The year is 2016 but it could still be the 1960s in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s world, where he lives and makes films at his own unhurried pace and on his own terms. The seeping influence of the market stops a mile from his home, in Akkulam, away from the bustle of Thiruvananthapuram. When we meet, Gopalakrishnan is a bit tense but mostly excited as he awaits the release of Pinneyum ( Once Again ), his latest work (released on August 19), the 12th in a 50-year career. The director whose oeuvre put Malayalam cinema on the world map speaks on his philosophy of filmmaking. Excerpts:
You have been an active filmmaker for almost 50 years now, a period during which much has changed in cinema. How different was making Pinneyum compared to your debut Swayamvaram ?
Drastically different! This is the first time I am shooting in digital. I approached it with so much fear. Throughout my life, I’ve been handling negative film, waiting for it to be processed and watching the rushes weeks later, by which time making changes to the shots was a tall order. Now, it has all become easier. You can watch what you have shot immediately, and be absolutely sure about what you have on screen. I managed to finish this film in 23 days, compared to 30 or more days for earlier films.
Many independent filmmakers of the older generation are contemptuous of digital filmmaking.
I used to be like that too. I have understood that the advantages are immense. Only that you have to use it creatively. There is a tendency to shoot a lot of footage because it is digital. I have maintained the economy with which I used to work in films. No extra footage.
You have avoided the usual round of film festivals for this film, releasing it straight to the theatre.
Yes, I am scared of piracy now. Someone somewhere will get hold of a copy and upload it online. This is also the first time I am going to release my film nationally.
Tell us a little about Pinneyum .
The starting point of the film is an unsolved case that happened in Kerala in the 1980s. Sukumara Kurup, a man employed in the Gulf, killed and burnt a stranger in a hideous plot to fake his own death to claim insurance. The man did not surface again after the plot boomeranged.
Though it happened several decades ago, it has been at the back of my mind. It’s not about Kurup. It triggered off a thought process. I have no idea who he was. It’s about the present day. It kept bothering me. Why should anybody do this? I am interested in the psychology. Criminals think their plan is so perfect that it cannot give them away. They don’t think about failure and the repercussions. The whole thing starts from there. It is a strange way of progressing towards a crime. Once the crime is done, they can do nothing.
In the film, I have included the scene of the killing as it could not be avoided. I have not shown it graphically. It is only suggested. Unless it is shown, it won’t have an impact. I don’t illustrate the process of killing and torture.
You focus more on how people react, like in those violent scenes in Vidheyan .
Yes. That has more impact. Otherwise it’s off-putting to show dismembering and blood being splattered around. I can’t sit through such scenes. This is also my most meticulously choreographed film. Ninety percent of it is set inside an old house, as in Elipathayam .
You have always situated your films amid major ruptures in society, be it the slow decay of feudalism or the disillusionment with communism. This is the first time you are setting your film in the post-liberalisation period.
I have made films only on the periods through which I have lived. I have said only the things that I have knowledge about. The issues that have been bothering me in the past eight years, after I made my last film, and the life I lived during that period, led to this film.
You are known for your meticulous planning, especially the detailed shooting scripts.
I improve upon the shooting script too. The film is always better than the script I write, because I have allowed it an organic growth. I put down on paper every minute detail, camera positions and movements. I specify the lenses too for each shot.
Do you work with the choices of the cinematographer?
The cinematographer’s work is mainly lighting and, to some extent, composition. Yes, suggestions do come at times. For instance, in Elipathayam , for the scene where Unni’s bedridden sister is carried away to the doctor along with her bed, I had written it as consisting of several shots. But while shooting, cinematographer Mankada Ravivarma suggested we make it a single shot by attaching the camera to the bed. That shot gave us such a fantastic feeling. I accept such suggestions.
This meticulous planning and discipline is reflected in your personal life too, in how you have stayed away from the ‘anarchist’ lifestyle.
Yes. That’s true. If you look at the people Malayalis celebrate, they all drink a lot and have their own gangs, to celebrate and remember them. I have no such groups.
You have had a long partnership with Mankada Ravivarma, from Swayamvaram to your ninth film, Nizhalkuthu .
Ravivarma’s younger brother was two years my junior at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. He used to tell me about his brother in Madras, a cinematographer who’s not interested in working in mainstream films. I had by then started thinking about doing a film. When I wrote the script of Swayamvaram a few years later, I sent it to Ravivarma. He wrote back saying this would become an important film in Malayalam and that he would be glad to be associated with it.
You made your last film eight years ago. What happens between two Adoor films, other than the numerous documentaries?
After doing one film, the next two years will have fallouts of that film, including festivals. After that, I forget about filmmaking for a long time. One advantage of this gap is that the influence of the previous work does not come into the new work. The mind has to remain fallow for some time for a new subject to develop.
Even as you have remained critical of commercial cinema, you have never shied away from casting ‘stars’ like Mammootty or Madhu and now Dileep.
I am not in awe of any star. I see the person only as an actor. Importantly, the star should look like the character in my mind. For example, no one would cast Mammootty as Pattelar in Vidheyan . But I cast him because his figure conveyed a possibility, as a representative of immense power. You need to know the complete root and background of a particular character and decide on an actor. It might be a character who appears for just a minute, but he should be portrayed in such a way that you will get to know him as a person from your life.
You have introduced two of Malayalam cinema’s greatest actors – Bharath Gopi and Karamana Janardhanan Nair.
I knew both of them for a long time. Both of them had acted in my plays. When I did ‘Waiting for Godot’ after my first film, Gopi acted in it.
It is said that you never reveal the entire storyline to the actors.
Yes. I tell them only what is required in that particular sequence, because telling them the whole story might lead to interpretations. I don’t need their interpretations. That could be at cross-purposes with my own intentions. When I started doing Vidheyan , I noticed that M.R. Gopakumar, who was doing Thommi’s role, was behaving peculiarly on the sets. When questioned, he said he had heard that the film was based on (Paul) Zacharia’s story and had read it several times. I asked him, “Who asked you to read it? This film is not based on that story. The story is just a starting point.”
Method actors might have an issue with your style…
The person should be a good artiste, whatever name you call it. They have to be intelligent enough to improve on whatever I give. Gopi had such advantages. He could imbibe whatever I told him. I keep on giving instructions even when the camera is rolling. The actor should not be conscious when he hears these instructions.
This is why you stopped using sync sound after Swayamvaram ?
Yes. I lose a lot of freedom with sync sound. The new Malayalam films are using it. Many think that they discovered it recently. I was one of the first to use sync sound in the country. The Nagra recorders came out when we were studying at FTII. We saw the whole transition in sound recording during that time, from shooting the sound with a separate camera to sync sound.
In a film like Elipathayam , the background score is very pronounced, whereas in Kodiyettam , you have eschewed it completely.
The decisions on music are taken based on the theme of the film, not to heighten the emotions in the dramatic scenes or to reinforce what is shown on screen. You resort to such gimmicks when the scene that you created fails to convey the emotions. In Kodiyettam , the protagonist is aimless. If there’s music, it tracks the whole thing in a particular direction, which I wanted to avoid. I have used a Kathakali song in the final sequence though.
The classical arts like Kathakali have had quite an influence on you, right from childhood, but you never depict them explicitly on screen.
Yes. Even last night, I spent two peaceful hours watching ‘Rukminiswayamvaram’ Kathakali. In my childhood, there used to be Kathakali yogams, where troupes would perform at our home on special days. The taste I developed there probably led me to theatre. But I did not pay much attention to these during my younger days. It was many years later, after acquiring more knowledge that I reclaimed these. But I never force it on screen. The culture is reflected in my work, without being shown explicitly.
You have drawn on Malayalam literature for the stories of four of your films.
Usually, when new ideas fail to strike me, I go back to stories that have made an impression on me. I re-read them and decide whether to take it up. Even Zacharia’s story, I was not keen to take up first. It was published in Mathrubhumi several years before. The character was too cruel, without any shades. I couldn’t depict such cruelty. So I suggested it to filmmaker K.G. George, who had then made Irakal , which I couldn’t watch completely because of the violence. But he was not interested. I went back to the story. I broke down the character and gave him a tinge of redemption somewhere. In my version, he feels a kind of repentance after he murders his wife.
Tell us a bit about the significance of the sequences of eating, almost a ritualistic performance, in your films.
Eating is an important time, when the family comes together, more than at any other time. It is an important scene for sharing. I use the eating process to signify various other things. In Naalu Pennungal , Nandu’s character is not interested in women but in eating. Thakazhi has written one line to describe that character: “He never says ‘enough’ when rice is served.” I developed that line. In Elipathayam , the scene is used to show his displeasure and also his powerlessness to react, despite being the family’s figurehead.
Do you attempt to make your films universally appealing?
No. The value of the art depends on how much innateness we retain. We should not make films aimed at the overseas crowd. That will then become like our tourism campaigns. This is why some people, who’ve never watched Kathakali, make films with it thinking that foreigners will be impressed. That’s a misconception. There used to be this criticism against (Satyajit) Ray that he’s selling our poverty overseas. That’s such idiotic talk. No one likes to see our poverty.
You always avoid overt political commentary in your films. Even a film like Mukhamukham is more a human story than a political statement.
There is politics as subject and statement in my films. But it’s not the kind of political film some are making. Usually, the person making the film has a point to prove. I have never done that. But yet, there is a kind of politics even in the way you place the camera. The way a person who is six-feet tall sees the world is different from the way a five-footer sees it.
Are you at any time during the making of a film concerned about how people interpret the film? For instance, Mukhamukham was interpreted as an anti-Left film?
I am the creator, critic and audience at the same time. In the case of Mukhamukham , it would have been surprising if those reactions did not happen. Those attacks are good and made the film worthwhile. Though at that time, I felt sad, now I feel that it’s good. The film provoked people. When I was writing the script, my friend Meera Sahib suggested giving the political party a different name. I asked him, “What is the purpose of the film then?” Communism is a very important ideology in our society. I made that film because I had a concern for it, not to condemn it. Nor was it the intention to heap it with praises. The film posed questions that common people in society ask.
About interpretation, the true sign of a work of art is that it should not be like a table or a chair. Commercial cinema is like that. Even a kid sees those films the way grown-ups do. But each person responds differently to a serious work of art because they bring their own selves into the appreciation of it. One thing I love to say about my films is that those who like my films like different films. Some like Elipathayam , others like Mathilukal , and so on.
How much of your personal politics has changed from the time you made Mukhamukham ?
I don’t have a personal political stance. As an artiste, I wish to remain independent. I don’t want to be part of any political party.
Not as part of a party, but personally?
I only have a humanist approach. A Gandhian approach, perhaps. I don’t approve of a party without that.
You were part of the committee that set up the National Film Development Corporation. Has it fulfilled the objectives for which it was set up?
The NFDC is in a pathetic condition. No objectives have been met. In the earlier days, it had a role in the Indian new cinema movement. But it petered out.
Do you watch new films?
Only if they have something special. I don’t have the patience or time to sit through most of them.
What films did you watch in your formative years?
I did not have any connection with cinema before FTII. I used to watch films once in a while, like anybody else. My interest was theatre; I was a well-equipped playwright. I ended up at FTII by chance. After my stint at Gandhigram University, I got a job as an investigator with the National Sample Survey Organisation, which I did for about one-and-a-half years. Then I got bored. I wanted to do something more. I checked out National School of Drama, but the teaching happened mostly in Hindi, of which I didn’t have much knowledge. Around that time, I saw an ad for admissions to the 1962 batch of FTII, which had started a year ago. One of the courses was ‘screenplay writing’. Since I was already a published playwright, I thought I would take this up, thinking it might have something to do with plays.
You started out by writing plays. But ‘dramatics’ is absent from your films. Did you lose that at FTII?
Dramatics did not come into my films because I know what drama is. I say that even to my actors, some of whom use their hands and body vigorously. Our mainstream cinema is full of drama. These loud gestures are meant for theatre, to be visible even to those sitting at the back. In cinema, you don’t need to do that. That work is done by the camera. If the camera wants to see you close, it will come to you.
Why did you not work on any play after Waiting for Godot ?
KPAC [Kerala People’s Arts Club] did compel me to do one. I refused. I never felt like doing any after that. I am concentrating on cinema.
You have made only 12 films in all these years. Have you ever felt that you could have made more?
No. I can never do that. I have heard filmmakers saying “I am working on such and such film now… and my next film will be…” When I hear that, it surprises me. For me, even one is more than enough. I’ve been thinking about this film for the past seven or eight years. It keeps bothering you. It keeps coming back. The shape keeps changing. If you go and do one straightaway, then it becomes just a story of a murder. This is not that. The murder is the point from where it takes off. That is a spark. You are talking about other things in your film.
Tell us what led to Anantaram , perhaps one of your most complex films.
When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, she came back from the hospital and told me this story of a child who was abandoned in the hospital and later adopted by one of the doctors there. That was the spark for Anantaram . That was the story of an introvert and his perceptions. There is an extrovert and introvert in each one of us. I am an introvert but I am forced to be an extrovert because I am a filmmaker.
How much of Kathapurushan is autobiographical?
It’s just that the film starts off from autobiographical elements.
You can say that about almost all your films.
True. You can say that about the new film too. But we cannot translate our own experiences into cinema. You have to change it into a universal experience. Our craft lies there. Our own experiences are useful, because they are genuine.
You had once said that some kind of mental trauma led to the making of Elipathayam ?
Elipathayam was written at a fast pace. It happened after an incident that shook me. It was after I left the Chitralekha Film Society, founded by me and my friends, after some issues. That was a huge letdown and it affected me. I never imagined something like that would happen. That led to Elipathayam . My wife Sunanda used to say, “When you are hit below the belt, you wake up. Until then, you are just lying low.”
One criticism about your films is that they might not communicate to common people; that they are meant for a niche audience.
No, every time I make a film, I think of it as being meant for every person in the world. I don’t make concessions for that. It’s always on my terms. Because I am a social being, because I am a sensitive being, because I respond to things around me, I think that what I like should be liked by others also. It’s as simple as that. I hold on to certain values. Even the cruellest person respects someone with values. He won’t respect another cruel person.
Have you ever thought of mass popularity?
For my second film Kodiyettam , I made 13 prints. But most theatres refused, saying nobody would enter the theatre to see Gopi’s face. Only two theatres released (the film) — one in Haripad and Asha theatre in Kottayam. But word of mouth led to housefull shows. The news spread across the state and other theatres too released it. It ran for 145 days in Asha theatre. Popularity is independent of us. It all depends on people’s moods. However much you talk of technological advancement, when you look at great films, they are basically about human emotions. Films that appeal to emotions will be loved by the people, however sophisticated the way you convey it. My hope is that this film ( Pinneyum) will be the most popular of all my films till date.