Adoor Gopalakrishnan or fondly called as Adoor is 80 years old today, but he is still as vibrant as he was at FTII (1962-1965). Adoor, a synthesis of modernity and tradition in approach, is a voice of humanity who believes in the Gandhian principle. His cinema speaks on contemporary life and contemporary issues. The themes of his cinema are culled from the evolutionary process of a changing Kerala and they evince a unifying and progressive spirit. His films, deeply rooted in the socio-cultural milieu of Kerala, speak of the universal human language and focus precisely on the culture of Kerala. He focuses on the individual to irradiate the intricacies of the greater community of the world.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan emerged as a staunch practitioner of alternative cinema in India. As one of the foremost filmmakers in world cinema, Adoor brought about a renaissance in the narrative technique of Indian cinema. He belongs to a transitional period and is not handcuffed to the ethos of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; rather he beholds, delves and mediates into the changes of time to give a new shape and colour to themes for universal appeal. He portrays the common man and his struggles and conflicts to find a footing in a world of political and social upheavals. The sense of belonging, of identity, of responsibility, the quest for selfhood, dreams and enchantments, the thirst and lust for power, identity crisis, spiritual progress and regression are some of the subjects that Adoor delineates in his films with utmost diligence. Adoor’s foremost concern is the capability of a man to stand up against adversity, sustain and survive in such a world and to maintain the human values and moralities despite all odds around him. Adoor has certain optimistic visions. In spite of the harsh and bleak world that Sita, the female protagonist in Swayamvaram, faces after her husband’s demise, she is not totally worn out, everything has not ended and even the inevitable roll to nature has not come to a standstill yet. Adoor has made the viewer aware that Sita can stand up against all adversities through the strength of her character.
The strength of his conviction is his forte and he never compromises with his principles and convictions with the marked trends of cinema. When Indian cinema was infected by cheap populist formulae Malayalam cinema being no exception. Adoor, committed to the cause of pure cinema, never yielded.He continued to voice the predicament and angst of human existence through his ventures.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan, a synonym to the creator of the broad aesthetics of world cinema, is always aware of the fact that change is inevitable. Nothing in this world is permanent. But through the timeless works of art, an artist can leave his achievements as classic examples of great creations for posterity. Since the time of India’s independence, Adoor has witnessed the post-independence scenario, the hopes and dreams of Indians at the time of independence, their disillusionment at the failures, split of the communist party, the changing attitudes of the communist party, the naxal uprising, economic crises, the emergency, entry of the small screen and digital technology. He is well aware and abreast of the changing tecnology. The change in the socio-economic and political sectors in Kerala has become a theme of his films. As a filmmaker he has encountered the threat of commercialism in cinema, but has never compromised with his creativity. He continues to draw pictures of the human being in the larger canvas of cinema for the world audience.
Adoor is born for good cinema and is committed towards giving it a meaning. Once he said to me, “Cinema is my profession and I treasure it. You do many things in your life. But cinema has given meaning to my life.” But he finds that some filmmakers have got trapped in the popular formula mould. Once, in an interview with Prem Panicker, Adoor said, “Movie-making has become a gamble, not a process of creation.” He has an untiring spirit and every time he ventures into cinema, he emerges with a new grammar. He deals with contemporary problems that have universal meaning. For him contemporary does not mean limited to a specific period, but the quality of timelessness when achieved , can make the film eternally modern and fresh. His cinema always talks a contemporary language that is not necessarily limited to technology. His cinema continues to speak on the unspeakable issues that a large number of the world viewers wait for in breathless anticipation, to explore into the unexplored zone. This is the master – Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
In his fifty-year journey across the creative and artistic world of cinema, Adoor's oeuvre is replete with eleven thought-provoking films that help him transcend the linguistic, cultural and geographic barriers of the world scenario. Adoor’s own stories visualised in his cinemtic creations such as Swayamvaram, Kodiyettam, Elippathayam, Mukhamukham, Anantaram, Kathapurusan, Nizhalkkuthu, Pinneyum are very original, inimitable, unmatched and unique. His adapted works are Mathilukal by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer,Vidheyan by Paul Zacharia , Naalu Pennungal and Oru Pennum Randaanum by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. Adoor evolved as a filmmaker during the seventies when Kerala experienced severe economic crisis and the Emergency (the darkest period in Indian history) with his seminal works, Swayamvaram(1972), Kodiyettam (1977), Elippathayam (1981), Mukhamukham (1984), Anantaram (1987), Mathilukal (1990),Vidheyan (1993), Kathapurusan (1995), Nizhalkkuthu (2002),Naalu Pennungal (2007), Oru Pennum Randaanum (2008) and Pinneyum.
Adoor’s debute film Swayamvaram, dealing with the choices in one’s life and its consequence thereafter, exposes the moral and spiritual crisis of the middle classes through the protagonist of the film, Viswanathan. His film Kodiyettamtalks of the metaphoric journey of Sankarankutty from his lack of responsibility to the realization of being a responsible part of society. Sankarankutty is the epitome of the common man in society who is innocent and good at heart but is not aware that he has a duty towards family and society. The epoch making film Elippathayam deals with the decline and decay of feudalism in Kerala through the claustrophobic air prevailing in the ancestral house of Unnikunju who is trapped within himself and is not able to realise the changes that are taking place around him.At the same time, the film shows metaphorically how the women are enmeshed within the web of the feudal system. Adoor Gopalakrishan’s Elippathayamgave him international reputation as he received the British Film Institute Award in 1982 that put him in the same category as world masters like R.W. Fassbinder, Alain Reiner and Bernardo Bertolucci. His film Mukhamukham is made with the backdrop of the socio-political scenario of Kerala. People venerate the image of a myth, but at the same time, reject the real human being – the original. Anantaram deals with the theme of perception through Ajayan who is an introvert and an extrovert alternatively. The film advances through a monologue by Ajayan on how he became what he is now. In the later part of the film, Ajayan tells another story about his life and both these stories are true and they complement each other. Mathilukal, a cherished love story, focuses on Basheer’s prison life in the pre-independence era. Confined within the walls of the jail, Basheer falls in love with Narayani , a woman who is on the other side of the high walls. They cannot see each other owing to the tall barrier but there develops a warm love affair. Vidheyan reveals the master-slave relationship through Bhaskara Patelar and Thommi in a South Karnataka setting. Kathapurushan documents the socio-political history of Kerala through the portrayal of the protagonist, Kunjunni. Nizhalkkuthu is about the question of justice and responsibility. It deals with capital punishment. Naalu Pennungal records a journey of womanhood from the forties to the sixties in Indian society narrating four different stories which are adapted from Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. It studies the positions of Indian women in a male-dominated social set-up by bringing the women characters in the stories from different sections of society. Oru Pennum Randaanum that has four separate stories unconnected with one another, speaks of four different crimes which take place in different contexts and social situations. The recurring theme of the film, which connects the four stories, is crime.His last film Pinneyum (2016) is about a man of Nair family who struggles to survive in the complex world.
London based film critic Derek Malcolm wrote to me that Adoor Gopalakrishnan is generally considered as the one Indian director able to take over the mantle of the great Satyajit Ray. His films come from as deep within the culture of Kerala as Ray's come from within Bengal. But, like Ray, his work easily transcends those boundaries and thus becomes international in appeal. He is as strict with himself as Ray, refusing any compromise for the sake of popularity, and his films not only have an acute sensibility but a force of expression that underlines the nature of what he wants to say.Few other directors combine cinematic skill with such a keen feeling for people, places and the social and political culture of the land he knows so well. We should cherish such a film-maker. He is a rare example of total integrity in an age where even some of the best directors play the game of compromise for the sake of gaining increased appeal.
Adoor may often be regarded as the heir to Satyajit Ray but what differentiates Adoor from Ray is his approach and representation of human problems by delving deep into the recesses of the human mind. Adoor’s stories are more complex, intricate and psycho-centric than Ray’s. If Ray is overt in dealing with sensuous scenes, Adoor is covert and delineates it with artistic resplendence. Adoor as an original creative filmmaker, never strays from the genuine representation of the subjects and his time-setting is never beyond the 1940s. What is noteworthy is the time that he steps into the world. The setting that he deals with always speaks of the Kerala tradition, history and its aesthetics. The themes do talk of a specific period and time; they present the artistic discourse that has perennial effect on the minds of the people. What Adoor experiences and observes in the world as a normal human being is the resource-material for his films. He made the ordinary day-to-day occurrences extraordinary through the power of his research, cinematic technique and creative imagination. One of the distinctive features of his films is that they are replete with autobiographical elements e.g., Adoor was a follower of Gandhi’s principle of non-violence and the Gandhian value of dignity of labour. His masterpiece, Nizhalkkuthu is a great drama and it deals with the outright negation of these values. Kaliyappan’s son, Muthu a faithful follower of Gandhi’s idealism whom we see spinning on the charkha, is forced by circumstances to accompany his father to execute a convict. Adoor’s entire family, and he himself as a child, completely broke down at the death of Gandhi.He picturized the situation in Kathapurushan. The breech birth of the child, Kunjunni, and the astrologer’s prediction of the future of the new-born child, are all source materials taken from his own life.
Adoor has been honoured with numerous prizes and the world recognizes him with gratitude for his contributions to the art of cinema. He was conferred with the Lifetime Achievement Award at Denver Film Festival (1996), New Jersey Film Festival, (2009) and Cairo International Film Festival (2009). Retrospective of his films have been held at some of the major festivals including Pesaro, Helsinki (1985), La Rochelle (1987), Nantes (1989), Munich (1992), New York (1994), Figuera da Fos, Portugal (1994), the Cinematheque in Paris (1995), Lincoln Centre, New York (1998), Smithsonian, Washington (2002) Ljubljana (Slovenia) (2009),Munich Film Museum (2010). Adoor was invited to various international film festivals as the president of the jury. He was the president of the jury at Alexandria Film Festival (Egypt, 1996), Fribourg International Film Festival, (2009), Cairo International Film Festival (2009), Dubai International Film Festival, (2010), Valladolid (Spain) International Film Festival (2011) and the International Film Festival of India, Goa, (2011).
Parthajit Baruah with Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Parthajit is a Guwahati based film scholar and the writer of: Face-to-Face The Cinema of Adoor Gopalakrishnan.