Film For over 30 years, the Indian writer-director Adoor Gopalakrishnan has produced thought-provoking films that stand in stark contrast to Bollywood's song-and-dance stereotype.
Madras's bustling Burma Bazaar once hawked a variety of goods smuggled through the southern India city's seaport. Today it thrives on piracy, offering world cinema on DVDs at a tenth of the price of the original. The choice of titles on offer tells a story just as effectively as the most elegantly-crafted of scripts. Rummage among the myriad Bollywood titles and Hollywood smash-em-up blockbusters and you will invariably find films by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, arguably India's only living auteur-director. The movies of the kind Gopalakrishnan makes couldn't be more different from Bollywood style song and dance numbers, yet they are beginning to be felt in a country that churns out 1,000-odd films a year. Gopalakrishnan, who has made just 11 movies in 35 years in his native Malayalam language, has never been inclined to join this numbers game. He takes several years to make a film, and when he does, it is invariably a deeply probing social document, made rich by his own experiences and observations. Growing up in the Kerala of the 1940s and the 1950s, he saw major social upheaval with the disintegration of the feudal order and matrilineal society. His films are cinematographically engaging, beautifully written and consistently explore the consequences of change.
Gopalakrishnan's cinema has always had its niche audience, but nowadays his fans appear to be not so niche any more. His audience is getting larger and more varied. Britain's Second Run DVD has just brought out a disk of his 1981 film The Rat-Trap (honoured in 1982 by the British Film Institute for its originality and imagination) and the pirates of Madras are set to churn out copies, for, as they say, there have already been inquiries from prospective buyers.
Today, young students of cinema (among others) find his movies far more appealing than an ordinary run-of-the-mill Aishwarya Rai or Rajnikanth starrer. They tell me that a director like Gopalakrishnan is able to provoke them into meaningful debate. A group of American students to whom I taught cinema a couple of years ago liked his 2002 film Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill), a disturbing story of a 1940s guilt-ridden hangman in Kerala, better than most of the formula-driven pictures they saw. The film was recently released on DVD by the Global Film Initiative in the US.
Long after the curtain has fallen, Gopalakrishnan's films like Anantaram (Monologue, 1987), which is a fascinating journey into the mind of a schizophrenic man, and Mukhamukham (Face To Face, 1984), which traces the popular disappointment with the Communist movement in Kerala, continue to exercise minds. Drawing inspiration from the Keralan milieu, Gopalakrishnan was passionate about theatre as a young boy, not cinema. He went on stage when he was barely eight. He wrote his first play at 10. Born into a family of Kathakali patrons, he was naturally inclined towards a career in theatre. However, his inadequate knowledge of the Hindi language discouraged him from joining the National School of Drama in New Delhi. He chose instead to attend Pune's Film Institute, where he took up a course in direction and scriptwriting, hoping that it would help him learn more about theatre. It did not, and he found himself being drawn to cinema, which consumed his interest and as such, did not allow him to step on the stage. When he made his first movie in 1972, he did not let his early passion for the stage cloud his vision of cinematic drama, which remains pure and free from overblown theatrics.
The Keralan actor Madhu, who played an educated underemployed youth in Gopalakrishnan's first feature, Swayamvaram (One's Own Choice, 1972) tells me in his modest Trivandrum home that while others made movies, Adoor "made life". With its unconventional story of a live-in relationship, Swayamvaram was part of the Indian new wave that began in 1969, inspired by the French Nouvelle Vague of the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Made with synchronised sound and shot on location rather than on set - the first time ever in Kerala, Swayamvaram took it's rightful place in movie history. Along with Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shom (Mr Shome), Mani Kaul's Uski Roti (Daily Bread), Basu Chatterjee's Sara Akash (The Whole Sky), G Aravindan's Uttarayanam (Throne of Capricorn), Pattabhi Rama Reddy's Samaskara (The Ritual) and Shyam Benegal's Ankur (The Seedling), Swayamvaram heralded the wave, taking cinema back to its roots and stripping it of its artifice.
With his second film, Gopalakrishnan became even more daring. Using the balding, middle-aged actor Gopi to play the lead in Kodiyettam (The Ascent, 1977), he scripted the simple adventure of a village vagabond, a Peter Pan of sorts, reluctant to share his private space with his new wife. Gopi looked the unlikeliest of heroes in a cinema where appearances mattered a lot. They still do. The movie, however, did extremely well, running for about 120 days straight. The initial apprehension among distributors and exhibitors gave way to hope and exuberance when they saw crowds streaming into theatres to watch Gopi develop into a mature man.
A strict disciplinarian on set, Gopalakrishnan is a perfectionist. Mostly writing his own stories and always his scripts, he has elaborate rehearsals before the actual takes. He seldom shows complete scripts to his actors, preferring to let them know only their own scenes, and yet the final frames are often engaging, expansively covering social issues. He microscopically studies the individual to analyse the larger community of which he is a part. Through Basheer, the protagonist, in Mathilukal (The Walls, 1989), we get a deep insight into prison life in pre-independent India. Gopalakrishnan's long-time chief assistant, Meera Sahib, says that they undertook a massive hunt to get a 1940s jail manual so that they could make the film look and sound authentic. "Adoor was particular, even about the buttons on the prisoner's uniform".
In his latest film, Naalu Pennungal (Four Women, 2007), Adoor details problems faced by Indian women: An unconsummated relationship that causes a marriage to break down with aspersions being cast on the innocent woman; a childless marriage where the wife faces unwelcome attention from an old classmate boasting of his virility; the anguish of a prostitute who struggles to gain respectability by stepping off the street; all are issues Gopalakrishnan addresses.
The Keralan actor Murali, who has worked in three of Gopalakrishnan's movies, says the postmodernist trend has taken literature and cinema beyond story telling. Once, a film was considered good if it narrated an interesting story. But this perception has changed, and Gopalakrishnan is a firm advocate of this. His movies are multilayered and complex in structure, and his characters often find themselves in situations over which they have little control. Shadow-Kill weaves a story within a story, the second taking place in the angst-filled hangman's head. Men like Bhaskara Patelar and Viswanathan in Swayamvaram are victims of circumstance, hapless beings pushed to the wall by situations, they are swept along by strong societal undercurrents. As much social historian as talented storyteller, Gopalakrishnan's cinema is about real people and real issues. Often the stories are mere excuses to convey larger sociological predicaments.