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December 2005 - January 2006


Adoor Gopalkrishnan: he follows his own path

by Nikhil Gajendragadkar

Adoor Gopalkrishnan, this year’s recipient of prestigious ‘Dadasahab Phalke Award’ does not belong to the ‘Dream Factory’ of popular, commercial Hindi and South Indian Cinema. But he is a popular face of ‘New Indian Cinema’ the world over. Here is a look at his life and work.

He belongs to a breed, which dared to experiment, do something new and succeeded. The announcement of his selection for this year’s ‘Phalke Award’ came as a pleasant surprise to all who love serious Cinema. It is more heartening to know that the committee had selected a person, who is not a fading memory of an era gone by, but who is still active and making films. He is Adoor Gopalkrishnan!

Adoor was born in 1941. He earned a degree in Political Science and Economics. He hails from a family who practice ‘Kathakali’ a traditional dance form of Kerala, his native state. Perhaps his urge of artistic expression led him to the world of Cinema. He established first film society in Kerala ‘Chalachitra’ (Moving image).

He joined the Film Institute in Pune (in Western Maharashtra) in 1962. Formal training in script writing and direction sharpened his natural talent of storytelling. So far he has scripted and directed nine feature films and at least two-dozen short films and documentaries.

One can safely compare Adoor with a stalwart of Indian Cinema, Satyajit Ray. With his first film ‘Pather Panchali’ Ray revolutionised Indian Cinema. Adoor took that thread to Kerala. His first feature film ‘Swayamvaram’ (the Marriage-’ 72) heralded new wave movement in Kerala’s film world. (Kerala is a small state situated in the far southern part of India. But is very prominent as far as filmmaking and literature are concerned.)

There were some noteworthy films in Malayalam before ‘Swayamvaram’. Generally they were based on literature. But nearly all had regular ingredients of commercial Cinema, like highly dramatic plot treatment, songs-dance sequences. ‘Swayamvaram’ rejected all these populist formulae. This radically different film did not do well at the box office. Nobody expected also. But an audience, however small, eagerly waiting for a change in this medium, welcomed the film.

Adoor draws upon the socio-political history and aesthetic concepts of Kerala. Of course, like Ray, he uses it as a backdrop. Ray’s films present various aspects of humanism. Adoors’ films probe into darker side of the human life. Politically, Kerala is tilted to the left. But Adoor the filmmaker is away from party politics. His widely acclaimed film ‘Mukhamukham’ (Face to face – ’84) has a background of Trade Unions and Communism. But the film explores psyche of an individual and also of humans as groups.

Adoor does not follow strict pattern and form; that is why we find wide veriety of subjects, plots and treatment in Adoor’s films. ‘Swayamvaram’ presented clash between ideologies and reality. Elippathayam (The Rat trap– 81) one of his most successful and highly acclaimed films, documents the fall of the feudal system, ‘Anantharam’ (And then – 87) is a complex film about a person who is confused about his life and identity. ‘Nizhalkkuthu’ (Shadow Kill, 2003), is again a film about a person but it also presents clash of ideologies in a different way.

Adoor watched ‘Kathakali’ plays,learned intricacies of this art form from his childhood, as his family patronized performing troops. He listened music, classical and regional, closely, that influenced his cinematic style also. He uses colour and lighting as in a traditional Kathakali play, to denote and convey feelings, moods (Bhava). His artistic expression is subtle. His films look simple but are complex in nature. Because there are layers and shades to his stories, characters. He learned it from Kathakali. And yet, his subtlety is not elitism; he wants to communicate with a larger audience, he has made it clear in a recent interview.

Adoor makes films, because he wants to say something. In the past 33 years he has made nine films. He thinks about not only plot and story, but also characters, content of the film. He writes and directs films in Malayalam, because he can express nuances well enough in his native language. Though he is deeply rooted in Kerala, his films have universal quality. His Elippathayam won coveted ‘British Film Institute Award’ for India; 25 years after Satyajit Ray’s ‘Apur Sansar’ had bagged it. It was judged as ‘the most original and imaginative film of 82’. His very first film ‘Swayamvaram’ won the national awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematographer and Best Actress. It was a record setting event. He has won national awards for Best Direction four times, and for screenplay thrice. Perhaps he is the only director (certainly only Indian) to win the International Film Critics Prize (FIPRESCI) five times successively for ‘Mukhamukham’, ‘Anantharam’, ‘Mathilukal’, ‘Vidheyan’ and ‘Kathapurusham’.

Swayamvaram (1972)

Of course awards are but a reflection of his creative genius. One has to watch his films to understand why accolades go his way. He is a thinker filmmaker. He loves his medium and has faith in it. He took active part in the constitution of ‘Chitralekha’, ‘Kerala’s and perhaps India’s, first Film co-operative society for film production. This along with Chalachitra brought in new wave, ‘Art’ cinema to Kerala. It also brought new talented directors like Aravindan, P. A. Becker, K. G. George, etc. to forefront of filmmaking. He has written extensively on Cinema. His collection of essays, ‘The World of Cinema’, also won the National Award.

Adoor reacted to his selection for the award with a little surprise and expressed hope that this will attract more people to watch his films. Like Ray and Mrinal Sen, Adoor is better known in the West than many parts of India. But a fact remains; with ‘Phalke Award’ the nation has honoured Adoor, a filmmaker and storyteller par excellence.

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