Adoor Gopalakrishnan: The filmmaker completes 50 years in the world of the familiar

Adoor Gopalakrishnan: creatively engaged with his familiar world Photograph:( WION )

WION Melbourne, Victoria, Australia Aug 23, 2016, 07.44 AM (IST) Parichay Patra

Recently, a number of national dailies remembered an almost forgotten filmmaker from Kerala, Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Adoor, probably the most prolific of his contemporaries, is credited for his role in bringing the “Indian New Wave” of the 1970s to distant shores of Kerala. In 2016, he has reached the 50th year of his life with cinema, and the theatrical release of Pinneyum establishes Adoor Gopalakrishnan as the only active filmmaker of his generation.

His Swayamvaram (One’s Own Choice, 1972) is widely hailed as a pioneering work that launched the Malayalam New Wave. After a series of documentaries, Adoor set about to create Elippathayam (The Rat Trap, 1981). Considered as one of the finest of Adoor’s creations, Elippathayam depicts the feudal life in Kerala. The film competed in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes film festival of 1982. Eventually, it won the Sutherland Trophy from the British Film Institute (BFI) for being the most original and innovative film of the year.

With Elippathayam, the Malayalam New Wave arrived in the global film festival circuit.

Gopalakrishnan graduated from the newly opened Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). His contemporaries at FTII, trained under the redoubtable maverick filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, emerged as some of the finest auteurs that the film school has ever produced. Mani Kaul, as Gopalakrishnan mentioned in an interview, joined the school’s acting course with Asrani but eventually switched to directing films. John Abraham followed soon. Kumar Shahani was there too. Ghatak, as evident from some of his interviews, preferred Shahani over all the others.

The making of Mani Kaul’s pathbreaking debut Uski Roti (Our Daily Bread, 1969) was assisted by John Abraham, after which the latter returned to the southern industries to make his debut that appeared in the same year with Swayamvaram. Abraham was joined by G. Aravindan - a cartoonist and thespian - who turned to filmmaking in the 1970s. Together they constituted the Malayalam New Wave camp; making films that were very different from those produced by their national and regional peers, such as Kaul, Shahani, and Mrinal Sen.

They formed film-cooperatives and collectives without relying heavily on uncertain state subsidies or loans. Gopalakrishnan established Chithralekha Film Society; it was the first film society in Kerala that aimed at production, distribution, and exhibition of films in the co-operative sector. Abraham similarly started the Odessa Collective with the intention of starting a people’s cinema movement.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s career spans across five decades, during which he made 13 fictional films and a number of documentaries/non-fictional works on indigenous performing arts and other cultural forms of Kerala. Some of the documentaries that he has directed over the years, among others, are Dance of the Enchantress (2007), Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair (2005), Koodiyattam (2000), Kalamandalam Gopi (1998).

With Kaul, Aravindan and Abraham not alive anymore, and Shahani inactive for decades, Gopalakrishnan survives as the only auteur of the Indian New Wave who is still alive and kicking. Whereas Shahani’s last fictional work till date happens to be his adaptation of Tagore’s controversial novel Char Adhyay in 1997, Adoor’s latest film Pinneyum, starring Kavya Madhavan and Dileep, has just been released across the nation.

Apart from making films, he continues to voice his views on issues that concern his world. For instance, the government recently intervened into the internal matters of FTII by forcing its choice of director on the institute despite protests, Gopalakrishnan responded instantly through interviews and articles in leading national dailies.

Looking back at Gopalakrishnan’s filmmaking career, many have voiced misgivings about what is lacking from his oeuvre. He has always been branded as a realist; his debut film being championed as something that initiated a certain kind of realism in Malayalam cinema. He is seen as less radical than Abraham in his politics and much less experimental than Aravindan in his aesthetic impetus.

Gopalakrishnan’s Mukhamukham (Face to Face, 1984) and Kathapurushan (Man of the Story, 1995) aroused controversy for their seemingly problematic readings of Marxist politics in Kerala. With the rise of caste politics, in and outside the academia, and the appearance of Dalit studies, criticism of Gopalakrishnan has assumed a new force. Earlier, he was seen as only less radical than Abraham but now he is branded as an implacable conservative whose cinematic world is peopled by the upper-caste, middle-class Nairs, the group to which himself belongs to. Dalits appear as fringe characters, either as the voluptuous, seductive woman in Elippathayam or the slave-like, emasculated landless peasant in Vidheyan (The Servile, 1993).

For a reviewer in The Indian Express, Gopalakrishnan’s new film seems even more problematic with his implicit sympathies for upper castes suffering for caste-based reservations.I have not yet got a chance to watch Pinneyum and, therefore, unable to comment on what the reviewer says. But, keeping the allegations against Gopalakrishnan in mind, what I suggest is that the charm of Gopalakrishnan does not lie in what his detractors are looking at.

Gopalakrishnan is the filmmaker of the familiar, more specifically, of subjects and people that are more familiar to him. To borrow the title of an M. K. Raghavendra book, his cinema is seduced by the familiar. His films revolve inevitably around his own experiences. Kathapurushan is decidedly quasi-autobiographical. The others are not, but none of them moves beyond his sensory experiences in the world of the Nairs.

Adoor’s men, the grand old patriarchs, leave their ancestral universe only when they are hounded and thrown out. Entrapped in that world, his women can leave home only when they run away or die. Sitting cosily in his armchair, the auteur looks at the changes passing by; the nouveau riche Gulf migrant buys the ancestral homes of the Nairs, the land reforms initiated by the Communists impoverish them, and the lower castes serve them no longer.

Elippathayam: sitting cosily in his armchair, the auteur looks at the changes passing by...

Notwithstanding the common assumption of him being a realist, Adoor Gopalakrishnan moves on to explore the dark, sinister depths of his world and confronts the alternative realities that coexist. Like Ajayan in Anantharam (Monologue, 1987), he comes up with multiple narratives and realities that are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Parichay Patra

Parichay Patra has recently completed his PhD on the Indian New Wave of the 1970s from the Dept. of Film and Screen Studies, Monash University, Australia. He teaches Asian cinemas at RMIT University, Australia.