Ace filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan turns eighty on 3 July. Independent journalist and media researcher Arvind Das speaks with him about his creative process, the future of cinema, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on films and his relationship with the filmmakers Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Gopalakrishnan says he cannot wait for the pandemic to end so that audiences return to see films the way they are meant to be watched: on a big screen and as a collective. Edited excerpts from a phone interview.
From Swayamvaram in 1972 to Sukhayantam in 2019, it has been such a long journey from your days at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in the early sixties. Now, at eighty, how do you reflect upon your life in cinema?
Normally, I don’t look back, because it took me seven years to make my first film and then there was an interval again. In fact, there have been long intervals in my film career. My professional career started in 1965 and I made twelve films in these 55 years. It takes me a long time to settle on a subject. I was not a part of the so-called [film] industry. When I was making a film I was an insider and when I was not making a film I was an outsider.
People ask me why I made very few films. Many in the industry made fifty or sixty films in that period. Once Satyajit Ray asked me, (he used to like my work) why don’t you make at least one film every year? I told him it was my dream too, but because of the way I work, proceed with my idea and script, I cannot. Before I make a film and even after it is made, it lingers on with me. It takes me time to come out of the influence of an idea. So, it takes a long time to work on an idea and get out of it also. I often joke, most of the time I am not making films [laughs].
So, the gestation period for each film is almost five years?
Yes. Even seven or eight years. But it is not intentional. Those who ask me why I made so few films, I ask them, how do you manage to make so many films! Because you are working in an industry where everything is against you. It is [what they call] variety entertainment kind of cinema. And then, here is something that is very austere, which I think is very important for my audience to watch. It talks about their life, my life, the society. It is very difficult in that sense.
Fortunately, I had a fairly good audience. My films were released in regular cinemas and never rejected. My films were released and given the same publicity as other big productions. I was very particular about that. It has been very important for me. I had good audiences outside Kerala and even outside India. This gave me enough confidence to carry on. And I was lucky, in that sense. I made no compromise in any of my films. This I can tell you very clearly: I never make a film just to please my audience or producer. As a filmmaker, I have complete control over what I do. For me, to be happy about what I do is important. I have no regrets. Every film has been very dear to me.
What kind of relationship did you share with other noted filmmakers, such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, who had started making films in the decade before your first film?
Satyajit Ray was like a guru. He always said good things about my work. He was very kind. I did not have a personal relationship with Ritwik Ghatak, but he was my teacher. I learned a lot from him. He was a remarkable filmmaker. Because of him, I read a lot about films at the FTII. Mrinal Sen was like my elder brother. I had a very warm and close relationship with Ray and Sen. I had these three great masters of Indian cinema before me. I consider myself lucky.
Which one of these masters’ movies do you like the most?
Ray’s Apu Trilogy. I have a special liking for Aparajito, Mrinal Sen’s Ek Din Pratidin and Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara. These are my favourite films.
You wrote in the foreward to Adoor Gopalakrishnan: A Life in Cinema by Gautaman Bhaskaran that most of your films “do not lend themselves to simple paraphrasing. Their ambition extends beyond mere storytelling”. Could you please elaborate? Also, what according to you is the most important element in a film?
For me, a film is basically an experience shared with an audience. This experience should be worthwhile [for it] to be shared with the audience. My films reflect my culture. I am very much part of my society, not an outsider. Filmmakers have to say new things and say them in a novel way. [They have to find] new ways of looking at things for the audience. I do not repeat in my film, that is boring. I do things that interest me. Cinema developed as an aspiration of great artistic work. We cannot be ignorant about what is happening around us.
There are autobiographical elements in your movie. Is this conscious or incidental?
As an artist, one cannot create anything outside himself. If it has artistic integrity, necessarily, it has to have autobiographical elements. It goes through a certain mutation in a new form when you create something.
Freedom and emancipation are the main themes in Swayamvaram [One’s Own Choice, 1972], Elippathayam [Rat Trap, 1981] and Mathilukal [Walls, 1990], but your Anantaram [And Thereafter, 1987] is apart from these. Tell me about this movie: How did you visualise the real versus the imaginary in this movie? The line gets blurred in it.
Anantharam is a film about the process of creation. The idea is, how do you create? At the initial level, you work on experience and then you fall back on that experience. If you are an artistic person, you have to arrange this experience in some way and then comes imagination. So, it is a combination of all these things. Experience does not come as it is. It undergoes a kind of organic change. We all have an introvert and an extrovert within ourselves. Here is a character, Ajayan, if you look at the two stories told by him, they do not contradict each other. Rather, they are complementary. Here, the audience fills the gaps in between and makes the story for itself.
Jeo Baby, director of The Great Indian Kitchen, told me recently that your films have influenced him. To me, The Great Indian Kitchen brought your film Elippatahyam to mind…
[Laughs] Actually, Elippathayam started off from a thought. I used to ask myself why people do not react the way they should about things around them. I was mulling over the idea. Then I got the answer—if you start reacting to things around you, it creates inconveniences for you. Then you want to believe these things don’t exist. I chose the character of Unni from the post-feudal joint family system in Kerala from the fifties and sixties. These people were landed gentry. Unni is incapable of facing what is happening around him. He just pretends it does not exist. He withdraws from the surroundings.
Have you ever thought of making a film in another language?
No, I have never thought about it. Language is not just a medium of expressing ideas. It is a flower of a certain culture...Language evolved out of life. Languages may be similar, but each has nuances. In cinema, the nuances of living and culture are very important. Even suppose I wish to make a movie in Hindi, I will not be able to do it. I will not be able to direct actors. I will not be able to understand the dialogue-delivery, because I don’t know enough Hindi.
What future do you see for cinema, when you see things in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic?
During the pandemic, people are watching cinema on laptops, cellphones etc., but cinema has to necessarily be seen in a hall. It is a communitarian experience. When you watch a movie on television, there are so many things happening around you, so much distraction.
I want my audience to concentrate on the screen. The TV has such a small screen. You miss a lot because cinema is made for the big screen. You miss a particular shot, hear only the middle voice. High and low sounds are not heard. My work is lost on my audience. It is a big compromise. So, the cinema has to come back again to the halls.
Any films that have had an impact or influenced you in particular?
As a student of cinema I have been watching films from the very beginning. I watched all the great masters’ works in the last several decades. I have been inspired by everything I saw. My vocabulary is derived from all that I have experienced in cinema, theatre and other art forms. What I have learnt is you have to develop your own language, your own method, and your own approaches.
Any plans you would like to share with readers?
I have no immediate plans. I have not come across a worthwhile idea. I don’t force one upon myself...