“I have a seen a classic in India—Elippathayam (The Rat Trap),” said the revered Cuban filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, at the end of an India visit in the early 1990s. The remark was like a sweet accident as some critics in Kerala had wondered whether the film was an adaptation of Alea’s film Los Sobrevivientes (The Survirors, 1979). Whether that was the case or not, the 1981 Malayalam film had definitely succeeded in giving a global status to its director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, after the British Film Institute (BFI) called it the ‘most original and imaginative film’ in 1982. The rare honour had been given to only Satyajit Ray till then from India.
Gopalakrishnan is no stranger to such ‘sweet accidents’. His first feature film, Swayamvaram (1972), was one such case. Though it was rejected by the Kerala film jury as well as the regional jury for national honours, Swayamvaram was India’s official entry at the Moscow Film Festival. The then Indian Information and Broadcasting Minister and a connoisseur of ‘new wave’ cinema, IK Gujral, was in the audience. Soon after, Gopalakrishnan took a chance and sent a telegram to Gujral, appealing to be considered for the National Awards. As he waited for a call asking for the print of the film, he heard an All India Radio evening news bulletin stating that Swayamvaram had created history by winning four National Awards (Best Film, Best Director, Best Cinematographer and Best Actress).
Swayamvaram, which was previously pulled out of cinemas for lack of commercial and popular ingredients, reopened to packed theaters across Kerala in 1973. It went on to make enough money to become the first film to repay the then Film Finance Corporation’s loan of Rs 1.5 lakh. Swayamvaram also made Malayalis realise the power of films as an aesthetic art form, like literature and theatre.
There was also wider acceptance of what Adoor Gopalakrishnan and his friends were trying to achieve through the establishment of film societies across Kerala in the 1960s and 1970s. He co-founded the Chitralekha Film Cooperative (CFC), a rare experiment in alternative filmmaking wholly supported by the Kerala state government, in 1966 and was its chairman till 1980. The CFC and its studio gave technical and production facilities to many newcomers of the time, including G. Aravindan, leading to a ‘new wave’ in Malayalam films.
“It is worth noting that innovations of Swayamvaram caught Kerala and its cinema unawares. They even went one up on the (Satyajit) Ray model of complete creative control of the film,” wrote film scholar Chidananda Das Gupta in Seeing is Believing. This comparison with Ray’s style is fairly common in film scholarship, not only with Swayamvaram, but later with Vidheyan and other films too.
Swayamvaram was made in the neo-realist, Indian story-telling traditions of filmmaking, similar to Satyajit Ray’s early films. Ray himself became an admirer of Gopalakrishnan after seeing his second film Kodiyettam (Ascent) in 1978. Both shared many common features in their craft and style. “Caste in the Ray mould, Gopalakrishnan writes most of his own stories, looks through the lens to check every frame and is in every sense the auteur of his works, in control of all aspects of filmmaking,” observed Das Gupta. “Like Ozu (Yasujiro), he emphasizes the ordinariness of the ordinary,” Das Gupta went on to write. Being a lifelong friend of Ray, the critic also differentiated between the two, after describing Ray’s aspects of ‘creative control of (Swayamvaram)’. He wrote, “But here his resemblance to the Ray-mould directors ends. The rest is Adoor. The power of silence, the quasi-Japanese sense of space, the stolidity of the steady image, the force of repetition—are all his.”
Gopalakrishnan, like Ray, has been the subject of detailed critical and analytical writings worldwide, including an authorised biography. Till 2019, four books in English and five in Malayalam—analysing his films and life as a filmmaker—have been published. Four documentaries have been made on him, the most notable being Images/Reflections (2015) by Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli. Winner of numerous national and international awards, Gopalakrishnan has also authored six books in Malayalam. In his 54-year career, the Pune Film and Television Institute of India graduate of 1965 has made 12 feature films, 26 short films and documentaries, and is active even today. His short film Sukhantyam (Happy Ending) was released in 2019.
In the preface to Parthajit Baruah’s Face to Face: The Cinema of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, film writer Jean-Michel Frodon sums up the Dadasaheb Phalke Awardee and his craft of filmmaking excellently: “Visually magnificent but always in a non-self-imposing way, inventing creative use of the musical score (and of the absence of it)…Adoor’s mise en scene makes use of an extraordinarily large array of cinematic tools… In this sense, Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s films not only proclaim his own achievement, but serve as a kind of anthem for the very nature of filmmaking at its best.”
It’s no wonder then that Adoor Gopalakrishnan, with his deep insight into craft of filmmaking and his auteur approach, was added to the list of world’s most exclusive filmmakers—alongside Yasujiro Ozu (Japan), Ray and Michelangelo Antonioni (Italy)—by the conservative BFI back in 1982.
Such exclusive honours led senior critics like Vidyarthi Chatterjee to describe Gopalakrishnan as the ‘heir to [Satyajit] Ray’s tradition’ (in a 1983 article on Elippathayam in The Statesman). A similar sentiment was also expressed by film writer Gautam Kaul in The Hindu soon after Ray’s death: “Adoor as a film craftsman has won the respect of his colleagues and fans. [Just like Ray] most of his works have been of high calibre, enjoying a permanent shelf life.”
Adoor Gopalakrishnan, indeed, is the worthy heir to Satyajit Ray in Indian films, as no other Indian filmmaker’s work has been as exciting for film buffs, writers and filmmakers alike—across the country and the world.
This article is part of Saha Sutra on http://www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. The author is a senior media professional and film society activist.