'What can you possibly want to ask me that you haven't before?' Adoor Gopalakrishnan responds, when I telephone him at the Mayflower Hotel, in New York City, asking for an interview.
He remembers an interview I had done, some seven-plus years ago, for The Sunday Observer; remembers, too, that he has been featured in extensive interviews twice on rediff.com.
I overrule his protest, promise to find subjects we haven't talked about before and, at his invitation, land up in his hotel room.
It is small, as hotel rooms go; and cramped with two beds, a chair and table and assorted bits of luggage. "I am used to hotel rooms," he says. "My latest film has been shown at 15 film festivals since September 2002, when it was previewed in Venice, and since I produced this film, I have had to go to every single one of them."
He has lived out of his suitcase for the duration; yet he looks fresh, his face is unlined, his walk is brisk, his demeanour and appearance both belie his 62 years.
His itinerary in the United States is taxing; he was the subject of a lifetime retrospective of his works under the aegis of the famed Smithsonian Institute, with the Kerala Association of Greater Washington as co-sponsors. His films ran on successive weekends, two at a time, starting March 7 at the Meyer Auditorium, Freer Gallery of Art.
He then travelled to New York, where the Metropolitan Museum of Art was keen to show at least four of his films, if not a full-fledged retrospective. For four successive days in the first week of May, thus, he has been attending screenings, doing question-and-answer sessions, then heading back to his hotel room for a rest.
On May 5, a day after our meeting, he is scheduled to go to Cleveland, Ohio, for more screenings; from thence to Houston, Texas, for still more of the same.
He perches himself on a corner of the bed and talks in that trademark soft voice you have to strain to hear. Excerpts:
It is 31 years now since you made your first film; you have only nine films to show for all these years
I don't think of it as 'only' nine films. Anyway, I don't have to satisfy anyone with numbers; I prefer to work this way.
And that is how?
Typically, my films tend to go to various film festivals; so for close to a year after I make a film, I find myself running around from country to country. It is only after all this that I can finally put the latest film out of my mind; find some inner space; find the time to start thinking, even in a vague fashion, about what I want to do next.
Once I decide, I take time to do my research, to firm up my ideas, to script it, revise, look for locations, begin shooting -- with one thing and another, I take a lot of time to make each film. And I am comfortable with that; that is how I prefer to work.
Even by your standards, though, this latest interval has been pronounced -- you released Kathapurushan in 1995; your latest film Nizhalkuthu came out only in 2002.
It is that kind of subject; researching it took me longer than usual and I didn't want to start shooting till I was entirely satisfied.
Where did the idea come from?
Ideas for me don't come from any one place; you hear things, read about things, observe things and file them away in your mind and, at some point, various things come together.
When I was working on Mathilukal, some time in 1989, I first began thinking of making a film on crime and punishment. Much later, I saw a small interview, in the Malayala Manorama, with a hangman; the last hangman in India.
I cut that interview out and saved it in my file; then, at some point, the whole thing began to come together in my mind.
Your movies have always been about issues, subjects; Nizhalkuthu however focuses on the person, the hangman. Is that a deliberate departure from your norm?
Not at all -- even Nizhalkuthu is about issues; maybe it is that the character is so vivid, and so well acted, that it looms large before you and obscures what lies beneath.
I wanted to make a film about crime and punishment, like I said; but as, I worked on it, it became more [than that]. I would say that, as I made it, the film is about individual and collective responsibility; about sin and redemption; about freedoms, both real and perceived. It is also about my land, Kerala; about me, and the people around me; it is to an extent about my personal frustration as a human being.
Do you, when making a film, ever think about its relevance to the audience of the time?
Not in the sense that when working on my story I tell myself, this is my audience and this is how it should be relevant, no.
If the issues are valid, if your thought is valid and the reasoning behind your story sound, then it will automatically be relevant.
Let's examine that for a bit. From the beginning, you eschewed the commercial matrix; you made your films based on issues, on values. Such filmmakers hope to discomfit audiences, shake them from their comfort zone, provoke thought; they hope thought will in turn provoke action. Has that happened? Have your films triggered social change? If not, does this display of apathy, for want of a better word, get frustrating?
A film is made in its time, but not for its time. A good film, I believe, will last far longer than the lifespan of its maker; I believe also that like good works of literature or art, the impact of a good film is cumulative over the generations, it takes a long time for that impact to be felt and for it to translate into results.
In any case, I don't make films on everyday, ordinary problems, I don't have the energy to invest in such films; I prefer to focus on larger issues. The idea of making films is to influence thought. Awareness of an issue is the beginning; such a film should disturb you, it should make you ask questions of yourself and of society -- and questioning is the first, small, step towards change.
To digress; for seven months after its release, I couldn't get to see Nizhalkuthu, in India. Within two weeks of coming here to New York, I got to see the film -- this week alone there are three screenings here. Isn't it a bit sad, that a film of relevance to Indians -- far more so than to the audiences at all these film festivals -- never get to be seen by Indians themselves?
That is a problem with our film structure in India, definitely. As far as Nizhalkuthu is concerned, though, it will definitely be released in India.
In fact, it would have been released before now, but since September, when the film was previewed at Venus, it has been going to one festival after another -- Toronto, London, Rotterdam, Rome, Bhusan some 15 festivals so far.
Normally, I don't always attend, but I produced this film so I had to attend. I haven't had the time therefore to talk to distributors in India and fix things up; I have to do that once I am through here and go back home.
A commercial release?
Yes, in mainstream theatres. The good thing is that in most big cities now you have multiplexes; it is possible therefore to release films like mine in theatres with smaller capacities, and that makes it economical.
To get back to Nizhalkuthu -- this film seems a lot more stylised than your earlier works; with names like Ilayaraja for music, with much care given to cinematography, with tighter editing and crisper pacing than some of your earlier works. At the same time, the raw energy of your early films, like Swayamvaram and Kodiyettam, seems to be missing
Swayamvaram was a beginner's film, an experiment, and it was 30 years ago; in those 30 years I have lived a lot, learnt a lot, and all of that will reflect in the way I make films today. If you do the same things in the same ways, then what is the point? When I make films, I keep looking for new things to say, new ways to say them in. I don't want to get bored with the films I make and the way I make them; I think, if making it doesn't excite me, then why would the audience be excited to see it?
In your latest film, you focus on responsibility -- that of the state and that of the individual. That part comes across very clearly. What is not clear, though, is the bit about the son. You show him as a Gandhian, a participant in the freedom struggle who, among other things, is opposed to his father's trade and to capital punishment. And yet, he accompanies his father to the jail for the hanging that is the climax of the film
That is exactly the point. He is fighting for freedom, he is part of the whole Gandhian movement. But what exactly is freedom? Freedom from whom, and to do what?
Examine his story: His father is a hangman; his father gets land, and other largesse, from the state. The son is against all this, yet he is dependant on his father's lands and his income. In the end, he has a choice -- to assume his father's role, or to starve.
Is that a choice? Freedom means, really, the power to chose. Does the son have it? The larger issue is, we have fought for, and got, our freedom, or independence. But is it real freedom? Are we really free? These are the questions I hope the audience ends up asking itself.
Freedom means a lot to you, doesn't it? So much so that, sooner or later, you fall foul of official bodies? You quit the Kerala State Film Academy you were picked to head, for instance
I don't believe in compromise. When I took over the Academy, I wanted to do new things. We organised a festival, we tried to bring in some innovations. But the minister concerned, Karthikeyan, thought he knew better than me; he kept overruling me or suggesting other things I didn't think would work. So I quit.
And refused to let Nizhalkuthu be considered for awards
Yes. Because the minister was putting his own spin on my quitting; he tried to make it seem I was interested in an award. I don't need to be, I have won every award there is in India, but that was the impression he gave.
So, I sent an official letter to the state academy saying I did not want my film to be considered for story, direction or best film, since, as producer and director, those awards would come to me personally.
But a lot of people put a lot of hard work into that film, I did not want to deprive all of them of a chance -- so the film participated in all categories that did not have to do directly with me. And the funny thing is, it won all those awards -- sound, music, editing, costume, acting it won everything.
You were part of the Sivaram Karanth committee that conceptualised and created, the National Film Development Corporation. It was supposed to promote good cinema in the country -- do you think your objective was met?
Not all of it, no. The idea behind the creation of the NFDC was that it would fund deserving filmmakers; also that it would set up smaller theatres across the country where good films could be shown.
Somewhere along the way, though, the government changed its policy. Filmmakers were told they had to find their own funds; the idea of setting up small theatres was abandoned.
It has done much -- for instance, we now have an international film festival, we have a national film institute, we have film archives, the national awards; all this was part of our original manifesto and all this has been done.
I think where it failed, really, was in a key area -- the NFDC, or Films Division as it is today, does not do enough to make sure good cinema reaches the audience. And that is the single biggest thing hurting the growth of good cinema as a movement in India -- without audiences seeing such films, without their feedback and without their backing, there can be no growth.
Also, though we have done so much, the tragedy is we could do so much more. For instance, take the international film festival we organise -- it has now become an 'official' festival in the sense that government bureaucrats run it; but what do they know of film? We spend a lot of money to organise that festival, but the films we get don't reflect the money we spend. So the festival remains small on an international scale, when, with the same expenditure, it could be one of the biggest in the world.
All this relates to the cinema movement; how about individual films? There was a time in the sixties and seventies when people like you, the late Aravindan, Bakker, John Abraham and many others pioneered a path towards quality cinema. In recent times, the number of such filmmakers appears to have thinned out. Do you see that as a failure, an inability to inspire others to follow you?
Well, in a sense, we had a problem. They called our films 'art'; which was not bad in itself. The trouble was that they labelled everything that was not mainstream as 'art' -- in the process, our work got clubbed with a lot of frankly unwatchable films. All this created a situation where people rejected everything with the label. So, in a sense, the movement did not snowball, as we would have liked it to.
It is not true, though, to say it is dead or dying; it is not true that there are no young filmmakers in the country today making good films. There are, many of them, very talented ones. I don't want to name names, but I think, overall, the movement towards good cinema is still alive and well.
Then why not name the filmmakers, let people know about them?
Because these people are young, they have made just one film or two and that is not how you judge. Based on the many new filmmakers and their films, I will say the movement is alive; but if you ask me to name individuals, I will say you should never judge such filmmakers individually on the strength of just one film or two. It takes a lifetime to create a body of work that is recognisable, that has a personal stamp and can be assessed and judged.
What of commercial cinema? Why is that in the doldrums?
Many factors; more, in fact, than I can mention in the course of a short interview. For one thing, moviemaking has become a gamble, not a process of creation. Producers and directors have begun to think big is better -- big star casts, enormous budgets, etc. But the bottom line is, it is not how much you spend or how big something is, the audience is only worried about how good it is.
Television has had a definite impact, not because television programming is good but because it is so easy to access. Television borrows from films and competes with films; the audience for films has therefore diminished. When you take that in tandem with the fact that movies are becoming costlier, it means you are spending a lot of money on producing something, but less and less people are buying tickets to see it.
Among other things, television has caused the decline of the middle class movie-going audience; cable keeps them at home. To a filmmaker, the middle class is the biggest audience and it is diminishing today.
At another level, when the middle class was your biggest audience, films were made for them, they catered to middle class sensibilities. Today, the audience has changed; the films being made for them reflect that erosion in quality.
The latest trend seems to be towards what is labelled the 'crossover' film -- Monsoon Wedding, Bend it like Beckham and the like. What is your take on the genre?
Right now, it looks good; like the rest of Indian commercial cinema, it is technically very good. I think though that it is thematically limited -- the focus is on the Indian in an alien environment. Add to this the fact that filmmakers of this type won't find it in their interests to show the dark side of the immigrant experience -- that limits the scope even further. The focus is on superficial, easily acceptable stories -- which is good for now since the trend is just beginning. But I think saturation will come quickly; it won't last as a movement.
To go back to your work, in between your full-length features, you have made, what, 20 documentaries
Closer to 30, actually.
Okay, 30. Including one on the famous Kathakali exponent Kalamandalam Gopi, and on Kodiyattam (the Keralite temple dance form) between your last film, Kathapurushan, and this one. As a creative filmmaker, don't you find the documentary, with its rigid adherence to facts and reality, limiting?
On the contrary, I love it; I find it very energising. Fiction to mean anything has to be rooted in life and should relate to life. So, when I make a documentary, it involves enormous amount of research. While doing that I learn a lot; it helps me grow both as a person and as a filmmaker.
Also, don't make the mistake of seeing the documentary as a superficial form; it is not like the news clips on television When you do subjects like Kathakali, or Kodiyattam, or Yakshagana, all of which I have done, there is an external reality embodied in the performers and performances and the art form itself, and a deeper, internal reality that goes beyond the superficial.
This is the interesting part of documentaries -- to delve into the subject, to then compress it all and yet to convey the vastness, the scope, the two realities. For me, working on documentaries is a way of re-energising myself; of putting my last film behind me and tuning myself to make my next one.
Finally, you spoke earlier of living on the festival circuit with Nizhalkuthu since September. You are still caught up in the whirl; from here you go to Cleveland, then Houston before you can call it a day. Does the grind bore you?Actually, no; it is, in fact, good for me. At each festival, the film plays to a different audience, with different sensibilities; the audiences react in different ways and in their reactions, in their questions and comments and what they take out of your film, there is so much to learn. Actually, I find it very energising, very fruitful. If I didn't, I wouldn't even go.