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July 31, 1997


The Movie Interview/Adoor Gopalakrishnan

'Hollywood films dubbed in Hindi are a threat... Language is part of culture, and it is under attack'

Adoor Gopalakrishnan Click for bigger pic!
My works are a little formalistic, and not very romantic... I put forth a proposition and evoke a response or an answer. That answer is dependent on the audience, its world-view and experience."

Adoor Gopalakrishnan, arguably the finest director we have, speaks to Rajeev Srinivasan about his films and the state of serious cinema in India.

You have made only eight films in 25 years, and all of them are masterful, controlled, fully realised and almost perfect. You take full creative control of your films, often writing the screenplays yourself, right? And you have an ensemble of regular collaborators, like your cinematographer, Ravi Varma.

I always write original screenplays. I do have a team that has worked with me for a long time. We have become quite used to each other, so it takes away a lot of bother. Ravi Varma..., my editor, sound editor and art director have all been with me for a long while.

Do you have a favourite among your films?

No, I don't. But always the latest film that I have made will stand out most in my mind. And I don't think my films are such that everyone will like any particular one. I put forth a proposition and evoke a response or an answer. That answer is dependent on the audience, its world-view and experience.

You have often been described as Satyajit Ray's spiritual heir, in that both make films of almost gem-like quality, personal portraits of individuals.

Ray used to like my work and I admire his. But I don't make films the way he does. He used to like my work because I didn't replicate his work. Ray is the high watermark for Indian cinema and you have to start from there and take off. My films are not very romantic, and are a little formalistic. They are tightly constructed in terms of form.

I have been very conscious about form and I have been experimenting constantly. I think it is a disadvantage to be in the Ray mold, although that is a valid point of reference; but it can also limit your perspective.

Who has influenced you among Indian and foreign film-makers?

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I have studied cinema in the formal and academic way. It is difficult to say who influenced me. And the term influence is wrong, more than that I have been inspired by them. In the Indian context, Ray and Ghatak are the two masters we necessarily studied. Naturally, you don't imitate them but you have them before you as big figures who have interpreted your culture. Then you also need to grow out of it all.

In your career, you seem to have moved from neo-realism to a rather more complex, polemical, political stance in your last few films. Swayamvaram and Kodiyettam were classic neo-realist films, but Mukhamukham and Kathapurushan are infused with politics.

I don't agree that they were neo-realist films. Swayamvaram (Of One's Own Choice) was a beginner's work and an exploration in many different directions.

Kodiyettam (The Flag-hoisting) is of a very different genre. I wanted to make a film that did not look like its characters and situations have been manipulated from outside. It was given an episodic structure. Even though it looks simple, it has a complex interior. Those subtle yet certain attributes of the temple festival grow on the two main characters.

The fireworks that mark the climaxing of the festivities merge with the emotional outburst of their reunion. It is particularly notable that I haven't used a background score in the entire film. Kodiyettam may perhaps be the first Indian film to do so ever since sound came to cinema.

Elipathayam (The Rat Trap) is even more tightly controlled and regulated. It is a detailed study of a character at many levels -- psychological, physical, social, even genetic, based on his roots. I gave primary colours to the characters' clothes and a predominant gray to the background. The music was also much more than a mere background score; it was employed as a significant constituent of the film in its thematic development.

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In Mukhamukham (Face to Face), the character only takes on life through the memories of people. The dramatic structure is not built on flashbacks but as one built upward as the image of the man comes alive through what they remember.

Isn't this a common story, the man, presumed dead, returning? For example, the Gerard Depardieu film, The Return of Martin Guerre?

Ah, the difference here is that it is not the story of a dead man returning. The second half is a mere possibility developed on the basis of what we come to learn of the man in the first half. He used to drink surreptitiously to kill his stomach ache; this is developed into alcoholism when he returns. He used to burn letters after he read them. It is developed into a possibility of connections with a secret group. His wife is suspicious -- this could be another woman; so she tries to piece together and read a torn letter.

Those who knew him did so from different distances and relationships: his son, his wife, the father-in-law, the tea-maker, the comrade. Time has passed, and in the meantime, the Marxist movement also undergone a change like any other party. The former Marxist leader, who returns, has become inconvenient for all the political factions, because he doesn't side with any of them. Everyone wants to use him, use the image, for their own selfish interests.

Anantaram shows a significant element of fantasy, doesn't it?

Anantaram (Monologue) is completely different: a story about storytelling. It is about the very process of creation: in three levels, experiences, recollection and the arrangement of the experience. What we recall is selective: it is based upon what we wish to project. In the first half, the protagonist suggests he is too brilliant for a mediocre society; therefore he had to withdraw. That is the first story; then he suggests there is more to what he said.

He starts all over again. He says he grew up in the midst of lies, thinking them to be truth. As he grew up he could hardly make a distinction between fantasy and truth: Both the stories are true and even the two together is true. There is nothing like objective reality. Reality is subjective and the individual perceptions of the real are ever-changing and growing.

"My views are reflected in my films"