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Notebook Primer: Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Regarded as the greatest living Indian filmmaker, Adoor Gopalakrishnan ushered in the "Parallel Cinema" wave in his native state of Kerala.
Arun A.K.
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan on the set of Kathapurushan
In 1982, Elippathayam (Rat-Trap) was introduced at the National Film Theatre, London, and won the Sutherland Trophy for the “most original and imaginative film” of the year. The Malayalam-language film succeeded in catapulting its director, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, to widespread international acclaim. Until then, the rare British Film Institute (BFI) honor had been bestowed upon only one filmmaker from India: Satyajit Ray. Along with Ray and Mrinal Sen, Gopalakrishnan is one of the most recognized and admired Indian filmmakers in world cinema. The International Film Critics Prize (FIPRESCI) has gone to him six times successively. Decorated with honors such as the French Government's Commander of the Order of Arts & Letters, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award—India's highest award in cinema—and winner of several international awards, his films have been shown in nearly every important festival around the world, including Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, London, and Rotterdam.
Regarded as the greatest living Indian filmmaker and a spiritual heir to Ray's tradition of filmmaking, Gopalakrishnan's austere works are marked by the power of silence, aesthetic charm, deep-space compositions, and the Brechtian “distancing” approach. His films are made in the Malayalam language and often depict the social and cultural intricacies of his native state Kerala. One could describe him as an excavator of Kerala’s recent history, who digs beneath the surface of Malayali life and its reputation for being radical and progressive in order to expose its fault lines and hidden ruptures, both at the individual and social level. In the preface to Parthajit Baruah’s book, Face-to-Face: The Cinema of Adoor Gopalakrishnan (2016), film writer Jean-Michel Frodon sums up the auteur and his craft of filmmaking excellently: “Visually magnificent but always in a non-self-imposing way, inventing creative use of the musical score (and of the absence of it) [...] Adoor’s mise en scène makes use of an extraordinarily large array of cinematic tools… In this sense, Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s films not only proclaim his own achievement but serve as a kind of anthem for the very nature of filmmaking at its best.”
Gopalakrishnan was born on July 3, 1941, in the South Indian state of Kerala into a family that patronized Kathakali and other classical art forms. He started his artistic life as an actor in amateur plays at the early age of eight. Gradually, he started channeling his creativity through writing and directing several stage plays during his student days. After securing a degree in Economics, Political Science, and Public Administration in 1961, he started working as a statistical investigator. But his artistic calling made him quit his government job to study screenwriting and direction at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, where Ritwik Ghatak was one of his teachers. Some of the most notable luminaries of Indian cinema such as Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahini, and John Abraham have also had the privilege of being mentored by Ghatak at the country's premier film school. On graduating from FTII in 1965, Gopalakrishnan with his classmates and film enthusiasts established Chitralekha Film Society, the first film society in Kerala. The same year, he took the initiative to form Chalachithra Sahakarana Sangham, India’s first film co-operative for the production, distribution, and exhibition of quality films.
In a five-decade-long career, the minimalist filmmaker has made only 12 feature films and 26 short films and documentaries. Once, Ray had suggested to him that he should make at least one film a year. Gopalakrishnan tried to explain the reason for him not being prolific and the long intervals between his films: "as suggested it has been my wish too, but it does not work in real terms. I had to do practically everything about the production of my films and the period of preparation itself takes a long time. Once a film is made, I am also involved in its promotion and release, resulting in a protracted period of struggle long after the completion of each."1 The soft-spoken auteur is known to dictate every fine detail of his films. On the performance of actors in his films, he stated that: "It is not the artist's job to do the detailing. I do not want different interpretations of roles that may clash with each other. It has to be absolutely unified. In movies, the actor is not performing to the audience like the stage actor. Here they are acting for me. I am the audience and I will decide whether it is correct or not, enough or not." 
Credited with pioneering the new wave in Malayalam cinema, Gopalakrishnan's debut feature, Swayamvaram (One's Own Choice, 1972), is considered a milestone in Kerala's film history. It was one of the first Malayalam films to use synchronized sound and outdoor locales, and also became the first Indian film to use sound as a leitmotif. The film was shown at various international film festivals, and in India won four National Awards for Best Film, Best Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Actress. Filmmaker Nirad Mohapatra, an FTII alumni, encapsulated the essence of the film perfectly in his analysis: "It is about an unmarried young couple, intensely in love, escaping to a small town to live together, defying the conventional norms and coming to grips with the harsh realities of life and living, which turns their dream into a nightmare. The struggle between the ideal and the real, love and the fear of losing the object of love, the crisis of conscience caused by the pressure of mundane needs, bring to the fore the human predicament, the spiritual degeneration of man—a theme which recurs in his later films too. Swayamvaram means choice, but the choice, in this case, is between the devil and the deep sea—a devastating commentary on the socio-economic situation of the middle class."3
Swayamvaram was followed by Kodiyettam (Ascent) in 1978, centering its story around a simple and innocent villager—basically portraying the individuation of a flotsam character who is eventually rough-hewn into a responsible and self-respecting person. Kodiyettam had no background music. But Gopalakrishnan used a lot of other sounds, natural sounds that suggested much more than what music could have. Mira Binford emphasized this in a 1979 issue of Film Comment, where she wrote "Gopalakrishnan's success lies also in the use of sound in a way not matched by any Indian director. The music of Kathakali, the temple orchestra, the plaintive recitations by the village folk, domestic noises, and sounds produced by birds, animals, and a speeding lorry are all used to add a poetic effect to the movement of this feature."
The beginning of the eighties marked a milestone in Gopalakrishnan's filmmaking career, when he made the masterpiece Elippathayam. It was his first film to be shot in color. The film examines with incisive precision the lonely and withdrawn world of a petty landlord who has inherited the degeneration and vestiges of a bygone feudal style of life and attitudes. Captive to his unviable feudal outlook and inability to change, the landlord's slow yet unavoidable disintegration forms the narrative crux that equates him to a rat in a trap. The film was screened at Cannes in 1982. Mrinal Sen, who was on the main jury that year, said that had Elippathayam been in competition, he would certainly have voted for it.
Gopalakrishnan followed it up with Mukhamukham (Face to Face) in 1984. Seen as a pro-communist movie at the time of its release, Mukhamukham takes its viewer right into the mind of a revolutionary hero. Set against the backdrop of the rise and fall of Marxism in Kerala within a span of 25 years, the film plays with fact and fiction, real and imaginary to present the left political discourse and its resultant collapse. Another iconic filmmaker of India's Parallel Cinema movement, Girish Kasaravalli, cites Mukhamukham as his favorite Gopalakrishnan film for the following reason: "Many have seen it merely as a document of the splintering of the left polity. But Adoor is also talking about a very important philosophical issue here. Through the character of Sridharan, he is asking: How much of an event is real, how much is imagined? Is Sridharan a real leader or has leadership been thrust upon him? So, when a young comrade tells Sridharan that one is disappointed with him, the pain acquires many shades. Here Adoor lifts a subject from its political or sociological groove to take it to a metaphysical level."4 In 2015, Kasaravalli paid tribute to Gopalakrishnan by making a documentary on him for the Films Division of India, titled, Images/Reflections. A large portion of the documentary contains conversations between the two FTII stalwarts, and also revisits a number of scenes from Gopalakrishnan's notable films.
After Mukhamukham, Gopalakrishnan created his magnum opus, Anantaram (Monologue, 1987), a very complex work that probes the areas of experience and perception and the very process of creativity itself—a film about storytelling. A landmark film in terms of narrative experimentation, Anantaram sees the shy filmmaker at his enigmatic best, as he seamlessly weaves two stories through a single protagonist, merging character and setting. In Gopalakrishnan's own words, "Anantaram is basically about perceptions. About a young, impressionable boy who is an introvert and an extrovert at the same time. You will say he's like me. My treatment was not very familiar, though I was searching for the familiar experience of growing up, struggling with life and relationships. What is in the frame and what is juxtaposed to it just outside the frame... or let us put it this way, it has to do with attuning to the reality just beyond perception. Actually, this is part of the daily experience though we don't analyze it."5
His noted films in the 1990s include Mathilukal (Walls, 1990), based mainly on the veteran Malayalam writer Vaikom Muhammad Basheer's well-known short story, and Vidheyan (The Servile, 1993), a free adaptation of Paul Zacharia's novelette, Bhaskara Patellar and My Life. The protagonist in Mathilukal overcomes his confinement and seclusion in the jail by carrying on a series of amorous conversations with a female voice from the women's prison ward across. Vidheyan examines the psychology and structure of power as detailed in the master-slave relationship between a migrant laborer from Kerala and the brutal, oppressive village landlord in the neighboring state of Karnataka. Unlike Gopalakrishnan's earlier films, Vidheyan is direct in its depiction of how power operates through terror and violence, without giving any space for understated elegance.
In Kathapurushan (Man of the Story, 1995), an Indo-Japanese co-production, Gopalakrishnan shifted his focus to the recent and contemporary history of Kerala that spans a period of nearly 40 years from the 1940s. It examines the relationships between the individual, his family, society, and the State. The protagonist goes about to change society and in the process gets changed himself as well. Fiercely autobiographical, Gopalakrishnan based Kathapurushan on his own experiences. The film was shot in Medayil, the house where he was born and spent much of his childhood. His next film, Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill, 2002), explores the recesses of the human consciousness as an old hangman unable to withstand executing prisoners finds himself chained to the regimes of the unempathetic state machinery at work. It traverses the realm of empathy, where guilt and remorse are unavoidable companions. The poetic film also probes the concept of responsibility. Who is to blame when an innocent convict is given capital punishment? The legislators, the judiciary or the lone executioner at the end of the line?
The 2007 Naalu Pennungal (Four Women) is divided into a series of four stories revolving around four women without any direct connecting thread. Organically linked in its depiction of the conditions of women in a bygone era that have not changed for the better in the present, Gopalakrishnan creates an omnipresent cultural framework through the stories of a prostitute, a virgin, homemaker, and a spinster. In his next film, Oru Pennum Randaanum (A Climate For Crime, 2008), Gopalakrishnan adopts a similar narrative approach of regaling the viewers with four stories independent of each other. What connects them is the recurring theme of crime. Starting from simple, parable-like tales about ordinary people, the narrative slowly takes on questions of love, loyalty, and morality leading to complex issues of life. According to Gopalakrishnan, what differentiates this film from his previous works is that "here I have used dialogue predominantly to comment, endorse or simply report on the development of the plot to lend the story a narrative form akin to that of the epics where reportage plays a major role in making the experience larger-than-life."6
Oru Pennum Randaanum
The final film in the distinguished master's reverential oeuvre, Pinneyum (Once Again), came after a gap of nine years in 2016. It is inspired by a murder case from Kerala’s recent past involving a Gulf-employed man who killed and burnt a stranger in a hideous plot to fake his own death so as to claim insurance. As firmly rooted in the socio-cultural ethos of Kerala as all his films, Pinneyum is a universal and forceful cautionary tale that drives home its point with striking formal precision and narrative depth. Film scholar C.S. Venkiteswaran's remarks on the film reflect the director's cautionary message: "This is an unrepentant protagonist—a ‘normal,’ educated, middle-class, middle-caste youngster, who, driven by sheer greed, conspires, kills and impersonates to achieve a carefree,’ unencumbered life. He, in more ways than one, symbolizes a moral void that poses deeply unsettling questions to us about ‘progressive’ Kerala, ‘shining’ India, and the globalized world."7
Such has been the impact of Gopalakrishnan's feature films that they have often overshadowed his other creative works. Amongst his non-feature films, those on Kerala's performing arts are no less than magical. Even his prowess for the written word extends beyond screenwriting for films. All through his career, he has written several essays and articles on cinema that have been compiled into books. His collection of essays, Cinemayude Lokam (The World of Cinema) was given the National Award for the Best Book on Cinema in 1984. For a filmmaker of his stature and caliber, it is only inevitable that Gopalakrishnan would become the subject of many books in English as well as his native language of Malayalam. Besides Parthajit Baruah's aforementioned book on him, the life and work of the inimitable genius have been captured in three other notable books in English: Adoor Gopalakrishnan - A Life in Cinema by Gautaman Bhaskaran; The Films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan by Suranjan Ganguly; and A Door to Adoor by Lalit Mohan Joshi and C.S. Venkiteswaran.
It has been five years since the 80-year-old filmmaker's last film was released. For Gopalakrishnan, it takes a long time to settle on a subject or idea. Supplemented by his micromanagement approach, the gestation period for each film normally ranges from four to seven years. In a recent interview, he mentioned that he hasn't come across a worthwhile idea to make a new film. We can only hope that before the curtain falls, the master expands his exemplary body of work with one more cinematic gem for us all to savor and cherish endlessly.
1. Gopalakrishnan, Adoor. “One Hundred Years of Indian Cinema’s First Master.” Open Magazine 30 April, 2021.
2. Gopalakrishnan, Adoor. “Naalu Pennungal not complex like my other films: Adoor (Interview).” IANS 28 Dec., 2007.
3. National Film Development Corporation. Cinema in India. NFDC Publication, 2003.
4. Bhaskaran, Gautaman. “Girish Kasaravalli reflects on Adoor’s images in a new docu.” Hindustan Times 20 July. 2015.
5. Gopalakrishnan, Adoor. “A constant process of discovery: Interview with Adoor.” Frontline 7 Oct., 2005.
6. Bhaskaran, Gautaman. Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema. Penguin India, 2010.
7. Venkiteswaran, C.S. “The Boy And The Wall Clock.” Outlook India 5 Sept., 2016.


Notebook PrimerColumnsAdoor Gopalakrishnan
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