WHO is he?

Kerala-born film and theatre director, screenwriter and music composer who made over 15 feature-length fictional and documentary works during the seventies and the eighties. Aravindan was a noted cartoonist before his foray into theatre and cinema. Chidambaram (1985) fetched him the National Award for Best Feature Film.

WHAT are his films about?

Themes

Aravindan’s films certainly have a leftist political bent, but they do not trade philosophical curiosity for ideological commitment or formal experimentation for polemics. He is more often than not content with playing the detached but astute observer — no doubt a satirist trait that harks back to his cartoonist days — chronicling the foibles and fallibility of the people he depicts. Some of the major themes in his body of work are the construction and perpetuation of myths in a society, the persistence of the spiritual and the magical in everyday life and the transformative power of class guilt.

Style

Aravindan was a singular Indian filmmaker in how he was almost alone in working entirely in the poetic mode. The best of Aravindan’s cinema is free from the theatrical tradition of performance and mise en scene and the literary tradition of narrative and character psychology. These films rightly reinforce the idea of film as a medium of surfaces by emphasising the physical and material aspects of the world we see rather than its ethereal and idealist dimensions. Aravindan’s career as a cartoonist had a deep influence in his visual sensibility, with his flat and balanced compositions, regularly set against the horizon.

WHY is he of interest?

To classify him as a member of the relatively dogmatic Parallel Cinema — as has been widely the case — is in itself a disservice to the philosophical and aesthetic foundation of his cinema. Arguably the greatest filmmaker the country has produced, Aravindan made films that opened the doors to unexplored expanses of the filmic medium — doors that, rather unfortunately, have rarely been used since.

WHERE to discover him?

Esthappan (1980) is presented as a series of testimonies — reverential and derogatory — by the members of a fisherman community about the eponymous, mysterious wanderer and his alleged supernatural powers. A magnificent embodiment of Marx’s theory of religion, Esthappan is a work that is at once prophetic and atheistic, an intelligent portrait that both understands the economic roots of religion and yet refuses to reduce to a convenient theory.

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