C.S. Venkiteswaran in Conversation with Adoor Gopalakrishnan Part 3: The Cinematic Vision of Adoor

C.S. Venkiteswaran in Conversation with Adoor Gopalakrishnan Part 3: The Cinematic Vision of Adoor

in Video
Published on: 01 February 2021

C.S. Venkiteswaran

A noted film critic, author and documentary filmmaker, C.S. Venkiteswaran is known for his sharp and insightful analysis of cinema and its artistry. He writes both in Malayalam and English. Venkiteswaran won the National Award for the Best Film Critic in 2009.

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.

C.S. Venkiteswaran

Following is a translated and edited version of the video conversation with Adoor Gopalakrishnan conducted by C.S. Venkiteswaran on March 16, 2020 in Thiruvananthapuram.  

C.S. Venkiteswaran (CSV): In a way, your film Kathapurushan (The Man of the Story, 1995) is autobiographical. The story and its premise are closely linked to your life. Your next film Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill, 2002), on the other hand, is based on an entirely different time and social setting. How did its idea come about?  

Adoor Gopalakrishnan (AG): One day, while flipping through the Manorama (Malayala Manorama) newspaper, I saw an interview by Renji Kuriakose with the last hangman alive. It was a very small piece, but it gave me a brief glimpse into the life of a hangman. In Travancore, the ban on death penalty was lifted only after India gained independence. It was banned because the kings of Travancore regarded execution a sin. So, in the history of Travancore, you will find long periods when death penalty was banned, and then started again for some reason. So, the period when it was reinstituted, and then how the hangman is brought to the jail, how he tells stories to stay awake all night... all these aspects were touched upon in this interview.

CSV: Why does he stay awake all night?

AG: The execution happens in the wee hours of the morning. The convict will not be able to sleep the night. It is routine for the hangman to stay awake with him. To pass time and to stay awake, they would often tell each other stories. I decided to use these elements in my story.

The image of a hangman that is embedded in our hearts right from our childhood is terrible. A heartless person with bloodshot eyes and even baring his fangs—like a murderer. His job is only to execute people. Sometimes the elders would admonish the naughty kid that he would be handed over to the aarachar (hangman). So, he and his job struck terror in hearts. The person and the profession had merged into one. I thought that it would be interesting to explore this.  

The hangman from the interview led a very miserable life. He was an invalid, and his children, too, were not healthy. They were a migrant family from Tamil Nadu, living near the borders of the Travancore state. The hangman’s job was the traditional occupation of the men of the family. They received many incentives from the government, like land, etc. They were paid separately for each execution. The government took care of them. But what is overwhelming for him is his own feeling of guilt. He was well aware that not all convicts he had hung were guilty, especially the young man that he hung last. The hangman knew for sure that he was innocent. But our judicial system convicted him based on circumstantial evidence. So, this is how I got the idea. This was in the early 1940s, when the struggle for freedom was on in full swing. Gandhians were opposing capital punishment. The hangman’s son, too, was himself an active member of the Gandhian movement.

The stories that they tell to each other to keep themselves awake… Two wardens from the jail are acting as security for the hangman who is brought to Thiruvananthapuram and put up at a small lodge. Since the time the messenger comes to inform the hangman that he is wanted, he is under immense stress. He had almost settled down thinking that executions were a thing of the past, and then when he is called upon again, it falls on him as a thunderbolt. That such and such person will be executed by hanging on such and such date.

The message says that the hangman should feel neither anger nor affection towards the convict. He has to be pure in body and mind.

CSV: The hangman is just instrumental.

AG: Yes, such is his profession! The hangman tries to excuse himself saying his health is not good. Then he was asked to take along someone—maybe his son—with him. So, that is how his son, who is a Gandhian against executions, goes with him. So, they come to Thiruvananthapuram. The hangman knows that what he is going to do is a sin and, hence, ever since the king’s command reached him, he has gone into a state of refusal and prayer. He thinks that it is Goddess Kali who’s making him do this, thus seeking to diminish his own part in the process. He also drinks excessively. When they come to the lodge, he is treated with alcohol. And he becomes fully drunk. Moreover, he offers alcohol to his teetotaller son, saying, being his father, his first ever glass of alcohol should be from him. The son refuses. The storytelling happens that night. The hangman keeps asking for more alcohol; he is desperate to get drunk. No amount of alcohol seems to have any effect on him. He is in a state of perplexity. He then wants to take bath in cold water. Even then he is unable to calm down. He says the water seems to burn him. He is in a state of severe despair. The storytelling starts in the midst of all this. One of them begins a story, the hangman stops him and demands a ‘spicy story’. The storyteller narrates the story of a 13-year-old girl raped and killed.  

Now, when we read a novel, the reader makes up his own characters. However descriptive the novel may have been, the reader conjures up his own images of the characters drawn from his own surroundings. This happens to the hangman as he listens to the story. When the storyteller stops, he eagerly asks him what happens next. By then he has lost himself in the narrative. The storyteller replies, ‘The story is not finished yet. You are about to hang him.’ The hangman shouts ‘no’ and then faints. A crisis emerges. The task of hanging now falls on the hangman’s son. He is then taken to the spot, and the execution is conducted. This is the story of the film. It’s the circumstances we live in that make us do certain things. The film deeply reflects upon the idea of guilt.

Considering the off-chance that the convict might be innocent, the king issues a pardon, to shelve off his responsibility and the consequent sin. But there is a trick in that. It is ensured that this order of pardon would reach the hangman only after the hanging is done. The messenger would wait for it to be done, only then would he enter and hand over the pardon. This way, the king can free himself from the burden of a probable sin and, at the same time, the convict is executed too. I used to think that this was a practice invented by our kings, but that was not the case. The film was screened in Venice, my Spanish friend told me that this was a common practice among the Spanish too. Our kings must have borrowed it from the West.

So, everyone wants to distance themselves from the act, and ultimately it falls upon the hangman to bear the burden of the sin of this execution. The tendency to erase the lines between the hangman and his job.

The rope used for an execution would be in high demand. Belief was that babies wouldn’t have nightmares if an end of the rope was tied to their cradle. Also, in the days leading up to the execution, the hangman leads a pure, devoted life. He has the power to take away life and, therefore, the public believes that he can give life too, can cure illness. During this period, people see him as almost equivalent to God. What he does is also a sort of belief, cutting off pieces of the rope and presenting to the sick. Finally, when he runs out of rope, he burns the leftover rope and presents the ashes to the sick.   

So, there are two perspectives to this. The hangman is regarded as malevolent,  yet in the days leading up to the execution and till it is done with, people treat him as a man with godly powers.

CSV: Your next two films, Naalu Pennungal (Four Women) and Oru Pennum Randanum (One Woman and Two Men), are based on short stories by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. Why did you choose Thakazhi?

AG: It was totally coincidental. Doordarshan had approached the country’s top filmmakers to do programmes on some noted writers. When they asked me first, I said I wasn’t interested, because I felt they would broadcast it once and then it would be forgotten. But then they put a lot of pressure on me and, in the end, I told them I would make a film and that I would have the rights to it. Then I would make a programme for them, based on the film. The programmes have a stipulated time limit. After a lot of persuasion, they agreed to this too.

I read all of Thakazhi’s works—short stories and novels. Almost all of his novels had been made into films or serials by then. Some of his short stories that had gone unnoticed by the public so far caught my attention. I selected eight–nine stories from this bunch. Six of them are about women. They are all very honest observations about life. The first four stories that I chose, each set apart by a decade or so. The range is also vast. Right from a prostitute at the lowest rung of the society, then a women farmhand….

CSV: Yes, it is titled Kanyaka (Virgin), then the story Niyamalanghanam (Lawbreaking)…

AG: Yes, Kanyaka and Niyamalanghanam. The latter is the one about the prostitute. 

CSV: All these stories are about women. But we don’t see a ‘proper’ family in these stories. It is about the struggles of women belonging to different classes, in different time periods.

AG: Through them, the concept of femininity gradually grows in these stories. None of them are weeping heroines; they’re women who face their circumstances. They assert themselves in different ways, according to their own nature, education and class. In the last story, the educated woman decides to live without depending on any man. It emerges from her frustration, but it is a decision nevertheless.

CSV: Similarly, the men in these stories are weak in many ways. In the story Niyamalanghanam, the man tries to reform but the law doesn’t allow him to. In another story, the father is extremely weak and, in another one, the husband is shown as a glutton. So, we see a lot of men devoid of agency. Men who are irresponsible, that appears to be an overarching theme.   

AG: If we look at the overall situation in Kerala, many families have husbands coming home at night, inebriated. They won’t take up a job, even if they could. Even if they did, they would spend heavily on alcohol, and after coming home they would fight and beat up their wives. Then there are plenty of men who abandon their wives and go away for no particular reason. We should look at it in continuation of our matrilineal traditions. In the matrilineal system, it is not the husband who supports the woman, rather it is her own family. Women are not orphaned just because their husbands abandoned them.

We retain certain aspects of the matrilineal system even now. For example, during the partition of family property, the land is usually given to the daughter who is relatively not well-off. So, the matrilineal system accords some sort of protection to the women. Maybe this is what has given our women the courage to take charge of their own affairs. At the same time, this has rendered the men weak.  

CSV: These two are anthology films, each story with about 25 minutes duration. The adaption of novel into a feature film is entirely different from that of a short story. What are the challenges you faced with the short format, especially with regard to developing the characters?

AG: Frankly speaking, it took the effort of making four full-length films. We would think, oh, it is only a brief film. Each story was about twenty-five to thirty minutes. The longest story is kept as the last one—three brief stories and a long one, that’s the pattern I followed. The characters in the four stories are different, their circumstances are different, actors different. This was a huge challenge, and took a lot of hard work. Also, it was hard to find locations that matched the landscape of the 1940s. Fortunately, we found some places in and around Ambalapuzha, near the backwaters. It was not easily accessible then but now they have built bridges. At the time of the shoot, those villages were accessible only by boats. Because of this, we could find suitable houses and landscapes, to suit our stories, in the area. It was Dr P. Venugopal who helped me with this.

CSV: This short film format…

AG: As I had never done this before, when the chance came I wanted to try my hand at this. Thakazhi’s novels had already been adapted into feature films. I thought there was no sense in redoing them. Also, I thought this was a chance for me to explore the antholgy format which I hadn’t tried before. These four stories, their different characters, all present the same premise that a single feature film offers. That is a big difference. Other people who have made anthology films haven’t connected the stories like I did. Satyajit Ray did Teen Kanya. But there is no connection between the characters, they are all three different stories. Beautiful stories certainly. Akira Kurosawa has done it. But none of them has tried to connect the stories.

The next film, Oru Pennum Randanum, is also set in the war period. Another peculiarity is that its four stories and the four stories from the earlier film, all of them together present you the broad canvas of life in Kuttanad in the 40s. Life in Kuttanad from multiple perspectives. It is like a biography of Kuttanad.   

CSV: The origin of your stories… some of them are based on Thakazhi’s literary works, and sometimes they come from newspaper stories, for example, Nizhalkkuthu. How does the idea for a film take form for you? What is the process like?

AG: The other day, a story came to me in my dreams. I didn’t develop it further. It was about a crime again. That is interesting. It was a story where one person stepped up to save someone by taking the responsibility of his crime, leading to a great tragedy in the former’s life. Then I thought, why do another crime story? But I saw it in such detail in my dream! Every day you get to read a lot of crime stories in the newspapers. Mostly it will be middle-aged women eloping with their lovers, sometimes after murdering their own children. Today’s paper has a story about a woman who killed her 13-year-old daughter and eloped with a much younger lover. This is not love, just lust.  

CSV: Films like Anantaram (Thereafter, 1987), Nizhalkkuthu and to an extent even Mathilukal (The Walls, 1989) have a two-part structure. Both parts are very distinct from each other. Why did this kind of thematic structuring recur and how did you plan them?    

AG: It was not a deliberate choice. The second part is actually a development of the first or rather presents a possibility of the first. Take Mukhamukham (Face to Face, 1984) for example. The first part of the film originates from people’s memories. These are not flashbacks. The protagonist’s character is built up through these blocks of memories. His form and character are based on this. What you see in the second half is a possibility of this first part. He disappears for ten years—what would have happened to him in this period? The possibilities are built through the eyes of other characters in the first part.     

So, the second part is a development of the information we get in the first half. Even in the first half, the characters’ memories of the man are only figments of their imagination. When you recollect someone from your memory, you tend to give them a larger-than-life figure. Our memories may suffer wear and tear over time. It is not possible to reproduce a memory as it is. That’s the thing with memories.      

When I used to live in Pallickal, there was a pond in front of the nearby temple. When we were kids, we would go bathe there. I always used to remember it as a massive pond. Much later, I returned there once, and I saw that it was actually a tiny pond. Unbelievably small! Now it was small to me because, over the years, I had seen a lot of bigger ponds. So, our memories undergo changes in our mind depending on the experiences we go through.

CSV: In a way, it is an assemblage of art, that is, the way of assembling disparate elements and examining how things turn out—like in a jigsaw puzzle—probably due of this, storytelling is there in most of your films, or stories become a part of them. Be it the stories that children read or the ones a teacher narrates to students… Like in Nizhalkkuthu, sometimes the act of storytelling itself become a part of your narratives.   

AG: It is true. Certainly, we are also weaving a story as we talk about storytelling. Take Anantaram for instance, where we have two stories told by the protagonist himself. He doesn’t deny either. Both the stories are about him. If the first one is about an extrovert, the second is about an introvert. When put together, it’s all the same story. A story told in normal progression. I try to do many new formal techniques like this in my films.

But sometimes, my viewers may not grasp the techniques. On the surface, my films may look simple, but their internal structures are very complex.

CSV: In all your films, the actors’ performances have been critical. Be it Bharat Gopi, Mammootty or someone like Karamana Janardanan Nair. What is the chemistry behind this? How does it work—both in casting and direction?

AG: One main reason is that I am an actor myself. I draw out my actors’ potentials to the maximum. To do that I will try every way. Each actor has a distinct personality, so I handle each person differently. I don’t deal with Mammootty the way I deal with Karamana Janardanan Nair. The personal rapport I build with the actor and the trust they place on me are very important here. The dialogues I have penned down in my script never change at any stage. Because those dialogues are an important part of my structure. Even a slight deviation from the planned dialogues may affect the structure. My actors have to stick to them strictly.

CSV: Your scripts are not shared with the actors. So, in a way, there’s no continuity for the actor to emote. Then, how do you get the intended effect?

AG: I tell them only about a particular scene. Anyway, filmmaking is not like a theatre performance where you have to act out from the beginning to the end. The shots are taken according to our convenience, depending on the location and the availability of actors. Sometimes, various scenes from various points of the film are finished in one go. But, of course, the continuity is there in my mind. Also, I write a very clear, detailed script. I never start shoot without a complete script in hand.

Sometimes, I have dreamt that I am on a set but I don’t have the script ready and I would get all flustered. My script is the plan I make in my head. But none of my films are carbon copies of my scripts. My films go beyond them.

CSV: Do you make changes in the script during the shoot or later at the editing table?

AG: Not at the editing table but during the shoot, yes, several times. For example, sometimes it becomes noon by the time we get to shoot a particular scene, so, you have to relook the scene in terms of light. The actors themselves look different, since the light falls from right above. The nature of the scene itself changes. So, we’ll have to make changes accordingly. There are also times when we have to make changes based on the actors’ limitations. Not every actor can act what has been penned down in the script. So, we will have to adjust.

CSV: I think, your documentaries fall in three categories: the ones you did for government agencies, then there are experimental/explorative ones like the one with Viswanathan (V. Viswanathan, Ganga), and finally about art and artists like the ones on Yakshagana, Kutiyattam, Mohiniyattam, Kathakali artistes like Chengannur Ashan (Raman Pillai), Gopi Ashan (Kalamandalam Gopi) or Ramankutti Ashan, etc. What is the scripting process like for documentaries?

AG: There’s a lot of preparation involved. You have to meticulously study the topic. The script should evolve from it. To approach the subject superficially with preconceived notions is not the right way. To capture the soul of the subject you have to tease out your script from within it. The documentaries of art forms have given me a lot of joy and also have benefitted me personally. I had to do a lot of research for them. This gave me deep insights into our lives and our past.

Just imagine, an art form as sophisticated as Kutiyattam existed here 2,000 years ago! It has been preserved and, even now, performed as it is. It has been performed for all these years. There’s no such art form or theatre in the world like that! Only when we study it deeply do we realise how great a matter of pride is our past for us!  

CSV: Talking about documentaries on art forms, there’s an interface between that art form and the art of cinema. There’s a milieu in which we view these art forms. It has a set pattern, language and even a time duration. So, there’s this issue of condensing, typically a several hours’ performance into a one-hour film. How do you convey its form through films?   

AG: It is definitely very challenging. Only when you have a very deep knowledge about the art form can you tackle such challenges. Firstly, we will have to submit ourselves completely to that traditional art form. We cannot impose our cinematic techniques and expressions on it. In my documentaries on Kathakali and Kutiyattam, my approach is from the viewpoint of their spectators.  

When we were shooting Kalamandalam Gopi performing the padam Kuvalaya Vilochane, we would get a maximum of 4–4.5 minutes. The reel would have run out by then. With today’s cameras, we can shoot more time in one go. But back then, it wasn’t possible. So, most of the shots in that film were for 4.5 minutes. We have to make sure that we don’t break the rhythm. I never showed a close-up of the hands or foot movements then. We have to show their entire body. There’s no need to show the feet of the Kathakali artist. The feet are not to be seen. The intention is to show the area which is brightened up from the light of a burning 4.5 feet high traditional brass oil-lamp on the stage. Whatever’s beyond this area is not meant to be seen. For this same reason, a very high stage is not ideal for Kathakali. The stage shouldn’t be higher than 2.5 feet. The same applies for Kutiyattam. Otherwise, our angle of vision becomes incorrect.

CSV: So, you say, cinema has to yield to the rigours of the art forms. 

AG: Yes, cinema is a very modern form, and our traditional art forms are several centuries old. We should approach them in respectful submission.  

CSV: What about the documentary (Ganga) you did with Viswanathan?  

AG: Viswanathan shared with me just a seed of an idea of taking a film on the river Ganga by travelling down its course. I did the rest. I did most of the camera, and the sound recording. I completed the rough cut of the film and gave it to Viswanathan. The film unexpectedly bagged many honours. It won the grand prize in Paris’s Cinéma du Réel festival.

CSV: What interests you more—idea of a feature film or a documentary? When an idea emerges, it is from a particular image, event or a piece of dialogue? Do you have the complete idea for the story right from the beginning or does it emerge as you write?

AG: I don’t start writing the script the moment an idea strikes me. I carry the germ of the idea inside me for a long time. Only when it really weighs me down and the pressure gets too high, I sit down to write. I start with a treatment note. I never write the synopsis in the beginning. I find it hardest to write the synopsis. So, I write a treatment note on how the theme is going to progress. When I am satisfied with the treatment, I begin on to the screenplay. It will have all the scenes and dialogues. Then comes the shooting script, where I write how each scene will be shot, how to approach each scene, which angle it will be taken, the time of the day… the shooting script will have all these details, even the type of lens to be used. So, only after the shooting script is ready that I start the shoot. But, during the actual shoot, I don’t follow it closely. It serves as my guide, but I improvise upon it during the shoot.

CSV: All your films till Pinneyum are celluloid films. With Pinneyum, you started using digital. With DI (Digital Intermediate) there is more freedom while shooting, and it also gives many image manipulation possibilities during post-production. Do you think this has made filmmaking easier? How does it impact the creative challenges?  

AG: The use of DI eases us into assuming that filmmaking is a breeze. Because, with DI, the colour correction is done by entirely a new person. So, it redefines the role of the cameraperson. Now even if the camera work is not done properly, the shots can be salvaged during the post-production work. Even the framing can be improved!

Obviously, the conveniences have increased. But then, this gives newcomers the impression that it all can be done very easily. This art form demands a high level of focus and dedication, which, I feel, is going down. It has become more of a casual affair. Pinneyum is a digital film, but I didn’t deviate from my routine process there. I didn’t take even one unwanted shot. I gave it the same care, just that the film was processed digitally. Because I was working with a trusted cameraman, I didn’t have to interfere in the lighting or anything. He knows. I didn’t have to instruct him. We see the true mastery of a cameraman in his lighting.

The DI has made cinema more accessible to the common man. Even for the practitioners. Now you don’t need to know much about cinematography to do photography—it has become more user-friendly. We can always correct our mistakes.

Sometimes with my earlier films there were instances when at the editing table some issues were found and then we had to go and reshoot scenes. But now you can replay the scene right after it is taken. This has made things a lot easier.

But at the same time, I don’t think filmmakers should take things lightly. Our literacy rates have improved, but it is doubtful if it has led to a rise in the number of serious writers. So, just achieving literacy is not enough. Just being accessible doesn’t mean the quality would improve. 

Like Spanish filmmaker Carlos Saura says, ‘It’s very easy to make a film, but it’s very difficult to make a good film.’ Very true!

CSV: In an interview, Carlos Saura had said that digital filmmaking is like a whale. It will give birth to crores of sperms. But only one or two survive.

AG: Exactly! Basically, cinema, or any work of art for that matter, is a self-expression of its maker and reflects his/her culture, and his/her concerns. Just telling a story is not enough. It is not about that. Is the film able to connect to our lives and our living conditions? What new ideas did it present to us? How did it change our outlook towards life? These are the things that are really important.

CSV: You were part of the film society movement right from its beginning. You started Kerala’s first film society and then went on to associate with it in different ways over the past fifty years. What is happening to the movement now?

AG: I was one of those who initiated the movement but not as a society. A movement may not always go on in the same way. We should have had art cinemas as the next phase of the movement. KSFDC (Kerala State Film Development Corporation) is capable of doing it. They should do it, better late than never. Its employees now think that the [KSFDC] theatres are there to provide them their salaries. They are not very interested in films that don’t run well. They have no sense of films or filmmaking. The State lacks a vision where this is concerned. Several theatres are coming up these days—the word ‘parallel’ was in vogue earlier, but in reality, there was no such cinema—we can still create a parallel space. We could create a parallel network of good films. It is possible here in Kerala because we have public-sector theatres. But no one is trying to do that.

In the public-sector theatres too commercial movies are run. The government should take a firm decision to screen the films which have some merit in their theatres for at least three weeks, whether or not people are coming to watch. The first week is crucial, and once it is past, the word gets around and people start coming in. But what happens is, by the time the word gets out, the movie is already taken off. It needs a good plan and firm conviction to reserve these theatres for good films. What KSFDC could do is to give a proper orientation to their employees, as to what is expected of them.

CSV: As a last question, what do you have to say to a young aspiring filmmaker?  

AG: To make films, you need not just to watch films but know about several other art forms. You need to have a deep understanding of your life. You need to know about music, theatre, paintings, history and geography. You need to be aware of almost every aspect of this world that makes up our complex lives. You won’t attain it from somewhere; you can only gain it through experience, through living it. You should never have a light approach towards cinema.

When I was a student at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), a local intellectual at my village asked me: What’s there so much to learn about direction? The writer writes for you, the actor says the dialogues, the photographer takes photos…so what does the director actually do? As he was a respected man, I didn’t reply, merely smiled at him. Anyway, what is there to say!

But there are directors who are like that. Many times director acts as an organiser. Some people come to me and say they have seen all the films that are released.   But such people can never make good films. One should have some discriminatory knowledge. Many people think the director’s job is to find some rich man and somehow bait him into funding the film. This is such a cruel attitude. I could never do that.

I have always asked those who wanted to produce my films: Can you afford to lose all the money you spend on making this film? I can’t give them any guarantee that the film will make money or win awards. It’s not in my hands. I always ask them to think about it. I have turned away many people like that.

I can’t stand someone going broke because of me. Nothing’s going to happen to the people or the society if I don’t make films. I make films just for my artist’s ego—that I have to make a film and that people have to see it. Nothing beyond that…

There’s another question I ask myself a lot while making films: Why should people come and watch this film? I make the film only if I have an answer to this question. It’s not an exercise in futility.

Translated from Malayalam by Medha V.


C.S. Venkiteswaran in conversation with Adoor Gopalakrishnan