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WHEN an acknowledged master ambles past a milestone, no matter how unobtrusively, the applause is bound to be loud and spontaneous. And as the world celebrates the achievements of the past as much as the promises of the future, there's no doubt that Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who hasn't made a film since the Swarna Kamal-winning Kathapurushan (Man of the Story, 1995), deserves every hosanna that is wafting in. Through a quarter century of excellence that has yielded eight cinematic masterworks, Adoor has explored life, culture and politics in Kerala with a degree of sensitivity and insight that is beyond replication.
In Fribourg, Switzerland, an Adoor retrospective has just ended. In June, the eight-film package travels to Pesaro, Italy, for an airing at the Mostra Internazionale del Nuovo Cinema. In October, the Denver Film Festival pays a tribute to Adoor, whose first feature, Sway-mvaram (One's Own Choice), made after a long struggle with a Film Finance Corporation loan, saw the light of day exactly 25 years ago.
The Fribourg retrospective has set the pace. In the Swiss town known as much for its cheese and medieval churches as for the annual film festival dedicated to cinema from Asia, Africa and Latin America, Adoor held centrestage for 10 days in early March. The screenings drew full houses and much media attention. Not only did viewers, critics and laity alike, sit through all his films, they sought him out for personal clarifications and animated discussions. Says Adoor: "I found the audience very receptive. In Europe, when they don't like a film they walk out of the show, especially at a festival where there are other choices. In Fribourg, that didn't happen!"
Do Western audiences, then, actually grasp films that are so deeply rooted in a remote socio-cultural and political milieu? "It is too much to expect them to understand every minute cultural nuance and turn of our political and social history," grants Adoor. "But they come to learn a few new things as they watch our films—especially when our films are in some way authentic social documents." Like all great works of the cinema, Adoor's films are first and foremost about humanity. So despite culture-specific concerns, they are universal in their appeal. Therefore, whether he is in Fribourg or Pesaro, San Francisco or London, Adoor belongs right up there among the world's best celluloid poets. As veteran critic-filmmaker Chidananda Dasgupta, writing on Elippathayam (The Rat Trap), observed: "The film is grimly withdrawn. It refuses to wear its heart on its sleeves; its secrets have to be pried open and discovered. Adoor Gopalakrishnan is a poet's poet." When the vision of a poet mingles with the heart of a sociological chronicler, it can only light up the screen. Adoor's films do just that every time the lights go out.
Today's exalted status was far from his mind when he graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, in 1965. All he wanted to do was build "a new religion of films without any obligation to look back for conformism under the constant pressure of worthless conventions and trite formulae of a degenerated past". Adoor still pursues that goal with unwavering zeal. And his films, which use images, sounds, symbols and narrative patterns in a manner that may at first seem complex but are, in the end, amazingly accessible, have been accepted for what they are and not for what certain sections of the audience may want them to be.
THOUGH he has never made concessions to audience tastes, his films have never failed to go down well with Kerala's masses. Not even Anantaram (The Monologue), his most complex film to date. Which makes the commercial failure of the linear Kathapurushan, produced by Adoor in collaboration with the Japanese broadcasting corporation, rather baffling. Released last November, it evoked a lukewarm response. "It should have done much, much better," he says. "The release was badly timed. People thought it was an old film for so much had already been heard about it."
But for the 56-year-old Adoor, box-office failure is only a minor irritant. The young man who had once set his sights on a career in theatre is now one of the brightest beacons of hope for a cinematic movement that has been gasping for breath for years. Adoor, of course, does not see himself as a representative of the parallel cinema. "Parallel to what? If I am not a part of the industry, who is?" he asks indignantly. "I also make films for the maximum number of people. I buy the same raw stock, use the same labs. Unfortunately, in our country, gutter cinema is called mainstream cinema."
Says Films Division man K.K. Chandran, who has made a documentary on the master, The Portrait of Film Director: "He is a dedicated, insightful filmmaker who made things easier for us by putting Kerala on the world cinema map." What exactly is the secret of Adoor's 'success'? Says Chandran: "His commitment to truth. He takes all his stories, his characters, his situations from his own village, his own milieu, his own life." Indeed, authenticity is the bulwark on which Adoor's oeuvre rests.
Born in the village of Adoor in a large joint family which practised and patronised Kathakali, he grew up during a period of transition. The matrilineal society, the feudal system, colonial rule were coming to an end. "The social order was in flux, as were value systems within the community. Everything was under scrutiny," recalls Adoor. No wonder time and history play such an important role in his films, be it Elippathayam, Mukhamukham (Face to Face), Mathilukal (Walls), Vidheyan (The Servile) or Kathapurushan.
Adoor has lived in Thiruvananthapuram for years, in a picturesque, sparsely appointed hilltop bungalow. But his links with his roots are still intact. In fact, the semi-autobiographical Kathapurushan was shot in his ancestral house in Adoor. Sankarankutty, the village yokel of Kodiyettam (The Ascent), is modelled on a real-life character who still lives in the village. Unni of Elippathayam, an ill-fated man who lives in the feudal past even though the supportive social system no longer exists, is inspired by an uncle.
The exploration continues. The former statistical investigator for the National Sample Survey of India whose interaction with Ritwik Ghatak at the FTII inspired him to turn his back on theatre and adopt cinema as his medium of expression is still investigating. Not statistics anymore, but much more intangible aspects of life, universal truths that only the truly gifted can access.