film Kodiyettam (The Ascent), released in 1977, is an intimate experience of everyday rural life. The protagonist Shankaran Kutty’s growth from childhood to adulthood draws parallels to the social and historical changes in Kerala,” added Venkateswaran.
Gopalakrishnan’s films, needless to say, do not revolve around singing and dancing or even predictably ‘good looking boys and girls’. But the label, art film maker or even serious film maker, does not sit easy on his shoulders. He averred: “I am what I have done. I just make cinema really. My films make my audience experience life in its core with no inherent superficiality.”
His debut film, the national award winning Swayamvaram (One’s Own Choice), in 1972 is considered to be a milestone in Malayalam film history. It went to international film festivals in Moscow, Melbourne, London and Paris. He followed it up with films like Kodiyettam (Ascent), Elippathayam (Rat Trap), Mukhamukham, (Face to Face) Anantharam (Monologue), Mathilukal (Walls), Vidheyan (The Servile), Kathapurushan (The Protagonist), Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill) all of which were screened at many international film festivals and won him many national and international awards. In between the various films – Adoor always took a gap of a few years to release each of them – he worked on about 30 documentaries including one on the famous Kathakali exponent Kalamandalam Gopi. Documentaries are his way of recharging himself.
While delving into the world of cinema and documentaries, he has had several posts in the film fraternity to his credit and also been a member of the jury in international film festivals. The list is as long as the awards he has received – the most significant ones being the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, India’s highest national honour for lifetime achievement in cinema, the Padma Vibhushan for his contribution to the Arts and the title of ‘‘The Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters’ from the French Government in recognition of his contribution to international cinema.
The credits roll on. He has authored a book, ‘Cinimayude Lokam’ (The World of Cinema) that won him a National Award for the best book on Cinema in 1983. He has also penned two plays and a book on plays and playwrights.
With so much behind him, awards and accolades et al, you would expect him to feign modesty. But the fact that he is good at what he does is something Adoor is quietly confident about. “People think I am modest. I am not. I know very well what I want from life. Sometimes it has made my wife say that I am a difficult person to live with,” he chuckled. “I hope she is not in earnest.”
The man with his no-frills style of film making reveals himself to be a perfectionist to the core. Cameraman Sunny Joseph who assisted Adoor on the sets of Nizalkkuthu describes him as meticulous. “He is hands-on in every department and very precise about what he wants. On a limited budget, you cannot afford to be otherwise,” remarked Joseph.
The man, who in 35 years of film making has come up with just 10 films, maintained this: “There is very little that surprises me because I spend great time planning and executing the minutest detail.” Which is why every time the lights dim in the theatre, Adoor Gopalakrishnan will once again have the audiences spellbound.
(A version of this story was published in The Telegraph on June 29 , 2008)