Adoor Gopalakrishnan is one of the most prominent auteurs of Indian cinema, and in a filmmaking career spanning almost half a century, he has created a body of cinematic work of great aesthetic quality and narrative vigour. His oeuvre comprises of 12 full-length feature films and a number of documentaries on arts and culture. He has also penned several scholarly articles and analytical books on cinema. He is one of the most internationally acclaimed contemporary Indian filmmakers, as is evident from the critical attention his films and retrospectives generate in film festivals across the world.
Adoor made his entry into films in the early ‘70s when the ‘new wave’ was lapping the shores of the country. A frisson nouveau was in the air, and various filmmakers in different languages were making films that were to change the very look and feel of Indian cinema. His films challenged the existing cinematic idiom and language to create a new visual sensibility and intense narrative style.
Born in 1941 in Pallickal, near Adoor in South Kerala, his early interests were literature and theatre. He wrote and directed plays, and was employed with National Sample Survey before he joined the Film & Television Institute of India, Pune. After graduating from the institute, Adoor came back to Kerala, and along with other cineastes in Thiruvananthapuram, formed the first film society in the state. The Chithralekha Film Society organised regular film screenings and discussions about films. He was also the driving force behind organising the first international film festival in Kerala, as part of a literary event.
His made his debut film Swayamvaram (One’s Own Choice) in 1972, which received critical acclaim and won several awards at the national level. Swayamvaram was about a couple, Viswanathan and Sita, migrating to the city in search of a new life of their own choice and liking, whose dreams are shattered by the harsh reality of life. His next film Kodiyettam (The Ascent) was about a village drifter’s coming to terms with life and its responsibilities. His next film Elippathayam (Rat Trap, 1981), also his first film in colour, was about the inexorable decay of the feudal system, and the exploitative relationships that it forces upon people. Mukhamukham (Face to Face, 1984) was one of the most controversial among his films as it was a searing critique about the decline of Communist movement in Kerala. It was about a peoples’ movement turning into a mere political party of power mongers, and the leadership betraying the hopes and dreams of its followers.
His next two films were based on literary works. Mathilukal (Walls, 1989) is based on the story of celebrated writer Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, and is an exploration into the mind of a writer. It is also an extraordinary love story, where the man and the woman never meet. Imprisoned in the male and female wards of the prison they are separated by a huge wall between them. Vidheyan (The Servile, 1993) was based on a Paul Zachariah novella, and was a dark, clinical examination of master–slave relationship in all its visceral complexity. It is about Patelar, the authoritarian landlord, and Thommi, his servile vassal, who form the inevitable dyad that makes any kind of slavery possible.
Kathapurushan (The Man of the Story, 1995) is the most autobiographical of Adoor’s films, and it takes a panoramic look at the various turning points in the history of Kerala through the eyes of the protagonist, who is an aspiring writer and thinker. Other films like Anantaram (1987) and Nizhalkkuthu (2002) look at life and society from various angles, probing deeper and extensively into the various conditions in which human beings find themselves.
His next two films were again drew from literature. They include Nalu Pennungal and Oru Pennum Randanum (2007), both anthology films based on the stories of Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai that looked at different aspects of femininity and female sexuality. Set in the middle decades of the last century, these stories delineate womanhood in all its avatars: you find here the sacrificing, self-effacing women, the belligerent and vivacious ones, and also the erotic and enticing enchantresses. His next work Pinneyum is a chilling film on the economy of greed that is swallowing contemporary society, where one is ready to sell even one’s identity to earn money.
Another remarkable character that distinguishes Adoor Gopalakrishnan as a filmmaker is his relentless efforts to promote serious, art cinema in Kerala and India, against all odds.
An auteur par excellence, his films are marked by their thematic variety, aesthetic charm and distinct narrative style. Adoor’s films chronicle and map the history of Kerala from the inside. In a way, all his films are autobiographical and deal with different periods in the history of Kerala and about different aspects of Kerala society, politics and life. They deal with human conditions at the most elemental level, and coupled with keen observation and intense sensibility about the ‘local’, his films have always had a universal appeal.
Following is a translated and edited transcript of the video conversation with Adoor Gopalakrishnan conducted by C.S. Venkiteswaran in Thiruvananthapuram on March 7, 2020.
C.S. Venkiteswaran (CSV): Welcome to the Samvad programme of Sahapedia, and thank you for giving us your valuable time. Let’s begin by talking about your childhood days—where you come from and your family background.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan (AG): Even though I was born into a feudal background, my family never had the trappings that are associated with feudalism.
CSV: Was your family landowners and were into farming?
AG: We were not directly involved in farming. The reason was that my father was an officer. My parents were almost separated when I was very young. My father would visit us occasionally. It was really my mother who managed the household. We had the land and resources, but there were no male adults to take care of it. My brothers and I were children, and our elder sisters were already married by then. Our household expenses were met with the paattam (landowner’s share of the produce that tenants submitted for the privilege of working the land) that we got from our tenants. It was a sort of a barter system then. The farm labourers were paid in measures of rice and coconuts. What happened regularly was that when it was time to submit the season’s paattam, our farm tenants would come up with various complaints and excuses. So, we never did get our proper share. My mother was a simple woman. She didn’t know how to demand and forcefully secure our right share from the tenants. So, we had a hard childhood.
CSV: Was it a joint family?
AG: There was a time when we lived as a joint family. But that was before I was born. By then the joint family system had almost gone. The year when I wrote my SSLC exam, there were 17 others from my village who wrote with me. I was the only one who passed it. With that, I was looked upon as a genius in the village; to pass was such a big deal in those days!
We were the citizens of the Travancore kingdom, ruled by Sri Chithira Thirunal. Every year we celebrated a festival called thirunal aghosham, where we celebrated the Maharaja’s birthday. As kids, we took part in processions holding the Travancore flag, walking for about 2 kilometres. At our school, a public meeting and cultural programmes would be held. Gopala Pilla sir, our Malayalam teacher, once wrote a play for us to perform on that day. It was based on the life of Lord Buddha. I didn’t know then and still don’t know why, but I was cast as Buddha in the play. I did my part in the play really well. I won much praise from the audience. Everyone from my family had come to watch the play, even my uncles. It was my role that caught all the attention. Henceforth I became known as an actor. That’s how I got interested in theatre and plays. I used to write plays and act in them right from when I was in middle school. I was almost sure that I would devote my life to theatre.
When I went to study in the Gandhigram Rural Institute, Sankara Pillai (G. Sankara Pillai) sir was one of our teachers. He was well read and had great knowledge about theatre. He was responsible for the library at the institute. It was well stocked with works in English of the most modern playwrights. Frankly speaking, till I joined the institute I had not read any play in English. I had read all the plays that had come out in Malayalam. N. Krishna Pillai’s plays had come out when I was in school… plays like Bhagna Bhavanam, Azhimukhathekku, etc. When I came to the Gandhigram Institute, it was the time when Sankara Pillai sir’s plays like Snehadoothan had brought him many awards, and he was being noticed as a playwright. When he finished a new play, for example Pujamuri, he would give it to me to read. Sometimes I would offer my comments. I read all the plays that were published in English. I also read the books of American theatre critics, including John wilder and Tennessee Williams. My approach was that if I choose to read a particular author, I would read all his works. It was a thorough reading. Even when my course at Gandhigram was over, I was still determined to work in the field of theatre.
CSV: What was your exposure to films like before you left for Gandhigram?
AG: Very minimal. My uncle, who was my guardian, owned 2–3 theatres in town in those days. I had watched some films in those theatres. They were all mostly Tamil films. Malayalam films were very few then. I had watched the Malayalam film Balan, then another film called Premalekha. But in those days if you are a regular at the theatre, the villagers tend to say you have become wayward! So, I did not go regularly to the theatre. But yes, I had sporadically seen some films. In those days, I never thought that I’d be associated with films ever in life. I never knew it would become my occupation and my life.
I moved to Thiruvananthapuram after graduating from Gandhigram. I had company there. Many of my classmates, like Bhaskaran Nair, were there in the city. We formed the Kendra Kala Samiti, under the Bharata Seva Samajam. I wrote and directed my own plays. This continued for almost a year and a half.
Around that time, I went for a job interview at the regional office of the National Sample Survey in Thiruvananthapuram. I was one among the 20–30 people who attended the interview. I was the one selected. That was a wonderful surprise for me! At that time, a central government employee earned double or sometimes even triple than his state government counterpart. Several college lecturers had resigned and opted to become clerks in central government offices. This changed later. My elder brother taught in a college. But I earned double of what he did then. I was barely 20 years old then. I was very proud of having got this job! I worked there for about one and a half years. They would often send me to Malabar on certain assignments. This affected my theatre activities back in Thiruvananthapuram. Also, around that time, my mother fell ill. I wanted to visit her at least once a week. But travelling back and forth from Malabar was very difficult then.
Once, when I was at a tea shop near the Chengannur bus stand, I happened to flip through a wrinkled Manorama newspaper lying on the table. I saw an ad inviting applications for courses at the Government of India’s Film Institute. I was drawn to one particular course—screenplay writing and direction. I thought it was similar to playwriting, and decided to go and study. So, I applied for the course. After a few days, I got the reply by mail. The letter said that my application was rejected because I was not a graduate. Thankfully, I had a government order then which stated that my diploma (from the Gandhigram Institute) was equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. So, I sent this to the film institute and I was provisionally admitted to write the exam. That’s how I went to Pune. I took the admission test. We were called in for a viva two days later. Film personalities like K.A. Abbas were on the interview board. I had read his stories and other works. His column that appeared on the last page of the Blitz magazine was very famous. K. Balakrishnan was a great fan of his. And I regularly read K. Balakrishnan’s column in Kaumudi Weekly.
Abbas asked me about the playwrights in Malayalam. As soon as I entered the room, I had put two of my plays on the table. They asked me several questions about the writers in Malayalam, like Thakazhi, for example. I felt like they were really interested in me. One reason was that among those who were selected for the interview, no one had my kind of background. There was hardly any one among them who had written and published plays before.
The results were supposed to be out the next day. I got on a bus from Deccan Gymkhana to Law College Road, where the institute was. In the bus, I overheard a conversation between two people who I supposed to be the teachers from the institute. ‘Who got the top rank this time?’ One of them asked the other. There was only one merit scholarship at the institute then. The scholarship was ₹75! To this question, the bearded Sardarji replied, ‘One Mr Yunithan got the first rank.’ Back then, I was known as G.K. Unnithan (Gopalakrishnan Unnithan). When I reached the institute, I ran to check the list on the notice board. My name appeared first on it, and I got the merit scholarship too.
I came back to Kerala, and asked my elder brother for his opinion. It was not an easy thing to leave a salaried job just like that and that too in those days. I asked my brother if I could resign and join the Pune institute. To this, he said, ‘Go ahead if you are confident.’ I had no dearth of confidence! It’s in my nature to plunge into the unknown. I had no idea what cinema was at the time. My only motive was the screenplay writing course. So, I sent in my resignation letter. That’s how I started studying in Pune.
CSV: Before we talk about your stint at FTII, I would like to ask you two things. One is about your mother. Be it in your life or your films, your mother played a key role. She efficiently managed your household and had great control over daily affairs. In your films too, especially in Kathapurushan, the presence of the mother is very strong, and the father is absent. So, tell us a little bit more about your mother and her personality.
AG: It is my mother who taught me that all humans are equal. We belonged to the Unnithan community—even the Nairs called us yajamanan (master). This isn’t the case now, I’m talking about the olden days. We had the lower caste Pulayas and Parayas working for us in our land and fields, and they also did odd jobs outside the house like sweeping the yard, etc. If someone in their household fell ill, my mother would personally go to their home to check on them and…this was when we ourselves were struggling…send them necessary provisions. This was a great lesson that I learnt in life from her. My mother taught me a lot about human beings. Not even once did she yell at me or hit me. For this reason, I didn’t want to give her any reason to find a fault in me. When I was studying, my only wish was to get a job and present the salary to my mother. And I could do that for about one and half years. She fell sick after that. She had cancer. But I was content that I had fulfilled my wish. It was after this I left for Pune.
My mother would be the last one to eat at home. She always kept aside food in case some hungry passer-by dropped in. So, she always ate at odd times, no matter how much we scolded her for it. That was her character. She never uttered one bad word about my father in front of us, not even once…she was a remarkable woman.
CSV: The second most important presence in your films, I feel, is Gandhi. Not just the fact that you went to Gandhigram, a Gandhian lifestyle, philosophy and aesthetics can be seen throughout your films. What is the reason behind this?
AG: We were a family of avid readers. Everyone—my mother, siblings—all of us read a lot. We had membership in three libraries at the same time. Then we started a fourth library. At any given point of time, we would have about 16 books at home. Sometimes, our house seemed like a library, with all of us sitting in different corners, reading. So, right from our childhood, we were very aware of the outside world. The day Gandhiji died, I cried nonstop. I heard this from my brother. I used this in a sequence in Kathapurushan, it’s taken right out of my life. Gandhiji’s assassination caused a sense of vulnerability in us. This was evident from the conversations that happened in the house. In Kathapurushan, my mother emerges in two characters—the mother and grandmother acted by Aranmula Ponnamma.
My childhood was a time when I learnt a lot about life. I grew up in three different homes. I belong to the Mavitath family, very well known in central Travancore. My uncle, the head of the family, his two or three brothers, mother, we all lived together in that big ancestral house. No one dared to speak up in front of our uncle. He was so well respected. He was very popular too as he was at the forefront of all social activities and events. He was an authoritative figure, but was kind at the same time. He was also a great patron of arts, especially Kathakali. This ran in the family. Even before my grandfather’s time there were kaliyogams (performances by Kathakali troupes) in our family.
Our uncle would come and watch all our frivolous plays. We children would announce, especially on special days like the Sivaratri, that we were going to stage a play. Our neighbourhood was filled with our own relatives. All of them, including this uncle, would come and watch us perform. This is when I realised that for an artiste, age, power or position doesn’t matter. When on stage, the artiste is the most important person. This was a really important lesson for me. That’s how I got interested in the actor, acting and theatre. I came from such a background.
CSV: Those kaliyogams must have been your first exposure to the arts like Kathakali and Kutiyattam, right?
AG: Actually, I got interested in Kutiyattam much later. I had attended a Kutiyattam performance once at the Hindu Mission, but I didn’t understand anything. That was my first experience with Kutiyattam. Later one day, Appukkuttan Nair called me—he came from a well-known family, at Keerikkadu, which was famous for its patronage of Kathakali and Kutiyattam. He knew our family and all. He called me and said, ‘I know you have a background in Kathakali. But you’re missing out on another great art form.’ And he invited me to watch Kutiyattam performances with him every Friday at a Shiva temple, don’t remember its name. Afterwards, on every Friday, he would reserve a seat on his right side for me, and I would join him regularly. He would explain the performance to me—that was how I learned to appreciate Kutiyattam. If someone tried to sit there, he would stop him and said, ‘No, no, this seat is for Gopalakrishnan.’ He was so fond of me! Later when the project of making a documentary on Kutiyattam came up, it had to be someone who had at least watched Kutiyattam, and that was how it fell on me.
CSV: You did have a closer association with Kathakali, didn’t you?
AG: Yes, I did. Because my mother and all knew Kathakali really well. In my childhood, for Kathakali performances, all the women, including our relatives and neighbours, would come and sit around my mother. I would be on her lap. And my mother would explain the story to them. One needs to know the mudras (hand gestures) to understand what’s going on. So, I grew up watching Kathakali and listening to her. And in my house even for the birthdays of older family members, there would be a Kathakali performance. Chenganoor Raman Pillai (celebrated Kathakali artiste) was a member of the troupe back then. In his later days, he was an invited member. But when he was young, he was part of the performing troupe. When I went to him to make a documentary on him, I told him I was from such and such family. He hugged me and said that I was the third generation of the family that he was engaging with. That was a beautiful moment.
CSV: Since you were closely involved in performing arts like Kathakali and staging plays right from your childhood, did this help you later while making films, in creating characters, in direction, acting, etc.?
AG: It did help me a lot. Sometimes, even good actors may fail to grasp when I explain it to them. They would then ask me to act it out for them. Then I had to do it. This is a test set for me! So, I act it out and explain as needed. I wouldn’t act shy and tell them to do as they could. I want them to act in the way I require.
One advantage that my background in theatre has given me is that… while I write a script, I keep improving it over a period of time. But the one thing that doesn’t change, even while shooting or editing, is the dialogues. The dialogues never change. And it should be delivered as I want it. I allow no deviation.
CSV: That comes from your theatre experience?
A.G.: Yes. The style of dialogue delivery will be different for each character. Like they say in theatre, pratipatram bhashanabhedam (style of speaking differs for each character)—that’s one of the most important things while writing a play. This helped me greatly.
The library at the film institute was very well stocked. There were plenty of books on theatre. That’s when Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot came out in English. One of my classmates saw the book in my hand—-he did not know anything about theatre—and asked me about the book. So, I told him that it was Waiting for Godot. He wanted to know the story and I explained it to him. For the annual project that year, he made a film based on its story that I told him, without reading the book. Probably wouldn’t be able to make the film if he had read the book!
CSV: Coming from a rural background and from an institute like Gandhigram, you went to study at FTII, Pune. What was that transition like?
AG: The first hurdle was what every Malayali faces when they go out of Kerala—my batchmates were fluent in English, but it was not easy for me. Of course I had read a lot of English literature, but spoken English didn’t come easily to me. That was the biggest difficulty that I faced. It took some time for me to get over this. Then, later, I had to keep travelling to Bombay, Madras and abroad, and, somehow, I learned to speak fluently. Back at school, we had learnt English in Malayalam! Our English teachers were not trained for that or knowledgeable enough either.
CSV: It must be after you joined the film institute that you started approaching cinema as an art form.
AG: After my first year, two important things happened. I was still hung up on theatre, still gripped by the fascination for it. At the same time, I was watching films, each and every important film that has come out right from the beginning, and discussing them. But after my first year, two professors came to take classes who changed my outlook towards cinema. One was Prof. Satish Bahadur, who came to take the film appreciation course. The other was Ritwik Ghatak, who came as a professor in the direction department and the vice principal of the institute. This was a big change.
Ghatak would show us his films and tell us why he shot a scene a certain way. Not just cinematography, but he was into music and even composed also. They were such multi-talented people! Instead of focusing on just theory, he would make us watch his films and explain to us the shots. As a student, this helped me tremendously. Coming to Satish Bahadur… he made Pather Panchali part of the syllabus. He analysed it shot by shot, with the sounds and without it. Before him, we had this other professor for film appreciation called Rama Narasingh. I think he worked with the government’s drama division before. His idea of film appreciation was he would show us a film and go like, see, how beautiful it is, look at her fingers, how tenderly her fingers open the chocolate, etc. That was how his appreciation went. This was not appreciation, we realised that when Satish Babadur started taking classes. He would give us a threadbare analysis of the film’s theme, composition, movements of the camera and the people. Even (Satyajit) Ray himself came to know only later that Bahadur was so meticulously analysing his film for the students.
CSV: You had the chance to see the world classics and get introduced to the masters of world cinema at the institute.
AG: That was a great opportunity. Where else would we get such a chance back then? That was the time when the New Wave movement, which started in French cinema, was spreading all across Europe, and even to Russia. Mikhail Kalatozov’s film, The Cranes Are Flying, which was part of the movement, came out when I was studying at the institute. The films from these socialist countries would always be screened at the embassies. That was more important to them than the commercial release of films, since they were state-funded. So, I could watch all those films.
The institute itself was special. The film institute in Moscow… VGIK and the La Fémis film school in Paris… syllabus and training practices of both these schools were combined to design the curriculum for the Pune film institute. Experts from both these film schools also came to the institute in its early years. They were still there when we were studying. Such was Nehru’s vision! He instituted a committee led by S.K. Patel, and on recommendation of this committee, many initiatives like the Film Institute, Film Finance Corporation, national film archives, and the international film festival were started.
CSV: That must have been a great exposure to world cinema.
AG: Definitely a great exposure!
CSV: Was there a film style or master you were particularly impressed by?
AG: There are so many masters, hard to pick one. Still, there are some masters that I liked particularly. One such person whose works I liked very much was the Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó. He was a great master! It was only when he was around 40 years old that he joined a film school in Budapest. In those days, he was one filmmaker that amazed me. Then there was Andrei Tarkovsky. Ivan's Childhood, his first film, took us all by awe. There’s this shot in the beginning of the film, where someone… don’t remember now whether it is a child or not… runs in front of a tank. That shot… the sight of the tank bearing upon the person… is overwhelming. He runs and jumps into water. That’s the opening shot. That’s a great introductory shot. It was his first film and it created a great impact! Then there was the Italian film maker… Fellini. Actually, there were a lot of French directors who emerged as part of the New Wave. Directors like Alain Resnais, etc. His Hiroshima mon amour is one of the acclaimed films of those times, which became a classic. We would watch all these films in amazement.
CSV: What films did you do while you were at the institute?
AG: My diploma film was A Great Day. It is a comedy, and sort of based on my life. The protagonist is a lazy man. He has even made a device so that he doesn’t have to open the door for the milkman in the morning. He ties a string connecting the lock on the door to his bedside. So, when the boy who brings the milk knocks on the door, he tugs at the string and the door opens. And the boy keeps the milk bottle inside. He has a love interest. The girl comes to visit him one day, and says she has told her father about them and that he’d come visit in an hour. So, the man gets up and tries to tidy up his room. His attempts only result in chaos. There’s even a frog in his room. There’s this particular scene, which many others have copied, where he turns on the radio to listen to music, but it doesn’t work. He smacks it once or twice and suddenly it comes on. This scene has been copied by many others in their films.
Translated by Medha V.