The mastery of Aravindan

G. Aravindan explored new experiential terrains, unfolded new connections and erased boundaries between genres, forms and styles.

February 11, 2016 12:07 pm | Updated 12:07 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

G. Aravindan with Smita Patil and Nasreen Munni Kabir. Photo: Peter Chappell

G. Aravindan with Smita Patil and Nasreen Munni Kabir. Photo: Peter Chappell

It is unbelievable that a quarter century has passed since G. Aravindan left us. His films continue to captivate us in all their freshness and creative vibrancy. In everything he did, whether it be cartooning, art direction, drawing, music, or film, Aravindan was able to make new connections, infuse a certain poignancy, a reflective pace and dignified individuality. It was evident right from the beginning of his creative life.

His cartoon series – Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum (Small People, Big World), one of the first graphic novels in Malayalam that appeared in a Malayalam weekly, were complete in themselves as individual pieces, but had characters, a milieu and a timescape that had a certain narrative cohesion and continuity. They consistently followed the inner conflicts and socio-political dilemmas of the time in very stark yet ironic strokes of brush and text. His innovative renderings of plays such as Kavalam Narayana Panicker’s ‘Avanavan Kadampa’ displayed his fine sense of mise en scene , a keen sensitivity for theatrical and performance space that was marked by its minimalism and evocativeness.

Being trained in Hindustani music, Aravindan knew how to use music emotively and sparingly as is evident from the films for which he composed music – Yaro Oral, Esthappan, Piravi and Ore Thooval Pakshikal . It was this keen interest in all arts, accompanied by an intense engagement both with the senses and the intellect that gave his works haunting reverberations and unpredictable resonances. This ability to work with, through, and blend different mediums with ease gave his oeuvre a very distinct character and unique sensibility that is meditative yet deeply emotional.

In a career spanning nearly two decades, Aravindan created a body of cinematic works that occupies a unique position in Indian cinema. His debut film, Utharayanam, made in 1975, was about the degeneration of nationalist hopes and ideals, the rising despondence of the youth and their frustrated dreams. In a way, it was a prophetic film that foresaw the dark era of national emergency that was to follow immediately.

From Utharayanam ’s political and idealist conflicts, Aravindan moved to the eternal dilemma relating to power and justice. Kanchanasita , based on a play by C.N. Sreekantan Nair, is one of the most innovative and experimental of adaptations in Indian cinema. It totally divested itself of all the adornments and paraphernalia that accompanied mythologicals and mythic figures like Rama that we are used to; pared down to the essentials, these roles were played by members of a tribal community in Andhra Pradesh; the whole narrative unfolded in forests, caves, open spaces and riversides.

His next feature film Thampu follows the ripples that a circus troupe creates in an otherwise placid village. Initially the villagers receive the new spectacle with great enthusiasm and awe, but they gradually lose interest, shifting their attention to other events in their yearly calendar. But during this brief but awe-filled interface between the static village and the mobile circus troupe, we come across several characters from both worlds. When the circus vehicle eventually leaves the village, a youth from the village joins them, leaving behind the stagnant village and family to seek new experiences and expressions.

Kummatty , a rare gem among childrens’ films in India, is a fable about a boy’s brief excursion into the life of a dog. Like Thampu , here also the life in the idyllic village is touched by the magic of the bogeyman who turns the children playing with him into different animals and birds. Chindan’s life as a dog and the return to human state is a journey into the mystery of life; he realizes that life is a gift and an accident, one that could be wonderful if only we were more humane and compassionate.

Esthappan is another exploration into world of local myths and mythmaking. Set in the Latin Catholic coastal community, the film follows the legends that surround a mysterious wanderer named Esthappan. People weave diverse stories about him: for some he is a seer and healer, for others a thief, or a crook. These stories that myths are made of say more about the tellers, than about Esthappan. He is the medium through which they explain and understand the imponderables and injustices of life; he embodies their justifications about life, their hopes, frustrations, fears and dreams.

Pokkuveyil , in a way, takes the theme of Utharayanam further. It is about the gradual falling apart of a sensitive young poet, whose inner and outer worlds crumble without any hope of redemption through social or personal expression. The film was shot to the ‘accompaniment’ of music that is set in rag Shubhapanthuvarali rendered on the sarod by Rajiv Taranath and on the flute by Hariprasad Chaurasia. It is a haunting music that pervades and fills the desolate mindscape of the protagonist, who finds himself unable to live up to or hold on to anything that he holds dear: his idealist father, radical friend, charming girl friend, and his companion who dreams of becoming a star sportsman.

Chidambaram , based on a story by C.V. Sreeraman, is a poignant elaboration upon the theme of innocence and guilt; about how an act of infidelity – towards oneself and the others – traumatises life; how an unethical move overturns the founding justifications of life.

In Oridathu, Aravindan deals with the idea of relentless ‘progress’ and its demonic potentials. Here, the agent of change, in the form of electricity, arrives in a village, wreaking havoc. His next film – Marattam - weaves its narrative with several strands: of storytelling, performance, memory and legends. This story-within-story narrative is about the boundaries between actor and acting, performance and reality, evidence and fact, story and truth.

His last film Vasthuhara , looks at the theme of dispossession from various angles; at one level the film is about displacement and exile forced by Partition, at another level, it is also about how we too dispossess each other, emotionally and otherwise. The film is also about the urge for liberation and the structures of power that snuff it out – whether it be the family, community or nation.

Likewise, his documentaries too were several explorations into creative processes and spiritual journeys like The Seer who Walks Alone on philosopher J Krishnamurthy , Contours of Linear Rhythm on artist Nambudiri , Anadi dhara on various folk art forms in India , and Sahaja on the idea of ardha-nariswara.

In film after film, he excavated new experiential terrains, unfolded new connections, transgressed boundaries between genres, forms and styles. In a way, one can also look at his films as a creative dialogue between different mediums, of different art forms conversing with each other, probing at and extending boundaries, and creating new, synergistic aesthetic engagements. For instance, there are elements of cartooning, its bold brush strokes and caricaturing in Utharayanam , an visual aspiration to the condition of music in Pokkuveyil , the chemistry of performance, performers and theatre in Marattam , the minimalist tableau of ethical conflicts in Kanchanasita , the passion play of innocence and guilt in Chidambaram , the fascinating process of fabulation in Kummatty , the oral traditions of mythmaking in Esthappan , an exploration into the spectacular and the quotidian in Thampu , the exigencies of a moral tale in Oridathu , the saga of history, and the drama of forgetting and memory that unfolds in Vasthuhara .

The greatness of an artist is in the aesthetic core of his/her works, which acquires new dimensions with each viewing; it grows in time, with the viewer, or grows with time, in the viewer. They do not get dated, but acquire complex maturity along with us all the time, revealing new layers of meaning and emotional folds that outlive the ravages of time.

In that sense, Aravindan always remains a contemporary.

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