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How Adoor Gopalakrishnan reinvented Malayalam cinema

The iconic filmmaker, who turned 80 this month, is angry about the state of the world but admiring of the bold strides taken by his younger colleagues

Filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan turned 80 recently.
Filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan turned 80 recently. (Getty Images)

I remember my first meeting with Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the acclaimed, award-winning filmmaker, known for not just pioneering but also popularizing a new wave in cinema in Kerala, who turned 80 earlier this month. After I wished him, and we chatted and caught up as usual on the phone, my mind strayed back to that day in 1979.

It was soon after his second film Kodiyettam (Ascent) had raked in all those awards. He drove up to my house in Pattom, in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, in his Ambassador to take me for a special screening of his film at the Chitralekha studio, which he and his friends had built some years ago, after starting a cooperative film society to produce movies that were unlikely to get the support of conventional producers. He lived quite close by, he said, and the studio was just opposite his house.

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Adoor was a smart and enthusiastic 38-year-old then, with glowing eyes and an unpretentious outlook. The many awards and accolades he had won, in a short span of less than 10 years, sat easily with him. We drove up to the aesthetically designed studio built by our mutual friend, the renowned architect Laurie Baker. After I watched the film with his special guests, I had a nice Kerala lunch at his beautiful home with his wife, Sunanda.

Adoor is an unpretentious man. Everything about him is rooted in his Kerala. Even after all these years, fame sits lightly on him. He always seemed wary of his celebrity status and said he was happiest in his peaceful home, constructed like a tharavad, a traditional Kerala family house, built with pillars and wood he had salvaged from old buildings. He is a man shaped by his background—he grew up in a traditional tharavad in Adoor in Kerala, and went to Gandhigram in Madurai to complete his education, then on to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune.

In the beginning at FTII, he told me, he was not particularly interested in movies, but after a while films became his obsession. Perhaps it was all these experiences that moulded him into a man who made movies with almost mathematical precision. He left nothing to chance and every seemingly unimportant detail fitted into his scheme of things… almost like the perfect jigsaw puzzle. In his 1981 film Elippathayam (Rat Trap), for instance, a lasting image for me is when the shivering Nair patriarch emerges from a cold pond, crouched over, hands joined, his posture mimicking that of a trapped rat. It’s the detailed scrutiny that goes into creating image such as these that makes his films so memorable.

Bharath Gopi in a scene from 'Swayamvaram' (1972).
Bharath Gopi in a scene from 'Swayamvaram' (1972). (Twitter/@NFAIOfficial)

After that first encounter, he came over to my house to talk about his two films Kodiyettam and Swayamvaram (1972; One’s Own Choice). The interview ended up not being about the struggle to find funds or why it had taken him so long to make them, but about filmmaking itself. It was one of the most cerebral interactions I have ever had with a filmmaker—rather than his films, Adoor talked about cinematography, the making of good cinema, how he approached a theme, and the need for film appreciation and exposing everyone to world cinema. When I asked about his films, his response was, “You can see them for yourself and draw your own conclusions.” It was typical of Adoor—he rarely closed the loop on films, leaving to the audience to make their own suppositions, a style of storytelling that was totally new to Malayalam cinema.

Thiruvananthapuram was a small town in the 1970s, where everyone knew everyone else. Although I had lived there and worked as a journalist for ten years, I had not met Adoor till 1979. I knew of him, of course. I knew of the Chitralekha Film Society, which he and his friends had started soon after he returned from FTII with a clutch of gold medals and stars in his eyes. Adoor wanted to educate ordinary audiences to appreciate world cinema before he attempted to make any films. The film society movement was successful and soon serious film-goers were discussing Fassbinder and Ray with ease.

By 1972, Adoor was ready with his first film, Swayamvaram, which he had taken seven years to make. It was a romantic one about a couple who elope. But it wasn’t an elaborate romance; it focused on the destruction of their dreams as they struggled with the reality of making a living. It had two established stars. Madhu, the hero and an old friend of Adoor’s, had made his name with the blockbuster Chemmeen (1965; The Prawn). Adoor also roped in Sharada, one of the leading heroines of the day. Many of the other actors were newcomers. Almost everyone associated with Swayamvaram went on to become famous in the Malayalam film industry. Mankada Ravi Varma, who was his cinematographer for most of his films, won many awards. Gopy (Gopynathan Velayudhan Nair) and KPAC Lalitha, who had minor roles in this film, also rose to heights.

A moment from Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s classic 'Kodiyettam' (1978)
A moment from Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s classic 'Kodiyettam' (1978) (Twitter/@NFAIOfficial)

By 1980, we moved closer to Adoor’s house and the interaction between our families became more frequent. My husband and I would look forward to Adoor’s visit after each of his new releases, when he would talk about his film and give us special insights into the thought process that went into its making. His daughter Ashwathi Dorje, who is now a senior police officer based in Nashik, was a schoolgirl then, and would come to our house for Carnatic music lessons.

In 1983, when his mentor Satyajit Ray came to Thiruvananthapuram to inaugurate a film festival, I remember Ray asking Adoor why he made so few films. Problems with funding, replied Adoor, and added that he was caught up with the work of his cooperative. Ray advised him to make at least one film a year because “when you are young you have a lot more to say. One gets older so soon.” Adoor ruefully patted his curly, salt-and-pepper shoulder-length hair in reply. Ray laughed and said, “No, your grey hair means nothing. You are young compared to me. But remember, time passes like mad.” Maybe Adoor took his words seriously because by the next year he had Mukhamukham (Face to Face) ready.

Though the themes of Adoor’s films are rooted to the milieu of Kerala, they have all won much acclaim and many awards at an international level. “When a film is genuine and firmly rooted in the life it depicts, it cannot fail to have universal appeal,” Adoor once told me when we were talking about how Elippathayam, which deals with a local problem, could become a phenomenal success.

Elippathayam is the story of the patriarch of a Nair joint family who lives with his sisters in a crumbling tharavad, oblivious to the social changes taking place in the world around him. When his sisters, who cook and care for him, leave one by one to live their own lives, he loses his mind, and is caught like a rat in a trap inside his own house. And just like the rats his sister would drown in the pond outside his house, he too is thrown into the pond by some people who enter his house one night—the physical effect of the dousing more of a shock than anything he has experienced, a rude awakening of sorts.

A scene from 'Elippathayam'.
A scene from 'Elippathayam'.

Before I watched the film, I asked Adoor what it was about, and his reply was characteristic: “If what I have tried to project in my films could be expressed in words, I need not have made the film at all.” Adoor told me it was a simple story, almost a parable, adding that he was also examining our attitude towards feudalism. I must confess I had to watch the film a couple of times before I could unpack all the layers!

I’ve watched every one of Adoor’s films; even those that came after I left Thiruvananthapuram in 1990 and no longer had the luxury of listening to his interpretations. We met on and off, sometimes in Bengaluru, sometimes in places where our paths crossed. Once, he and Sunanda came home for dinner. On another occasion, when he had come to the city for a retrospective of his films, I met him at the National Gallery of Modern Art and he told me Sunanda was very ill. By then, both of us had become grandparents. The next time we met was at a literature festival in the city, where we had lunch with a group of women writers, who were overjoyed to have a photo taken with him. Some days later, he told me Sunanda had passed away.

When I rang to wish him for his 80th birthday earlier this month, he told me he was living alone in his house in Thiruvananthapuram. Soon, we slipped as usual into talking about the state of society, the country and films. He was passionately angry about the way things are. But when we started talking about films, he seemed happier. Many young Malayalam filmmakers have broken barriers and are experimenting with new ideas, he said, and that was encouraging. Their themes and treatment are modern, no longer concerned about what kind of audiences it would draw, since viewers too had evolved, he said. If he is aware of his pathbreaking role in redefining the attitude of both filmmakers and audiences, he has never wanted to talk about it.

He’d once told me that if a film failed to communicate with the audience, it was dismissed an art film, and a film that attracted large audiences was lauded as a commercial film. He felt such categorization missed nuances. “What would you call Chaplin’s films?” he reasoned. “I think they are some of the greatest films ever made, with the best aesthetic values, and yet they are popular.” Today, those terms are no longer in vogue, and Adoor has been proved right. Good cinema has finally come into its own.

Gita Aravamudan is an independent journalist and author based in Bengaluru. In this fortnightly column, she examines the links between current news and events and headlines of the past, drawing on her 50-plus years of experience in the field.

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