At a preview auditorium in Bombay, circa 1981, films made by significant directors from Kerala, were being screened. Came the turn of ‘Thampu’ (The Circus Tent). Black and white images of a circus troupe were drifting into a sleepy village. Was it going to be another dreary documentary with a touch of fiction? The question couldn’t have been more misplaced.
As ‘Thampu’ unspooled, it jolted me by both its assured technique and its narration of a real and elegiac story about the reaction of the inhabitants of a village to a circus which enters their lives briefly and leaves. It was a marvel, a masterwork.
Born in Kottayam, G. Aravindan (1935-1991) had already made ‘Uttarayanam’ (Throne of Capricorn) and ‘Kanchana Sita’ (The Golden Sita) earlier. After ‘Thampu’, followed ‘Kummatty’ (The Bogeyman) and ‘Esthappan’. All the five films were achieved on budgets tied with a shoestring and fetched an armful of national and state awards, plus international recognition.
To all appearances, a laidback sort, Aravindan would speak only when spoken to. His beard and thick rings of hair, appeared to have been cultivated to hide from the glare. I had caught up with him in New Delhi . It was over rum and soda that we spoke with a small stritcure that nothing would be asked about his everyday 9 to 5 job. He was working for the government as an officer with the Rubber Board of Kerala. Besides being a film director, he was a painter, cartoonist, musician and a theatre personality.
Here’s rekindling, then, excerpts from the interview which I have cherished forever:
When did your interests in the arts begin, and in which form specifically?
From what I remember it was with painting. During school holidays, a couple of friends and I used to travel around the rural landscape with paper and paints.My father was a government officer, my ambition was to become a doctor then.
Next I turned to cartoons. The first one was published in a magazine when I was at school. It was about a dentist and his patient, slightly humorous, quite silly. My father would never ask me about studies, he didn’t even know which class I was in. He would give me syndicated cartoon strips, so I enjoyed a lot of Blondie, Donald Duck, Sad Sack, and Punch magazines. People used to blame my father for giving me so much freedom. In retrospect, I think it was necessary, otherwise I would have rebelled. Some of my friends who had strict fathers, went astray. As soon as they landed in hostels, they went wild and became heavy drinkers.
What kind of films were you exposed to?
There was a stadium near our house which was used as an open-air cinema. Since my father had been a muncipal councillor once, I could get in free and saw a Tamil film, ‘Jagathalaprathapan’, 52 times. It featured the fine actor P. Chinnappa. He portrayed a concert percussionist. I was fascinated by the music and the rich visual imagery.
In 1951, I was also struck by the Malyalalam film ‘Nalu Logam’, which was quite neo-realistic in spirit and dealt with a trade union movement in a down-to-earth style. I never used cinema to escape from the conditions around me, it was more to learn from them.I went on to study botany since I couldn’t get admission into a medical college at Trivandrum. Every Sunday morning, I’d see English language films and especially remember ‘Gaslight’, ‘All That Flesh’ and ‘Viva Zapata’.
The first International Film Festival was hosted in Delhi in 1952. I was immediately struck by De Sica’s ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ and Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’. Kurosawa’s films are the closest to our situation. He uses classical and folk traditions always which is quite similar to what the best artists do in India.
Is it possible to use these traditions in our theatre today? What has been your experience with the Thiruvarang group which you were a part of?
It has been our conscious effort to present and preserve our traditions. That’s why we have done many classical plays in Sanskrit. Theatre, like cinema, in India is still evolving. Western influences and commercial theatre practices only serve in slackening its course. There is far too much stress on modern technique, lighting and sound effects. This was not so earlier. The corruption came more than a century ago and now we’re back to searching for our roots.
How did your first film Uttaranayam come about?
‘Uttaranayam’ was a sheer accident. A group of us – actors, writers and artists – had started a film society. One of the writers suggested that we should make a film. He was well-to-do and said he could get the money from his family.
Thikodian and I wrote the script and completed the film in Rs. 1.70 lakhs. We had stage actors, two or three were from films, but the main actor was a newcomer, a doctor in fact! Non-professionals have no preconceieved notions, they are more natural and genuine.
The freedom movement in which Thikodian had been involved, along with Jayaprakash Narayan, was narrated in a flashback. The central character is a young man and the freedom struggle forms a part of his heritage. We tried to say that a revolutionary or an ascetic or a sanyasi in our conditions are essentially the same. The film ends in a predicament – should the youth become a recluse or shoud he join the mainstream? It’s not a question of making a compromise, that’s not possible, he has to make a choice. Most of us, of course, prefer drowning in the mainstream.
There were problems of execution. My only knowledge of the craft was academic through British and American textbooks. If I were to make ‘Uttaranayam’ again, its structure would be very different. The flashback which comes across as a separate narrative would be much shorter.
But in terms of statement, the film wouldn’t change. Do you find common beliefs running through your work. Any similar ideas?
I find in them a belief in things beyond our reason. We tend to judge life with the help of our five senses. The man who said electricity could be drawn from water was considered a lunatic. It’s necessary to look beyond. My work doesn’t say this loudly or openly but the elements of this belief are always there, perhaps subconsciously.
The tension between reason and what is beyond, explain your choice of the Ramayana for your next films. How was it received?
‘Kanchana Sita’ is based on a play derived from a portion of the epic. In our context, the Ramayana has become a part of reality. Though there are claims that Rama was seen in a southern part of India or in Madhya Pradesh on the same day at the same hour…we believe in these claims totally and celebrate on those days.
There is no rationale behind these festivals but they are observed with such faith and vibrancy that they can never be questioned.
The film starts with Rama returning from the forest without killing the Shudra. At this stage, he thinks of Sita. I faced plenty of criticism claiming that I had made the epic obscure. Others said I was anti-religion and blasphemous. Some of the criticism hurt since it came from filmmakers and writers I respect.
I can never expect to be an atheist though I can’t say I believe in a God sitting in heaven. Concretely, I believe in supernatural powers, in the mystical – these phenomena are very real.
Have you experienced any?
No, that would destroy the feeling. All I can say is that there is a sixth sense. I can experience events which will happen at a later time.
Thampu is drawn from everyday events and in realistic. What was its inspiration?
It started from a small script, four to five largely improvised pages. I had written an article with drawings of circus people for a weekly magazine. I had interviewed them in Calicut and Tellicherri where 95 per cent of the country’s circus artistes come from. Their outlook to life is uncertain. Whatever they earn they spend the same night. They are nomadic, insecure, reconciled to their situation. If they get another job, they leave.
The circus artistes are only one aspect of Thampu. Once the circus comes to the village, the people react differently and the event is connected to their lives – either momentarily or permanently. A rich man’s son leaves with the troupe. It’s possible that he may become a performing clown and it’s equally possible that he may return and take over his father’s factory. A lot of young people who are alienated from their families, move towards this search.
We were extremely lucky that the village where we shot had never seen a circus or a film unit before. Their reactions were spontaneous. They were so amazed by the show, especially the children, that we had no trouble in filming their facial expressions right from the ring. There were no hidden cameras, that would have been cheating. I could have made Thampu in colour but used black-and-white for a more authentic look.
Did your success with documenting the moods of the children have anything to do with your taking up of a children’s film subsequently?
There is a section which believes that I’m a pseudo-intellectual. They said ‘Kummatty’, my children’s film, moved very far away from reality. Fortunately, I have a producer who believes in me and all my films. This is the only one which couldn’t reach its intended audience. It was released only for noon shows and many kids couldn’t see it. The children who saw it, including my own son, liked it.
My idea was to go all out for fantasy: the idea that kids could become animals if they wished, and it was something natural and automatic. Children enjoy acting as much as the filmmaker enjoys watching them do their own thing. I didn’t have to cajole them to give the right responses. I could communicate with them without talking too much. It’s important to never let them think you’re superior, that makes them nervous and embarrassed.
Esthappan, so far, is your most complex and richly-textured work. Would you agree that it is also the closest to your belief in a power beyond reason?
Yes because I have seen people behave irrrationally. There are many conflicting stories about ‘Esthappan’, who lives in a Catholic fishing village. Is he a rogue? Or is he a saint? The stories are posed for the viewer to contemplate, reflect upon and make his or her own assessment, No judgement is passed. I tried to be as objective as I could be about the character.
We didn’t do much planning for the film, the script was written within a week. It was based on many real-life incidents my friends know or had heard about. The starting point was a Sacristean priest whom my friend K.N.Panicker, the noted playwright-musician–poet knew well. The priest was behaving oddly which appeared to be conditioned by the odd milieu he was living in.
The incident where Esthappan drinks an entire bottle of whisky is adapted from a personal experience. I was at a friend’s house, when someone known to the family since years, dropped by. He said, “I am very hungry. Give me something to eat and drink.” My friend’s mother said she only had a big jar of pickles. He finished the pungent stuff at one sitting. After that he had the whisky and a cigarette, which he finished in one drag.
Some events were invented of course. Others had to be left out – a conductor had refused to allow a man aboard one day. The man started cursing and said the bus wouldn’t start without him and it happened.
The part where Esthappan changes pebbles into sweet – such feats are often performed by godmen. Couldn’t this just be a sleight of hand?
I don’t believe in miracles, no, but I also believe that they are possible. ‘Esthappan’ is not a modern Christ or Sufi saint as some people have interpreted. He’s ordinary, like you and me. That long walk he takes towards the end – I wanted to show him dwarfed by the landscape. He is surrounded by the soil, water and sky, he is just another element.
In Esthappan as well as Thampu, there is sometimes a gauche criticism against the prevailing social structure. The rich are caricatured as beer-swilling, luxury-loving types. This was a flaw, I felt.
That wasn’t done to be socially relevant as such. The rich and the poor exist and that divide has to be delineated. In ‘Esthappan’, the rich man is an exploiter, he uses the workers for high-capital gains and this point had to be conveyed. If I showed that his son had gone abroad and had returned with a foreigner wife, who go on a picnic and in a boat and converse vacuously with their friends, it’s because I’m critical about how the upper class lives.
It’s not a generalised statement against the rich though. In ‘Thampu’, I sympathise with the upper class. Often they lead a sad, meaningless and isolated existence. Money doesn’t buy happiness beyond a point, it buys an internal discontent.
This we see around us every minute and I want to show this without any pretensions of social commitment. It’s enough to be committed to one’s medium of expression. That is more than one can expect from an artist. I think art must be appreciated unconditionally. Cinema,like painting or music, is best when it is pure and serves an aesthetic function. I work with this thought but I don’t know how successful I am.
Does cinema give as much aesthetic pleasure as painting or music. Doesn’t making a film also entail compromises in terms of what the audience will understand?
It’s there but I don’t let it intrude. Cinema gives me as much pleasure as the other art forms. In fact, I want to make my new film by elaborating on lalit, a Hindustani raga and edit it according to the metre. It’s a love story which involves a college student, a girl and a sportsman. The student is so intense in his feelings about the girl that in the end, he becomes mentally imbalanced. The visuals will move in rhythm with the music. Like life does every day.
Postscript: That film was the unforgettably ravishing Pokkuveyil (The Twilight, 1981) photographed by Shaji N. Karun.
Aravindan went on to make a clutch of short films, documentaries and the TV film Marratam (Masquerade, 1988). Apart from these, there were his feature films Chidambaram (1985), Oridathu (At A Place, 1986), Unni (1989), and the posthumously released Vasthuhara (The Dispossessed). Among his honours were seven National Awards either for Best Film or Best Director. Following a heart seizure he passed away in 1991 at the age of 56.
Khalid Mohamed is a well known film critic, screenwriter and film director.