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Nov 2000


Renowned Malayali director visits Auroville:

An Adoor Gopalakrishnan film festival

by Bindu

Aurofilm recently hosted a film festival featuring Adoor Gopalakrishnan's work. At the invitation of Aurofilm, the internationally renowned director from Kerala himself came to Auroville for a couple of days to present his work.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan is arguably one of India's finest film-makers. Often compared to legendary film-maker Satyajit Ray, Gopalakrishnan is realistic in his style. But perhaps even more so than Ray, Gopalakrishnan imbues his films with a deep symbolism. He has scripted and directed eight feature films in all and more than two dozen shorts and documentaries. Seven of his eight feature films have bagged prestigious national and international awards, including the highly coveted British Film Institute Award. In 1983 the Government of India conferred on him the Padmashri, one of India's highest honours, for his outstanding contribution to Indian cinema.

His work

After the success of his first film "Swayamvaram" in 1972, Gopalakrishnan along with other film-makers launched an alternative movement through a network of film societies and theatre owners to promote art or non-commercial films in Kerala. Today, Kerala has established a benchmark in India for producing meaningful and realistic cinema as opposed to the standard "Bollywood" fare and non-realistic song-and-dance routines churned out by commercial film-makers.

At a sprightly 59 years, Gopalakrishnan is soft-spoken and unassuming by nature, but uncompromising in his work. In an earlier interview about his films he said, "I like to challenge my audience, provoke them into thought and give them an experience to remember. Every time I make a film, I ask myself why anyone should want to see it. But I don't make compromises, concessions. I want the viewers to see my work on my terms. I don't want them leaving the theatre saying 'I've seen it before, I knew what he was going to say.' For them as for me, the film has to be a constant process of exciting discovery and enquiry." Gopalakrishnan does not like his works to be called "experimental", claiming that he makes films for the lay public and not for critics. Nevertheless his treatment of themes is unusual and perhaps sometimes too complex to be grasped by the audience.

The film festival

"Mukhamukam" (Face to face), one of the films screened at the festival, is an example of where the director's intentions are not always clearly communicated to the audience. Mirroring the fortunes and debacles of the Communist Party of Kerala, the film depicts Sridharan, a small town revolutionary, who successfully unites industrial labourers to fight for their rights. Eventually, in Sridharan's absence, some of the leaders of this labour union form the ruling political party. In the second-half of the film, one sees Sridharan, who had gone into hiding for ten years return to his town. However, he is no longer the torch-bearer for society who had once been a source of inspiration to many. He returns as drunkard and a wastrel. Says Gopalakrishnan, "Sridharan is in fact a projection of the people's own selves and thus an inconvenient and embarrassing revelation. Unable to face the reality and the human weaknesses of their hero, someone eventually kills Sridharan, and the film ends with the whole society resurrecting an untarnished image of the man.

One of the themes that Gopalakrishnan explores in this film is how, over time, people mould reality to suit their perceptions. What is interesting but is often missed by film-goers, is that in the first half of the film one does not to get to see Sridharan as he actually is. One sees Sridharan through the selective memories of other characters. Also in his desire to show "a society in crisis," Gopalakrishnan eschews a narrative plot and the individual nuances of a character. But many in the Auroville audience bemoaned the loss of details in the story and the flatness of the characters.

The other two feature films in the festival, "Elippathayam" (The Rat-trap) and "Kathapurushan" (The Man of the Story) were better received in Auroville. "Kathapurushan" too depicts the fate of an individual, Kunjunni, caught in meshes of Kerala society, but unlike many of Gopalakrishnan's protagonists, Kunjunni has the moral courage to face the reality of his life and to transcend it through his creative urge as a writer.

"Elippathayam," made in 1981, is Gopalakrishnan's first colour film, and almost the entire film is a sequence of beautifully framed shots of rural life in Kerala. Colour is used sparingly and mainly as a symbol to depict the nature of a character. On the whole, the film is highly imaginative and, one must add, relentless in its portrayal of the protagonist, the last heir of a disintegrating feudal order, as a rat caught in a trap. Gopalakrishnan explained that change always occurs, whether one consciously makes a choice or is a victim of others' choices. The Auroville audience found the pace of the movie inexorably slow, but the director held that the subject, the imperturbability of a rural setting, and in this case the lazy lifestyle of a landlord, did not lend itself to fast cuts.

In response to a question from the audience as to why he does not choose his themes from modern life-styles, Gopalakrishnan, borrowing a metaphor from photography, answered that he does not yet "have the focal distance" to be able to view contemporary life in proper perspective. He added that the emotions he depicted in his films were universally experienced, even though his stories were set in a Kerala of forty years ago. When asked about the relevance of screening his films in a forward-looking society like that of Auroville, Gopalakrishnan answered with a smile that while ideals were good and necessary for a society, it was important that people had the sincerity to face and accept the reality of their lives and not live in a comforting illusion buffered by their ideals.

The film festival also screened several of Gopalakrishnan's documentaries which gave the Western section of the Auroville audience a chance to taste the culture of South India-the rich and highly stylized theatre and dance forms of Kerala and the awesome temples built by the Chola dynasty.

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