Cinema of Malayalam
Archived content from 2003 - 2013


For almost a decade through a number of redesigns, this was the Cinema of Malayalam website offering information about the history of cinema in India and Malayalam, along with interviews of well known Indian directors and an extensive Documentary & Short Film Database.
When this domain's registration expired the site disappeared from the web. There have been several other owners of the domain whose focus had nothing to do with the original site. In 2020 the newest owners of the domain felt that the original information was worth reposting so they rebuilt an edited version of the site from its 2003 - 2013 archived content.

 

Cinema of Malayalam, April 2007

Malayalam, the language of Kerala, the Southern most coastal state of India, with just 3% of Indian population has produced some of the best works in the field of literature and cinema.

Malayalam Middle-Stream Cinema

The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed drastic changes in the approach of filmmakers towards cinema and this was reciprocated in the quality of film viewing too. Films like Kuttyedathy, Oolavum Theeravum and Mappusakshi by P N Menon during the late 60s and early 70s were signals of these changes. These films brought back the heroes of popular cinema down to earth, identifiable for ordinary people as one among them.

The films by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan and John Abraham during the early 1970s were reflections of 'new wave' movements all over the world, often termed as 'parallel cinema' movement. Even when Malayalam cinema reached new heights through these films, they remained as the art of a minority. A synthesis of the easily communicative, but hollow commercial cinema and the cinema enjoyed by a minority, the parallel cinema, took place during this period, which later came to be known as 'middle-stream cinema'.

M T Vasudeven Nair, with his directorial debut Nirmalyam (1973) pioneered this stream of Malayalam cinema. K G George, with his first film Swapnadanam (1975) later moved to the middle-stream and produced some of the best works of Malayalam cinema. Bharathan with Prayanam (1977) strengthened this stream and also paved the way for one of the most influential directors of the middle path cinema, Padmarajan. Padmarajan with his first film Peruvazhiyambalam (1979) and latter Oridathoru phayalvan (1981) consistently made quality films and stood as a consolation factor even when Malayalam cinema returned back to mindless commercials. K S Sethumadhavan, starting his film career in 1960s and became a strong figure in commercial cinema, produced some better works like Oppol (1980) during this period. The other most consistent director in making quality films, Lenin Rajendran made his debut with Venal (1981) and has made some notable films including his latest film, Anyar (2003). Sreenivasan who entered cinema as an actor later took up script writing and penned some of the best satires ever made in Malayalam. The two films he directed, Vadakkunokki yantram (1989) and Chintavistayaya Shyamala (1998) were hard hitting social critiques, which expanded the boundaries of comedy cinema..



history of malayalam cinema

Kerala: The Legacy of Visual Culture

Even much before the arrival of cinema, the people of Kerala were familiar with moving images on the screen through the traditional art form ‘tholpavakkuthu’ (Puppet Dance). Usually exhibited at festivals of village temples, ‘tholpavakkuthu’ uses puppets made of leather with flexible joints. These joints are moved using sticks and the shadow of these moving puppets are captured on a screen using a light source from behind, creating dramatic moving images on the screen. Stories from the mythology were told so, with accompanying dialogues and songs with traditional percussions like the Chenda. ‘Tholpavakkuthu’ uses some of the techniques widely used in cinema like the close-ups and long-shots.

Apart from the art of ‘tholpavakkuthu’, which exhibits the nature of cinema, many of the folk arts and classical dance forms like ‘Kuthu’, ‘Koodiyattam’ and ‘Kathakali’ exhibits very high visual qualities in their form. My be this legacy of Kerala’s visual culture lead the filmmakers of Kerala to take up cinema in a different way, rather than mere plain story telling, than anywhere else in India, and the people of Kerala to appreciate them.

The Silent Era

The first Malayalam cinema was produced and directed by, J C Daniel, a dentistby profession who didn't had any prior experience with cinema. His film Vigathakumaran was released in 1928, but failed economically. But it is notable that while mythological films ruled all over the Indian cinema arena, J C Daniel had the courage to produce the first ever Malayalam film with a social theme. The economic failure of Vigathakumaran discouraged him from producing further films.

The ill luck of Malayalam cinema continued. The second film Marthandavarma based on a novel of the same name by C V Raman Pillai, was produced by Sunderraj in 1933. But due to a legal confrontation regarding the rights of the film, the producer had to withdraw the film from cinema halls after few exhibitions. Had it not been for the legal embargo, the film would have had a great impact on the cinema of South India. By Marthandavarma the history of silent Malayalam cinema too came to an end.

Balan: The First Talkie

Indian cinema had already entered the talkie age even before Marthandavarma was released. Balan, the first Malayalam cinema with a sound track was released in 1938. Produced by Tamilian, T R Sunderam at the Modern Theatres, Balan was directed by Notani. A melodramatic film, with more Tamil influence than Malayalam, Balan featured the struggle of two orphaned children, Balan and his younger sister, oppressed and exploited by their evil stepmother until they are rescued by a kindly lawyer. Even though this film could be considered irrelevant in artistic sense, its economic success created a base to the Malayalam film industry. Followed by the success of BalanJnambika was released in 1940. After Prahlada (1941), Kerala had to wait till 1948 for the next film. Nirmala (1948) directed by P J Cheriyan explored the possibility of music and songs in Malayalam cinema. Legendary Malayalam poet, G Shankara Kurup penned the lyrics for this film. Thus song-dance sequences became an essential ingredient for commercial success in Malayalam cinema.

Inspired from an imported film - Life of Christ - Phalke started mentally visualising the images of Indian gods and goddesses. What really obsessed him was the desire to see Indian images on the screen in a purely Swadeshi venture. He fixed up a studio in Dadar Main Road, wrote the scenario, erected the set and started shooting for his first venture Raja Harishchandra in 1912. The first full-length story film of Phalke was completed in 1912 and released at the Coronation cinema on April 21, 1913, for special invitees and members of the Press. The film was widely acclaimed by one and all and proved to be a great success.

It is notable that none of the Malayalam films that came before the independence of India reflected the mood of the struggle for independence and also the film that came after independence and the early 1950s reflected that torrid period of Kerala, where the Communist upspring was taking place changing the entire social climate of the State. Cinema continued to be dramas happening in a totally artificial and alien world.

Jeevithanouka - 1951
(The boat of life)

Jeevithanouka was a turning point for Malayalam cinema. This highly dramatic musical film, which narrated the story of ego clashes in a joint family, was mainly directed towards the women audience. Jeevithanouka was a huge success, and can be considered as the first 'super hit' of Malayalam cinema. Thikkurishi Sukumaran Nair, an actor from the stage, became the first 'superstar' of Malayalam cinema after the success of the film. But this success had also an adverse effect on Malayalam cinema. Films that were produced after Jeevithanouka were made according to this success formula, and nothing creative was seen for a long time. Superstars took over the driver's seat and directors were forced to the background.

Ramu Karyat

Acclaimed as an innovator of Malayalam cinema of the 1950s to the 1970s, Ramu Karyat (1927-79), is one of the protagonists of Kerals People's Art Club in the domain of the communist IPTA. After Neelakuyi in 1954, he shot Minnaminungu (The Firefly) in 1957, a path breaking film of Malayalam cinema. Thoppil Bhasi's famous play Mudiyanaya Puthran (The Prodigal Son) was filmed by Ramu Karyat in 1961. This film featured Satyan, a specialist in 'macho' roles, which is a convincing melodrama about the irresponsibility of a self-centered young man who deliberately sinks into anti-social behaviour before being reconciled with life by the love of a young 'untouchable' girl and by the warmth of a group of workers. After Moodupadam (1963), a social film about the relationship between three major religious faiths of the State, Hindu, Christian and Muslims, Ramu Karyat made Chemmeen a definite turning point in Malayalam cinema.

P Bhaskaran

 

P Bhaskaran started as a lyricist for the film Chandrika and made his directorial debut with Ramu Karyat as a co-director and an actor in Neelakuyil. He attempted hard-hitting realism in his earlier films but later works were mainly love stories and melodramas with social concerns. Some of his memorable films are Rarichan Enna Pauran (1956), set in the neo-realistic vein of Newspaper BoyAnveshichu Kandethiyilla (1967) and Irutinte Atmavu (1967).
A Vincent

A Vincent joined Gemeni Studio, Chennai as an assistant cameraman in 1947. He handled camera for the path-breaking film Neelakuyil. He made his directorial debut with Bhargavinilayam (1964), based on story by renowned Malayalam writer Vikom Muhammad Basheer. Nadi (1969) won him the State award and Thulabharam (1968) the National award for second best film.

Neelakuyil - 1954
(The Blue Cuckoo)

 

 

Through Neelakuyil Malayalam cinema for the first time had an authentic Malayalam story. The story for Neelakuyil was penned by renowned Malayalam writer Uroob and directed by the duo of P Bhaskaran and Ramu Karyat. This melodramatic film dealt with the issue of untouchability in the society. Satyan and Miss Kumari were elevated to stardom after the huge success of this film. Malayalam film music till then were cheap imitations of Hindi and Tamil film music, also came up with original Malayalam tunes through this film. The lyrics written by P Bhaskaran were arranged by K Rghavan, influenced by Malayalam folk music, which became popular among the masses. This was also the first Malayalam film to be shot outdoors. Neelakuyil announced the presence of Malayalam cinema in Indian film arena.

Newspaper Boy - 1955

Newspaper Boy (1955) was the reflection of neo-realism in cinema, which became popular all over the world. This film was a result of extreme hard work by a group of college students. Newspaper Boy was directed by P Ramadas, who was totally new to cinema and almost all technical works were handled by amateur students. This film was distributed some months before Satyajith Ray's Pather Panchali came out. This film narrated the sad story of a printing press employee and his family reeling through poverty. He dies of extreme poverty and illness, which forces his children to stop their education. His elder son Appu leaves to Madras in search of a job. Failing to secure a job there, he returns and decides to take up the job of a newspaper boy.

Towards New Sensibilities

Even though Malayalam cinema right from the first talkie, Balan ventured into social themes instead of cosmetic dramas from Hindu Mythology, like anywhere else in India, they stood far away from social realities. While cinema elsewhere in the world, except India, took big leap forward in devising new cinematic forms making cinema an art form by itself, the Indian filmmakers right from the beginning considered cinema as a platform for combining all the art forms available in India. This was the concept about cinema even among the leading film critics then. Malayalam cinema was no exception in this regard. The first International Film Festival of India held in 1952 opened up the window to a new world of cinema to the Indian filmmakers. For the first time they understood that cinema has advanced much further than the make-belief Hollywood films, which were the only source of foreign films then. Films like Bicycle Thief, which was shown for the first time in India compelled a new generation of filmmakers to take a new path of filmmaking. Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali triggered the movement, which was taken up by other new generation filmmakers in Northern India.

Malayalam cinema too took a new path during the mid 1950s towards more down-to-earth social realities, rather than cosmetic social dramas. But this change in sensibility was not due to the effect of world cinema on them, as the Malayalee filmmakers were virtually absent at the film festival. Hence, even though Malayalam cinema became more sensible during the mid 1950s, it had to wait till the mid 1970s, till the new breed of FTII trained filmmakers started filmmaking, for Malayalam cinema to become ‘real cinema’.

In fact, it was the powerful movement that happened in Malayalam literature spearheaded by literary giants like Thakazhi Shivashankara Pillai, Viakom Muhammad Basheer and M T Vasudevan Nair and the ‘Library Movement’ which coincided with it became the real factor for this changes in Malayalam cinema. Also the strong presence of playwrights like N Krishna Pillai, C J Thomas, C N Shreekhantan Nair, G Shankara Pillai and K T Muhammad opened up new vistas in the field of stage plays. Dramas of Thoppil Bhasi like Ningalanne Communist AakkiSurvey Kallu and Mudiayanaya Puthran created ripples in the society. Malayalam cinema, which followed these footsteps but couldn’t create its own cinematic form and remained as novels and dramas.

The Growth: 1960s

After the success of Neelakuyil, films with authentic Malayalam stories set in the backdrops of Kerala villages started arriving. Minnaminingu directed by Ramu Karyat and Rarichhan enna Pouran by P Bhaskaran were noted films produced during the late 1950s. Takazhi Shivashankara Pillai's famous novel Randidangazhi was also seen on the silver screen.

In 1961 Kandam Bacha Coat, the first full-length colour film in Malayalam was released. This was an adoption of a famous social drama. Bhargavi Nilayam (1964) directed by A Vincent is a notable film of this period. This was a cinematic adoption of renowned Malayalam writer Vykom Muhammad Basheer's novel. Vincent also directed some of the best films of early ages like Murapennu, Nagarame Nandi, Asuravithu and ThulabharamIrutinte Athmavu directed by P Bhaskaran, based on M T Vasudevan Nair's story, gave a new face to superstar Prem Nazir, who till then was seen only in romantic hero's role.

Chemmeen - 1965
(Prawn)

 

Chemmeen (1965) directed by Ramu Karyat was the first South Indian film to bag the President's Golden Lotus Award for the best film. Based on a famous novel of the same name by renowned Malayalam writer Takazhi Shivashanakara Pillai, Chemmeen pioneered the growth of Malayalam cinema in technical and artistic aspects. It brought together some of the best technical talents then available in India, Salil Chowdhari (music), Markes Burtly (cinematography) and Hrishikesh Mukhargee (editing). It also had a huge star cast.

Post-Chemmeen Era

The post-Chemmeen Malayalam cinema arena saw an upsurge in quality films, mainly based on literary works of some of the best writers of Kerala. After Chemmeen, Ramu Karyat directed Ezhu Rathrikal which narrated the story of the down trodden. The renowned Malayalam writer M T Vasudevan Nair made his film debut by writing screenplay for Murapennu. Directed by A Vincent, Murapennu was a landmark film. Oolavum Theeravum by P N Menon announced the revolutionary changes Malayalam cinema was about to witness in the early 1970s. A new generation of filmmakers who realized the uniqueness of the language of this medium, ventured into a different kind of cinema. This film could be considered as the bridge between the two eras of Malayalam cinema.

Here onwards Malayalam cinema got split into two distinct streams, one that considered cinema’s artistic qualities as its primary objective, which kept away all the formulas of popularity and the other the crass commercials, which took into consideration only the possibilities to entertain the mass and spin money.

The Malayalam New Wave

The growth of film society movement and the screenings of world classics forced a drastic change in Malayalee film sensitivity during the early 1970s. A new movement often termed as the 'New Wave Malayalam Cinema' or the 'Malayalam Parallel Cinema' emerged. Adoor Gopalakrishnan made his first film Swayamvaram in 1972, which made Malayalam cinema noticed at International film arena. G Aravindan through his Uttarayanam in 1974 accelerated this radical change in Malayalam cinema.

Another major stream of Malayalam cinema that appeared during the 1970s, which was a synthesis of the highly commercial popular cinema and the parallel cinema from which the masses always stayed away, was the '>middle-stream cinema'. These films, mainly from directors like K G GeorgePadmarajan and Bharathan, had meaningful themes but had popular forms of presentation and had influenced a generation of film viewers.

Film Society Movement in Kerala

The Film Society Movement, which started in 1960s and gained momentum during the 1970s, brought in a new consciousness about cinema as an art form and stood for a different kind of cinema, which was termed as 'parallel', 'newwave' or 'art' cinema. Contrary to other parts of India, this movement was never an urban phenomenon, but something that cut across all terrains and sections of society. At a point of time, the great classics of World Cinema reached even the rural Kerala and discussions on them were held at the layman's level.

The 'Chitralekha Film Society' formed under the leadership of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Kulathoor Bhaskaran Nair in 1965 at Trivandrum, was the first Film Society in Kerala, though even before this there was an attempt at Trissur to form a Film Club, namely the Trissur Film Club in 1955. 'Chitralekha' also did work towards formation of Film Societies in Schools and Colleges and also succeed in setting up a film studio of its own. Soon Film Societies were formed at other parts of Kerala.

The Naxalbari agitations, student revolt in Paris, Vietnam war and the hippie movement formed the general ambience of the 1970s. This agitated environment combined with Malayalam literary scene, which was already vibrant with the new 'modernist' ideas became the foundation for the spread of Film Societies all over Kerala during the 1970s. More that a hundred Film Societies sprouted all over Kerala, of which some of them have completed more than 25 year now. Even today, Kerala has the largest number of Film Societies in India and still trying to create awareness about cinema as a serious art form.

Among the Film Societies of Kerala, the 'Odessa' experiment, started by John Abraham, stands apart from all the experiments in various ways. It never had a formal / legal structure or any political backing. Its attempt was to attack the problem comprehensively at all levels - exhibition, distribution and production, by ensuring people's participation in all its activities. But with the untimely demise of John Abraham, 'Odessa' movement started waning.

International Film Festival of Kerala

Started a decade ago, the International Film Festival of Kerala, now held permanently at Trivandrum, has grown into one of the best in India and a notable one in the international circuit. Apart from showcasing the latest and classics of world cinema, IFFK also becomes the forum for open discussions on cinema. IFFK also has a competition section for Asian, African and Latin American films. IFFK is conducted during the month of December every year by the State run Kerala Chalichatra Academy.


malayalam middle cinema

The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed drastic changes in the approach of filmmakers towards cinema and this was reciprocated in the quality of film viewing too. Films like Kuttyedathy, Oolavum Theeravum and Mappusakshi by P N Menon during the late 60s and early 70s were signals of these changes. These films brought back the heroes of popular cinema down to earth, identifiable for ordinary people as one among them.

The films by Adoor GopalakrishnanAravindan and John Abraham during the early 1970s were reflections of 'new wave' movements all over the world, often termed as 'parallel cinema' movement. Even when Malayalam cinema reached new heights through these films, they remained as the art of a minority. A synthesis of the easily communicative, but hollow commercial cinema and the cinema enjoyed by a minority, the parallel cinema, took place during this period, which later came to be known as 'middle-stream cinema'.

M T Vasudeven Nair, with his directorial debut Nirmalyam (1973) pioneered this stream of Malayalam cinema. K G George, with his first film Swapnadanam (1975) later moved to the middle-stream and produced some of the best works of Malayalam cinema. Bharathan with Prayanam (1977) strengthened this stream and also paved the way for one of the most influential directors of the middle path cinema, Padmarajan. Padmarajan with his first film Peruvazhiyambalam (1979) and latter Oridathoru phayalvan (1981) consistently made quality films and stood as a consolation factor even when Malayalam cinema returned back to mindless commercials. K S Sethumadhavan, starting his film career in 1960s and became a strong figure in commercial cinema, produced some better works like Oppol (1980) during this period. The other most consistent director in making quality films, Lenin Rajendran made his debut with Venal (1981) and has made some notable films including his latest film, Anyar (2003). Sreenivasan who entered cinema as an actor later took up script writing and penned some of the best satires ever made in Malayalam. The two films he directed, Vadakkunokki yantram (1989) and Chintavistayaya Shyamala (1998) were hard hitting social critiques, which expanded the boundaries of comedy cinema.


malayalam parallel cinema


Indian cinema took a big leap during the early 1970s, after the first wave of changes that occurred during the 1950s. This new movement was mainly triggered by the new generation filmmakers trained at the FTII, Pune, who made films with the help of the newly constituted Film Finance Corporation.

The early 1970s witnessed a radical change in the perspective towards cinema by filmmakers as well as film viewers of Kerala too. The beginning of film societies resulting in the exposure to world classics helped a group of young filmmakers realise the uniqueness of the language of this medium, which till then was in the clutches of the forms used for stage dramas. Influenced by the French and Italian New Wave, as elsewhere in India, the Malayalam New Wave was born. The arrival of young filmmakers from the newly constituted Film Institute in Pune acted as a catalyst for this radical change.

P N Menon who made films like KuttyedathyOolavum Theeravum and Mappusakshi in early 70s paved the way for the upcoming movement. But due to economic failure of some of his films nothing more came out him.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Swayamvaram (1972) outshone many other films of the time because of its exquisite quality. After completing his diploma from the Pune Film Institute, Adoor took active part in constituting Kerala's first Film Socity, 'Chalachitra' (1965). It was also in his active leadership Kerala's first Film Co-operative Society for film production 'Chitralekha' was started.

M T Vasudevan Nair, who wrote screenplay for several memorable films made his directorial debut with Nirmalyam (1973), which won the President's Gold Medal for the best film. K P Kumaran's Atithi came out in the next year.

1974 witnessed the birth of a new filmmaker, who gave tremendous contributions to the growth of Malayalam parallel cinema, G Aravindan. Through Uttarayanam Aravindan brought the agitated youth of that time to the silver screen.

Films of Pune Film Institute graduates K R Mohanan, K G George and G S Panikkar were seen in the 70s. K R Mohan's Aswathamavu, K G George's Swapnadanam and G S Panikkar's Ekakani are noted works in Malayalam parallel cinema. P A Becker narrated the story of youth influenced by Leftist extremism and naxalism through his noted films like Kabani nadi chuvannappol, Mani muzhakkam, Chuvanna Vithukal and Sangha Ganam. Padmarajan, who later turned to the field of 'middle path cinema' made his first two noted films in 70s, Peruvazhiambalam and Oridathu oru phailvan. Bharathan, who too later joined Padmarajan's path made his first film Prayanam (1975).

During the 1980s, even though Malayalam Parallel Cinema made a slowdown, some of the best films ever made in Malayalam by master film makers Adoor and Aravindan were made during this decade. Adoor Gopalakrishnan's masterwork Elipathayam (1981) was followed by Mukhamukham (1984), Anantharam (1987) and Mathilukal (1989). G Aravindan's major works like Esthappan (1980), Pokkuvail (1981), Chidambaram (1985) and Oridathu (1986) were released during this period. Other major works produced during the 80s were K G George's Aadaminte Variyellu, M T Vasudevan Nair's Manju, John Abraham's Cheriyachante Krurakrithyangal and Amma ariyan, K R Mohanan's Purushartham, Pavithran's Uppu and Shaji N Karun's first film Piravi.

A positive development was witnessed in the field of commercial Malayalam Cinema too during the 1980s. A new path of filmmaking was introduced by directors Padmarajan and Bharathan, films that stood equidistant from traditional 'popular' and 'parallel' cinema. These film makers successfully made films, which were commercially viable, without using the usual formulas of commercial cinema. The distance between 'popular' and 'parallel' cinema reduced so that these films could not be distinguished.

1990s could be considered the worst years for Malayalam parallel cinema. Only few good films were produced during this decade. These include Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Vidheyan and Kathapurushan, Aravindan's last film Vasthuhara and Shaji N Karun's Swaham.

T V Chandran with films like Susannah, Danny and Padam Onnu Oru Vilapam is a strong presence in Malayalam cinema. R Sarath's Sayahnam and Stithi, Murali Nair's Maranasimhasanam, Pattiyude Divasam and Arimpara, Satish Menon's Bhavam Rajiv Vijayaraghavan's Margam and Ashok R Nath's Sabhalam are notable films that came out during the recent years. After a long absence of eight years, Adoor Gopalakrishnan is back with his Nizhalkkuthu in 2003.

NOTABLE DIRECTORS:

Adoor Gopalakrishnan
G Aravindan
John Abraham
Shaji N Karun
K R Mohanan
P A Backer
T V Chandran
K P Kumaran
Murali Nair
Suma Josson
T Rajeevnath
Raveendran
G S Panicker
R Sarath
Satish Menon
Rajiv Vijayaraghavan
K J Baby
K P Sasi
C P Padmakumar
Sivaprasad
M P Sukumaran Nair
P T Kunjumohammed
V R Gopinath
T K Rajeev Kumar
V K Prakash
Sanjay Nambiar
Priyanandan
Subrahmanyam Shantakumar
Ligy J Pullapally
P M Abdul Azeez
Pradeep Nair

 



 

Of Life...On Films...

 

Born in 1941, Adoor Gopalakrishnan started acting the amateur stage at the early age of eight. Wrote and directed over twenty Stage Plays during his academic career. A graduate in Political Science and Economics, he joined the Film Institute in Pune after a short stint of employment with the Kerala Government and got his diplomas in Script writing and Direction in 1965. One of the leading lights of the New Indian Cinema, Adoor pioneered the Film Society Movement in the State of Kerala and started the country's first film Co-operative, Chitralekha for the production, distribution and exhibition of quality films.

He has scripted and directed nine films and more than two dozen Shorts and Documentaries. Each of his feature films has won top national awards. His first film, Swayamvaram went on to win National awards for best film, best director, best cameraman and best actress. Since then He has won national award for best director four times and best script writer thrice. His films have been shown in every important festivals including, Cannes, Berlin and Venice. Adoor's third feature, Elippathayam won him the coveted British Film Institute Award for the most original and imaginative film of 1982. The International Film Critics' Prize (FIPRESCI) has gone to him five times successively for Mukhamukham, Anantaram, Mathilukal, Vidheyan and Kathapurushan. In 1983 the Government of India, Conferred on him the title of Padmashri and Padmavibhushan in 2006 in recognition of his contribution to Indian Cinema. His collection of essays, The World of cinema got the national award for Best book on Cinema in 1984. His pioneering work in the Film Society Movement has gone a long way in creating a better film culture in his home State. He has served on International Film Festival juries in Venice, Hawaii, Singapore, Sochi, New Delhi, Brussels, Alexandria and so on.

A complete retrospective of his films was held at the French Cinematheque, Paris in 1999. Other important retrospectives include the ones at the Lincoln Center, New York (1994), La Rochelle, Pesaro, Madrid and Fribourg. He has also been honoured with tributes and homage at the film festivals of Helsinki, Denver, Munich, Nantes, Alexandria, Figuera da Foz, Manila, Houston etc.

This interview with Adoor by C S Venkiteswaran was conducted in 2001.

Venkiteswaran: What are your earliest memories of sight and sound?
Adoor: One of my earliest memories is of a boat ride in the night. Someone had come to inform my father of my aunt's death. I was five or six years old and we were staying at my father's office quarters, which was in an island in the backwaters. We started then and there by boat. The water all around us was calm and still and it bore a faint reflection of the night sky lending some faint idea of light and sight. The sound of the oars falling on water is still vivid in my memory.

Memories of the past have something to do with tragedies-pain, insult, loss, grief, I think...

When I was a child, I was a good marksman. I was adept at aiming at any mango or cashew fruit and bringing it down with stones. Once, while I was going to school, I saw an owl on a tree. I don't know what came over me. I aimed and threw a stone at it. And it dropped to the ground dead. This painful memory has stayed with me since then and still haunts me. There are many things in life that you can't repair later.

Our house was in the middle of a large garden with a variety of trees-mango, cashew, coconut, arecanut, jackfruit, tamarind. There was hardly any tree I had not climbed. Once on top of the tree I would forget about the laws of gravitation. And naturally it was normal routine for me to fall off them. As it became a regular affair, my mother kept a dish of herbal oil handy so that she could take it with her every time she rushed to the spot where I hit the ground with a big thud.

Animals, birds, trees and plants were all part of our life. We had cows, dogs and cats, all called by name. They were part of the family. I remember an incident concerning one of our dogs (we called him La Fayette)-old and infirm-and everyone thought he was about to die. He had almost lost all his hair and was always dozing in some corner of the house. One day he chanced up on the lehyam (ayurvedic medicine) kept out in the courtyard for sunning. Before anyone noticed it, he had lapped up the whole of it. My mother had got it prepared for my sister who was resting after delivery. In a couple of weeks, to everyone's surprise, the dog started growing shiny hair, and to regain his lost youth. A perfect testimony to the efficacy of the lehyam!

A lot many amongst us are living in an illusory world. They claim to be living in a fast world. But where is speed in our life? It is there only on TV or in MTV where images flicker fast and faster. In a place where the electrical power supply is frequently interrupted, how can life be fast? This speed we are talking about is totally artificial, like our popular heroes and villains, their costumes and vocations.

You are very fond of Kathakali and have made several documentaries on Kathakali artistes like Guru Chengannur and Kalamandalam Gopi. Was Kathakali always there right from your childhood?
There were regular performances at my ancestral house. Our family were patrons of Kathakali for generations and we had our own Kaliyogam (Kathakli troupe). There were artistes in the family too. A cousin of my mother was married to an all-time-great kathakali singer. One of the three husbands, all brothers, of my grandmother, had taken to magic as his pastime. While he proved himself a patron and connoisseur of arts, the other two took care of mundane matters like managing the farmlands and attending to regular litigation of sorts.

My earliest experience of Kathakali is that of watching it from my mother's lap. For my mother Kathakali was almost part of her daily life. So, even as a child, I developed a liking for it as I watched it in performance and listened to my mother as she explained what was happening on stage to the women sitting around us.

In those days, at my taravad (joint family house), we could watch a number of Kathakali performances- both with make-up and costume and also without them (Cholliyattam). On any special occasion like an elder's birthday, a performance was an essential item. We had the basic unit (a troupe comprising of performers, accompanying instrumentalists, trainees, singers, greenroom hands, gurus etc). We only had to gather the 'stars' as guest performers as is the general practice even today. The costumes and headgears my uncle had got made were of high quality. Whenever the legendary Krishnan Nair, who was a rising star in the Fifties, had any performance nearby, he used to insist on borrowing these very ones. Those days the glittering parts of the headgear were made out of the shell of insects like the blue beetle, not gilt paper as it is done now. Their glow in the light of the oil lamp was very unique. A number of labourers used to be sent out to the fields to hunt for blue beetles every time a headgear had to be got made. But the tragic part of it is that I grew up in a period when all this was considered worthless. What was considered 'worthwhile' was western theatre. So, we spent our time reading, studying, writing and producing such plays. We were always looking towards the west. I feel it was a great loss. It was thrust upon us that proper theatre should have unity of space and time. And we were totally convinced of that, no doubts or hesitations. So, Koodiyattam or Kathakali did not mean much to us. We had acquired different yardsticks of quality judgment, and these arts questioned such rigid conceptions of space and time.

Curiously, one doesn't find any kathakali performance in your films.
True. I have only shown the performers getting ready in Kodiyettam, and never beyond that. That also, very contextually, just to show a transformation-a man transforming into a female character.

I think your approach to films is deeply influenced by Kathakali, its basic elements and mise-en-scene that combine rigorous delineation of characters on the one hand, even while maintaining the possibility of improvisation during performance. So in a way, it is very much open and also rigorous at the same time. This, I feel, is a characteristic of your films also, especially the way you present your characters and organize your scenes...
May be it is there in an indirect way.

For e.g., when a pacha character comes on stage, his 'character' is very much defined. But in actual performance, it is the narrative context that determines expression, and the possibilities for improvisation are infinite. This precision about characterization is present in your films also, I think...
May be. After all, what is a character? A character is revealed through actions and reactions and the inevitable interactions (and also the lack of it) with others in given situations. There is possibly no other proper way to reveal it. All human situations are dramatically potent. So if the person who faces it happens to be plain wooden in nature without any potential for attitudinal changes, how would a credible and interesting development result? The lessons of the past as well as the fresh encounters of the present go on to define his place in the sun. There can be no single prefabricated approach in these matters.

Yes, the most popular characters in classical arts like Kathakali or Koodiyattam are all villains like Ravana or Bali, and seldom the satvic characters like Rama. For satvic characters lack drama and conflict in their personality, and as a corollary, in their representation.
Yes, they are also the most colourful characters. It is a red 'thalli' and 'kathi' that shines on stage rather than the satvic 'pacha' characters. But paradoxically, only those who play the pacha characters become 'stars'. People admire a Gopi more than a Ramankutty Nair, despite the visually spectacular and colourful presentation of the villains or demons in Kathakali.

Unlike art forms like the Japanese Kabuki, the presentation of which is more spectacular, Kathakali requires the minimum of properties and sets. You can perform it anywhere with the minimum of resources and stage settings.

Recently I made a film on Koodiyattam-the oldest living theatre in the world for UNESCO. It was basically an effort to document the theatre art form. A three-hour long film resulted though I had shot almost ten hours of it. But then they wanted a smaller version of 10 to 15 minutes duration. It was not impossible, but was not fair to the art, I thought. Instead, I suggested they watch any 15 minutes from the film. That would be more in keeping with this theatre art that takes a few weeks to enact an Act.

This great performance tradition of Koodiyattam and Kathakali, where there is infinite freedom to improvise, where time and space is fluid, has all this helped in developing a 'Malayali' film idiom or language?
I haven't analysed my films on those lines. But I believe that such a culture is part of my works and runs as its undercurrent.

Kathakali engrosses me completely. While watching a performance, I forget everything else-the external world, all the personal problems... There is hardly anything in it that relates to the present and there is no effort at being realistic. I think the percussion and the ambience as a whole transport us completely into a different world. And it has always been such a creative stimulus for me. Here each role is being defined anew by the actors each time they perform it. Now Gopi is defining how a Nalan should be. Earlier it was Krishnan Nair. Tomorrow it will be somebody else. It keeps on changing and evolving.

And there is never a performance that is 'the' performance making the act of recording often irrelevant.
Yes, that is its greatness. The problem with recording is that it would be taken for the norm. One of the great qualities of our culture is that nothing is staged or performed with a view to be preserved. Every performance is for that evening. Tomorrow it will be created again.

Once I went to Kadammanitta to watch Padayani. In the late evening they were all busy painting makeshift masks and making the costumes and those huge and spectacular headgears. All that is done on fresh arecanut sheaths and tender coconut leaves lending the make-up a certain ethnic authenticity. They take on a special glow in the light of the oil torches. Once the performance is over, those headgears and perishables are simply discarded. That night, when I came away I brought some of the masks with me. But after a day or two, they just withered and shrank. A Padayani performer doesn't have to create anything for preservation. He is confident that he can always create it anew, anytime, and always afresh. It is a great concept. Take our 'kalamezhuthu' for instance. We draw this colourful and wonderfully intricate Kalam only to erase it at the end of the ritual. This obsession with preservation is totally western-this idea of plucking something from its natural context and keeping it. For us it is part of a continuum. Our climate is not quite kind to the idea of preservation either. These torrential rains and sultry summers don't allow any kind of preservation. It destroys and in turn replenishes too. A summer would dry up everything. But rains would give everything a rebirth.

Has contemporary Indian art lived up to this heritage?
The question is whether we are aware of a heritage that is all our own. Whether we look beyond the present and the recent. Also do we really consider even the everyday phenomena around us seriously?

For example take the crow. Ours is a lifetime association with this ubiquitous bird. There is no event in life where this bird doesn't have a signification. Its crowing signifies the arrival of visitors, birth, death, betrothals - everything in our life.

Or take the coconut tree-a tree that is closely linked to our lives. Everything about it is significant. Its position in relation to the house, its girth, height, slant, the rings on its trunk and so on. Then think of the house-lizards. Their droppings, the 'tche - tche' noise they make, their own falls-a set of meanings and relationships are associated with it all. The cow and various other domestic animals are all inextricably intertwined with our lives and fortunes. So all these motifs form a natural part of our views and attitudes on life and hence films as well.

The hooting of owl is associated with a particular time of the day. Likewise the mood and temper of a situation can be suggested through bird and animal sounds. The crow is an interesting bird that way. There are crows that yearn to sing like other birds. I have listened to them with sympathy and understanding and I must say that they were quite sweet. Once I heard a caged mynah imitating the crow struggling to croon like a bird in all sarcasm!

And then there are the natural phenomena like the rain and the sun. All my films have rain at some point. I feel that the film is not complete without a rain. Maybe to set a mood, an ambience, to suggest something. The effort is to evoke the associations these elements resonate in us.

In my films I have used crows, dogs, house-lizards, and other birds in various ways. I don't know if everyone understands it. But still, it is part of my way of story telling. For example in MUKHAMUKHAM, there is a scene in which the head constable takes the liberty of demanding tea to be served. He is not a welcome guest and is told that there was no milk left in the house as the calf had finished everything. At that moment the bleating of a calf is heard in the background. An audience familiar with rural life would immediately realise that the calf is bleating for its mother's milk and the head of the household was simply lying to the constable.

What about the dimension of space?
The use of space within the frame of a shot and also in the film as a whole should positively be influenced by our architecture. The composition of a frame is not just a casual decision. It is something that is deeply related to the ambience of the living space. In our commercial films, it is a common sight that two rival characters are often shown together in close proximity simply because they have to be accommodated within a frame. It is a total negation of any respect for space and the advantages inherent in it. Ideally, space should have kept them apart. There are a lot of such things, like the way you use topography of a particular place etc. The objective is to make the viewer feel. The point is not in what you see or hear but in what you are made to see or hear. The visuals we see and the sounds you hear lead you to something beyond their sum total. We need to be reminded of other things constantly. But the tragedy is, even the most sensitive of viewers don't expect much from films. This is because they are constantly being exposed to such trite and trivial things on the screen where the facade hides an interior that is not there.

Have you ever felt it as a conscious challenge, the attempt to narrate differently as against the Hollywood or Western ways? For example take the kite sequence in KODIYETTAM, a delightfully lengthy sequence, which is pure cinema with no diegetic immediacy to it. And there is also something very much Malayalee to it.
It is pure abandonment, an expression of leisure and also typical of Sankarnkutty's rudderless life. It can only happen like that, for the film has an episodic structure. It is devised in such a fashion as the film would look natural and as if there was no intervention from outside. No visible drama, no major issues or conflicts, and the pace is unhurried. I have used no background score in it either. Most viewers didn't even notice it. In the background, I have used the sounds of almost all the common birds and animals in Kerala - the crow, the owl, the cow, the dog, the elephant.

Coming back to the question of cultural specificity, the same sound may signify different things to people from different cultures and lives. So a certain 'lived experience' is vital to the understanding of a film in all its details and complexities.

We enjoy Japanese films because we already share a common culture with the people of Japan. We think we understand western films because we have been prepared for it through the colonial rule, English education, spread of Christianity and the wealth and resources of the West. But coming to think of it, hardly any serious effort is made even by critics in the West to prepare themselves for our films-they are just films from the third world. And everything is subsumed by that abstraction, 'third world'. One can see the difference in the approach of critics who have visited India at least once and those who haven't had any such exposure.

In our all out effort to equip ourselves with things that are modern and imported, we have lost a discerning audience for our own works. In the past, Kathakali and Koodiyattam survived and thrived because a community of discerning and devoted home audience was there all through. When our meaningful cinema loses such an audience, that is reason for alarm.

May be this is a universal phenomenon when a monoculture is hegemonising the world and all the so-called little cultures are being swept away.
Yes, today we tend to think that only money-grossers matter. In the process we are losing our own identity. It also leads to a situation where the 'small' cultures are made to think of themselves as inferior cultures.

It is a fall-out of the colonial psychosis, this inferiority complex. In Malayalam, we have so many books and articles on Bergman and Kurosawa. We don't have as many even on Ray. This is fine as long as you don't consider our own works in the language of lesser importance. But unfortunately, we don't even bother to teach our children their mother tongue. The problem lies not in the exposure to the wide world outside but in our attitude and the wrong lessons we learn from it. Appallingly, it is inhibiting us rather than opening up.

Either way-that of imitating the west and trying to beat them at their own game, or to presenting ourselves as esoteric, are dangerous.
The idiom of cinema is also undergoing transformations with the changing times. There is no question of keeping a static position. This is not to say that we should pander to the irreconcilable tastes of the audience as the commercial filmmakers claim. A lot many amongst us are living in an illusory world. They claim to be living in a fast world. But where is speed in our life? It is there only on TV or in MTV where images flicker fast and faster. In a place where the electrical power supply is frequently interrupted, how can life be fast? This speed we are talking about is totally artificial, like our popular heroes and villains, their costumes and vocations.

Maybe it is precisely this make-believe, the exaggerations that we enjoy.
If you confuse that for the real, you are actually negating life itself. Not surprisingly, a cinema that deals with life as we live and truth that we value attracts fewer viewers. Only a discerning audience can create good cinema. Take for example, our film criticism. Even the critics don't approach cinema seriously.

Was it there in the seventies when you were beginning to make films?
No, it was not there at all. In fact what we were trying then was to create an audience by taking good cinema to the colleges and universities. It is from there that change should come. One feels sad to see college students lapping up trash and becoming unquestioning consumers. They would even ridicule serious cinema. Media has played a very negative role in this. They have branded alternate cinema as boring, coining phrases like the 'indolent pace of art cinema'.

 

 

interview: g aravindan

Chandradaasan: You directed your first film, UTTARAYANAM in 1974. Can you tell us a little about the period before that and how the experiences of those years influenced the present film maker that you are?
G. Aravlndan: I was interested in cinema from the very beginning - my childhood days, my student days - as far back as I can remember. I saw a lot of films with my friends and I used to read whatever available literature on films and discuss them whenever possible. However, it was only after the International Film Festival in 1954, that I got a chance to view films like RASHOMON, and BICYCLE THIEVES. These films were different. It was like a revelation... It opened up another possibility, another side of cinema, another sensibility, which did not exist until then... Well, I passed B. Sc. with distinction. My subject was Botany. I got a good job with the Rubber Board, and hence discontinued my academic pursuits. During my years with the Rubber Board I had to work on different locations in Kerala like Calicut, Kothamangalam, Trivandrum etc. Those days I used to paint in oil and watercolours - most of them were portraits and paintings of animals. I had also' taken part in group exhibitions of paintings. Another fascination was music - in my childhood. I was 'introduced to classical music, which I studied for a long time. While working in Calicut I learned Hindustani from Sharat Chandra Rai.

A good cinema is like any other works of art, like painting, dance, theatre, literature etc. No work of art directly or indirectly change society or human beings. However cinema has the power to influence the human mind. Talking about good cinema... I believe that any act of a human being committed with sincerity and conviction is good. So is the case with cinema, if it is born out of one's conviction, it cannot but be good.

How was the family atmosphere... was it encouraging?
I had a very free family atmosphere. My father, (advocate Govindan Nair) was a writer himself. He has never restricted me in any way. Though I used to go home several times late in the night - mostly after seeing films, he never scolded me. I used to read a bit too. Though I did not understand them completely, those days I acquainted myself with Sartre and Camus. I was also familiar with many well known literary figures of Kerala, who I met either at home or through the Sahitya Parishat. Some of the famous contemporary writers in Kerala today, like 0 N V Kurupu, Thirunallur Karunakaran, Sugatha Kumari, N Mohanan etc. are my classmates.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan came back from the Film Institute and started the Chitralekha Film Society. I co-operated with that attempt - I think it was in 1962 or in 1963. It was at this time that an All India Writers Conference was organised by FACT in Ernakulam. It was a very big event. Nothing like that has happened before or after that in India. The whole programme was organised by M K K. Nair and M Govindan. Adoor was incharge of the Film section and I was incharge of the painting section. After this I started a Film Society in Kottayam, then later when I was transferred to Calicut I started another Film Society in Calicut. I did not miss any Hollywood Film that got released in the town. My association with film gradually grew and continued on these lines. .

When did you start drawing cartoons?
I used to draw from the student days and a few were published in some small magazines. In 1961, I sent some to the 'Mathrubhoomi' Weekly. They published that. That year, Shri N V Krishna Variyar, the Editor of 'Mathrubhoomi' asked me to contribute regularly to the weekly. From then for a period of 18 years continuously I have done cartoons for 'Mathrubhoomi' under the title of "Small Men (people) and Big World': I discontinued it only because I was not finding time to send the cartoons every week on time for publication.

Now we see your cartoons in Kalakaumudi weekly under the title 'A Birds eye view'
That is not a regular assignment. A regular assignment may not be possible for me. It is only once in a while when I get time that I do cartoons.

You also seem to have a keen interest in Drama?
Yes -I used to see a lot of theatre in my childhood. However, a more serious approach to theatre developed in me because of Shri C N Sreekantan Nair. In Kottayam we formed a Theatre Association called 'Navarangam'. The members used to meet every Sunday for play reading, discussions and to learn a little acting. That interest in drama still continues. Today I am associated with the 'Sopanam' theatre under the guidance of Kavalam Narayana Panikar. Though my role in it is minimal, I am interested in the cultural activity of the 'Sopanam'.

How did you move from regular cartooning and drama to cinema?
My first film was a sheer accident. I was in Calicut involved, in the film society and had been staying alone. My room was a kind of 'den' for friends to come together for a chat and a drink etc. Theeukodayil had prepared a script and all of us were trying hard to get it financed for making a film. Suddenly one day Pattathuvila Karunakaran said that he will finance the film, if I, Aravindan, directed it. I told him that I had no formal academic qualification for directing a film; All I had was some ideas through seeing films and reading about them. Pattathuvila said: 'that is enough'. And that is how I became a filmmaker.

Has composing cartoons, the way you developed cartoon characters, helped you in some way while shooting and directing films?
I have not felt anything like that. To tell you the truth, my cartoons are not such meticulously executed works. Most of the time one draws and gives in the work at the last moment. I had simplified the whole thing to, two characters in a frame with a visual dimension. Earlier I used to place the characters against a very clear backdrop. Later it became just two characters with a few lines here and there. I don't think I have drawn much from this kind of work for directing films. There is also no relationship between the camera/cinema frame and cartoon frames. I do not essentially believe that if you are a painter, a composer or a cartoonist it will help you in making films.

Can you tell us a little about your methodology of directing films? Do you prepare a detailed script-sketch of each shot?
I do it in either of the two ways: some times everything is planned before. But even then there is no elaborate shooting script. Most of the time I work with a loosely knit shooting script. Several times a lot of changes are made and some shots are totally abandoned. My scripts usually have the flexibility to take care of such eventualities. I don't have pre-fixed frame. I have not felt the need for such planning. In fact I am afraid of such a pre-conceived frame and doubt its advantages. Compositions might be bad for making a film. The shots can become rigid and the composition very formalistic. I feel a flexible approach in these matters bring better results... Well, different filmmakers adopt different methods. No one can say which is better and which is right. This has to be left to each individuals' taste.

Perhaps you are conscious about the colours you want and carry within you an overall idea about the kind of shots you are going to make, which allows you flexibility within your script.
Perhaps... But in MARATTAM my film under production, I have not used any colours consciously. I have used costumes and colours which were around and available. I have not decided that a particular character will have this or that costume or this or that colour.

Yet there is a lot of green and red (colours of the earth) in your films.
Red earth and greenery is what we are surrounded with. I have tried to use nature more than a backdrop only in KANCHANA SEETA. In KANCHANA SEETA nature is a character.

Though you say that you used nature as a backdrop there seems to be a lot of it in your films for example in the film POKKUVEYIL, the use of landscape in twilight.
I have used landscape in POKKUVEYIL to create a required mood. No landscape is used as characterisation.

However, when I watch your films, I cannot but get a feeling that the abundant use and depiction of landscape and nature make them a little more than mere backdrop...it seems to have another function... another purpose...
I have heard many speaking about it and seen a few writing about it in that way. There was no conscious effort from my side to make the landscape carry another function.

In the period between 1960 and 1974, you said that you were engaged primarily with paintings, film societies, drawing cartoons etc. I have heard that you were also interested in murals.
Yes,... my artist friend, A Ramachandran came back from Shantiniketan. His thesis was a study on murals, and I was moving around with him helping him in whatever way I could. Because of that I got a chance to learn about the characteristics of murals and differences between them. The thesis was a major work by A Ramachandran.

Apart from the knowledge you gained from the study of murals you seem to be influenced by its narrative style - which is essentially flexible; its loose dramatic structure, stretches and contracts space according to requirement. The character portrayal is also done in a similar fashion. What scenes and which character should assume prominence is totally determined by the mood of the artist.
This we find not only in murals, but it is a feature of our tradition. It is there in our paintings and sculptures, which are not three-dimensional. This is not peculiar only to India but is the basic characteristic of South East Asian region. The depiction of the eyes, the lines, the figure proportions etc., is totally different from that of the Western conception.

This flexibility of characterisation is there in every art form of ours, e.g. in our way of story telling; the intense moments and climaxes are left to the mood of the storyteller. With the result the storyteller sometimes highlights relatively ordinary episodes as the central events.
Yes, this is not only true of our story telling styles, but also of our stories; take for example, the Panchatantram stories. They flow spontaneously without having a unifying structure.

This kind of a narrative style seems to be a special feature of your films as well, especially of the films ESTHEPPAN, POKKUVEYIL, KUMMATTY. You have already told us that you don't have a formal training in directing films nor do you maintain any rigid standards. You are not following particularly any film theory in your films. Is it because you have accepted the narrative style of our tradition? Are they an effort to develop a film language from our cultural tradition?
I have not deliberately thought about such issues. The departures made from the Western ways are not conscious either. The Western ways of character analysis, introducing conflict and tension and the foreline, which controls all such notions does not go with our way of thinking, our tradition. Cinema is a lately developed Western idiom. It had a form as soon as it was born. How I have freed myself from these Western influences is not something that I have thought about. Nor am I sure about whether I have come out of Western influences. I don't base myself on any ideology or theory and analyse the how and the why of it all. Maybe this was possible because I have not undergone a formal training in filmmaking. Many influences are there. What I have seen and heard; what I have read; what friends discussed with me.

I want to go back and ask you another question. Do you like our classics like Kathakali?
Every year, there used to be a Kathakali performance at the temple until daybreak. I used to watch them casually and was not seriously interested in it. As I said earlier my main interest was music.

When and how did you get interested in Indian philosophy?
I cannot say that I have an in-depth knowledge of Indian philosophy. The basic concepts of Indian philosophy are part of all of us. Something that we live and breathe everyday. This interest in Indian philosophy was born and grew with my reading habit. Within Indian philosophy what fascinated me most was Buddhism of which I have read more. My association with Jiddu Krishnamurthy also helped in deepening my interest and sensibilities.

Well, I asked you this because your films are closely linked to Indian philosophy and tradition...
Mine is not a conscious effort. I very much like people who make departures from the mainstream-people who are critical of the dominant way of thinking, taste, and habits. I try listening to them to understand their flight from reality. Some of them make some kind of a departure from the mainstream but keep an active link with it. Some make the departures and live it out - the yet to be. I observe these things. These form my knowledge and my works reflect the knowledge, the feelings, the dilemmas, I have absorbed.

Your films carry a mysticism intrinsically linked to Nature. From the film UTHARAYANAM to ORIDATH, this is visible. Perhaps we can leave out ORIDATH. It is different from other films. ORIDATH deals with the transformation and convulsions of a village society due to an event, In all other films it is individuals and individual conflicts which are central, for instance, UTHARAYANAM, towards the end, the voyage into the forest, the meeting with the old woman, her guileless laughter, her kindness, and the mask which is burnt in the fire...; the title CHIDAMBARAM, the journey of Shankaran, Shankaran's internal conflict, his effort to re-establish himself into the routine of life, his failures, the doctor's advise to him to read the Gita, his haunting conscience and encounters with friends and strangers and finally, his entry into the Chidambaram temple where his elements blend and fuse into the invincibility of the temple. This search for the inviolable and eternal by the individual in the essences of Nature seems to be at the core of your films. There seems to be a continuity in the search for the spiritual in the realms of the ordinary and mundane... That is why I repeat the question.
I have not done anything consciously. How it is like that... I don't know. I was interested in the kind of issues you are talking about quite early in life. Though not very seriously, like a lot of youngsters, I thought of becoming a Sanyasi (pause) Perhaps I could have. There were possibilities…once I had decided seriously.

When did you get attracted to Buddhism?
I got attracted to Buddhism when working at Kothamangalam. I had to travel a lot to different estates as an Inspector from the Rubber Board. Yet, I was terribly alone...isolated… but for the presence of an artist friend... It was sometime in the fifties or early sixties. This is the context in which Buddhism fascinated me.

How did you respond to the social and political questions and changes of that time? After all it was a period of great political ferment in Kerala. The formation of the first government of the Communist Party of India, the subsequent development of opposition to it, which is generally termed as "the liberation" struggle and the dismissal of the Communist Government by the Centre etc.
I was not an activist. But my emotional response was intense. Some of the activists of the Communist movement were my friends. During the student days Shri.D M Pottakkad had stayed with me- this revolutionary and writer was being hunted by the police then. As a government employee, I could not act openly, so there were limitations. While I was positively sympathetic to the Communist movement, I was not a Party activist.

After that you went through a period of cynicism, which is clearly evident in your cartoon series, 'Ramu and Guruji'. How did it happen?
Ramu and Guruji are fictional characters. They never lived nor are they derived with reference to anyone. They are just concepts. The cynicism had a very definite social basis - the post independence socio-political realities, the rising expectations of the people, the poverty and unemployment, the double standards, the denied opportunities, (the witch hunting of communists for instance), difficulties in getting admission into the universities and colleges. I think this cynicism was shared by a lot of youngsters of the time...it is clearly reflected in the literature, the stories, and poems of the period...

Well, the beginning of this cynicism was evident in the cartoon series "Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya lokaum" (small people and big world). What one sees is a continuity and growth of this thinking.
When I started the cartoon series, it was just a situation of an unemployed youth. Later I thought this young man should have a character. So he became a sensitive young man. Subsequently many other characters like 'Ramu and Guruji' began to grow and get corrupted a bit by worldly wisdom. Then began a self-justification process and a willingness to adjust with the social realities. Thus the character 'Ramu' was slowly developing.

I know you also as a play director. One of the best plays I have seen is AVANAVAN KADAMBA directed by you. Have you directed any other plays?
Well, I directed KADAMBA after my first film. It was in 1976 or 1977. Before that, in 1964, I had directed C N Sreekantan Nair's play KALI (Anger) for a professional troupe. It was a disaster. The audience reacted terribly and the play had to be stopped half way.

One can say that KALI was the first experimental play in Malayalam. Why do you think it turned out to be a disaster?
KALI had too many limitations. First of all it was not suited for a professional troupe. Secondly when the professional troupe was staging, it turned out that it could not be 'professionally experimental'. I think there were problems in the script of the play itself. I think Shri C N Sreekantan Nair wanted to revise the play.

Can you tell us about direction AVANAVAN KADAMBA? What was the approach you adopted?
I cannot say that the play was solely directed by me. I evolved with the effort and contributions of a number of a people, like for instance, the playwright Kavalam Narayana Panikar. We also had a number of very good artists like Nedumudi Venu, Jaganathan, Gopi, Natarajan, KunjupilIai and others. Shri Paramashivan helped us with the choreography. Everybody had agreed to stage the play in the open instead of on a stage. For this purpose, I prepared a general outline based on the play, with a chart of formations, groupings, choreography etc. AVANAVAN KADAMBA initiated, for the first time in Malayalam theatre, a process of using folk form elements. We were not using folk forms as they are. The effort was to fuse various folk elements in the movements, chanting, narrative techniques, steps and rhythms to evolve a totally new form. A lot of suggestions and contributions facilitated this process. I was coordinating these efforts.

Let me come back to films. You said that you made your films based on your experience. Were you influenced by any particular film theory/concept?
I don't think I was influenced by any particular school of thought. What influenced me more was theatre and music. We are, I feel, working with a totally Western idiom, using the same techniques and the same chemistry. Can we evolve a new form, new sensibility using the same? Ketan Mehta has tried it in BHAVANI BHAVAI. This is something that we have to try. Using that idiom to evolve a form of our own is not easy. I have tried this in MARATOM my new film.

BHAVANI BHAVAI is evidently influenced by Jansco's film concept and camera work?
It is possible. These are the initial stages, the beginnings... there is a reliance on East European style. He also used Bhavai theatre in that film.

What do you think of NOKKUKUTHI directed by Mankada Ravi Varma?
I have not had an opportunity to see that film.

Talking about film theory and criticism, John Abraham once said that the film critic's approach to cinema is rooted in the literary tradition, while what we actually need is a visual approach.
What John said is right. The main reason for such an approach is that most of our film critics are also literary critics - some of them being writers themselves. In cinema as well as in theatre, this is the state of affairs. It is sad that what they write becomes the last word. Their notions and tastes are determined by literary excellences, and literary standards. Such film comments become superficial and external to cinema. Only music and painting have so far evaded the dominating clutches of the writers. A new language of film writing seems to be gradually emerging.

What is your idea of good cinema?
A good cinema is like any other works of art, like painting, dance, theatre, literature etc. No work of art directly or indirectly change society or human beings. However cinema has the power to influence the human mind. Talking about good cinema... I believe that any act of a human being committed with sincerity and conviction is good. So is the case with cinema, if it is born out of one's conviction, it cannot but be good.

 

 



 

history of indian cinema

 

Pre-cinema age

 

Telling stories from the epics using hand-drawn tableaux images in scroll paintings, with accompanying live sounds have been an age old Indian tradition. These tales, mostly the familiar stories of gods and goddesses, are revealed slowly through choreographic movements of painted glass slides in a lantern, which create illusions of movements. And so when the Lumire brothers' representatives held the first public showing at Mumbai's (Bombay) Watson's Hotel on July 7, 1896, the new phenomenon did not create much of a stir here and no one in the audience ran out at the image of the train speeding towards them, as it did elsewhere. The Indian viewer took the new experience as something already familiar to him.

Harischandra Sakharam Bhatwadekar, who happened to be present for the Lumiere presentation, was keen on getting hold of the Lumiere Cinematograph and trying it out himself rather than show the Lumiere films to a wider audience. The public reception accorded to Wrangler Paranjpye at Chowapatty on his return from England with the coveted distinction he got at Cambridge was covered by Bhatwadekar in December 1901- the first Indian topical or actuality film was born.

In Calcutta, Hiralal Sen photographed scenes from some of the plays at the Classic Theatre. Such films were shown as added attractions after the stage performances or taken to distant venue where the stage performers could not reach. The possibility of reaching a large audience through recorded images which could be projected several times through mechanical gadgets caught the fancy of people in the performing arts and the stage and entertainment business. The first decade of the 20th century saw live and recorded performances being clubbed together in the same programme.

The strong influence of its traditional arts, music, dance and popular theatre on the cinema movement in India in its early days, is probably responsible for its characteristic enthusiasm for inserting song and dance sequences in Indian cinema, even till today.

 

Dada Saheb Phalke

 

Dhundiraj Govind Phalke (1870 - 1944) affectionately called Dadasaheb Phalke is considered as the 'father of Indian Cinema'. Central in Phalke's career as a filmmaker was his fervent belief in the nationalistic philosophy of swadeshi, which advocated that Indians should take charge of their own economy in the perspective of future Independence.

Phalke, with his imported camera, exposed single frames of a seed sprouting to a growing plant, shot once a day, over a month-thus inadvertently introducing the concept of 'time-lapse photography', which resulted in the first indigenous 'instructional film'- The Birth of a Pea Plant (1912) - a capsule history of the growth of a pea into a pea-laden plant. This film came very handy in getting financial backing for his first film venture.

Inspired from an imported film - Life of Christ - Phalke started mentally visualising the images of Indian gods and goddesses. What really obsessed him was the desire to see Indian images on the screen in a purely Swadeshi venture. He fixed up a studio in Dadar Main Road, wrote the scenario, erected the set and started shooting for his first venture Raja Harishchandra in 1912. The first full-length story film of Phalke was completed in 1912 and released at the Coronation cinema on April 21, 1913, for special invitees and members of the Press. The film was widely acclaimed by one and all and proved to be a great success.

 

Raja Harishchandra

 

The opening tableaux presents a scene of royal family harmony- with a space "outside" the frame from where the people emerge, and to which space the king when banished seeks shelter. The film's treatment is episodic, following the style of the Indian flok theatre and the primitive novel. Most of the camera set-ups are static, with plenty of movements within the frame. The bathtub sequence where Harishchandra comes to call his wife Taramati, who is in the tub, with her fully drenched attendants is indeed the first bath-tub scene in Indian cinema. All the females in their wet sarees and blouses clinging to their bodies are in fact all males in female grab.

Phalke hailed from an orthodox Hindu household - a family of priests with strong religious roots. So, when technology made it possible to tell stories through moving images, it was but natural that the Indian film pioneer turned to his own ancient epics and puranas for source material. The phenomenal success of Raja Harishchandra was kept up by Phalke with a series of mythological films that followed - Mohini Bhasmasur (1914), significant for introducing the first woman to act before the cameras - Kamalabai Gokhale. The significant titles that followed include - Satyawan Savitri (1914), Satyavadi Raja Harischandra (1917), Lanka Dahan (1917), Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kalia Mardan (1919).

Regional Cinema

The first film in Southern India was made in 1916 by R Nataraja Mudaliar- Keechaka Vadham. As the title indicates the subject is again a mythological from the Mahabharata. Another film made in Madras - Valli Thiru-Manam (1921) by Whittaker drew critical acclaim and box office success. Hollywood returned Ananthanarayanan Narayanan founded General Pictures Corporation in 1929 and established filmmaking as an industry in South India and became the single largest producer of silent films. Kolhapur in Western Maharashtra was another centre of active film production in the twenties. In 1919 Baburao K Mistry - popularly known as Baburao Painter formed the Maharashtra Film Co. with the blessings of the Maharaja of Kolhapur and released the first significant historical - Sairandhari (1920) with Balasheb Pawar, Kamala Devi and Zunzarrao Pawar in stellar roles. Because of his special interest in sets, costumes, design and painting, he chose episodes from Maratha history for interpreting in the new medium and specialised in the historical genre. The exploits of Shivaji and his contemporaries and their patriotic encounters with their opponents formed the recurring themes of his 'historicals' which invariably had a contemporary relevance to the people of a nation, who were fighting for liberation from a colonial oppressor. The attack against the false values associated with the Western way of life and their blind imitation by some Indians was humorously brought out by Dhiren Ganguly in his brilliant satirical comedy - England Returned (1921) - presumably the first 'social satire' on Indians obsessed with Western values. And with that another genre of Indian cinema known as 'the contemporary social' slowly emerged. Baburao Painter followed it up with another significant film in 1925 - Savkari Pash (The Indian Shylock) - an attempt at realistic treatment of the Indian peasant exploited by the greedy moneylender.

In Bengal, a region rich in culture and intellectual activity, the first Bengali feature film in 1917, was remake of Phalke's Raja Harishchandra. Titled Satyawadi Raja Harishchandra, it was directed by Rustomjee Dotiwala. Less prolific than Bombay based film industry, around 122 feature films were made in Calcutta in the Silent Era.

The first feature film in Tamil, also the first in entire South India, Keechakavatham was made during 1916-17, directed by Nataraja Mudaliar.

Marthandavarma (1931) produced by R Sunder Raj, under Shri.Rajeswari Film, Nagercoil, directed by P V Rao, got into a legal tangle and was withdrawn after its premiere. Based on a celebrated novel by C V Raman Pillai, the film recounts the adventures of the crown prince and how he eliminates the arch-villains to become the unquestioned ruler of the Travancore State. The film has title cards in English and Malayalam, some of which are taken from the original text. A few of the title cards and action make obvious reference to the Swadeshi Movement of the time. Had it not been for the legal embargo, the film would have had a great impact on the regional cinema of the South.

Indian Cinema Starts Talking

In the early thirties, the silent Indian cinema began to talk, sing and dance. Alam Ara produced by Ardeshir Irani (Imperial Film Company), released on March 14, 1931 was the first Indian cinema with a sound track.

Mumbai became the hub of the Indian film industry having a number of self-contained production units. The thirties saw hits like Madhuri (1932), Indira,M A (1934), Anarkali (1935), Miss Frontier Mail (1936), and Punjab Mail (1939)

V Shantaram

Among the leading filmmakers of Mumbai during the forties, V Shantaram was arguably the most innovative and ambitious. From his first talkie Ayodhya ka Raja (1932) to Admi (1939), it was clear that he was a filmmaker with a distinct style and social concern whose films generated wide discussion and debate. He dealt with issues like cast system, religious bigotry and women's rights. Even when Shantaram took up stories from the past, he used these as parables to highlight contemporary situations. While Amirt Manthan (1934) opposed the senseless violence of Hindu rituals, Dharmatama (1935) dealt with Brahmanical orthodoxy and cast system. Originally titled Mahatma, the film was entirely banned by the colonial censor on the ground that it treated a sacred subject irreverently and dealt with controversial politics. Amarjyoti (1936) was an allegory on the oppression of women in which the protagonist seeks revenge. It could perhaps be called the first women's lib film in India.

Duniya Na Mane (1937) was about a young woman's courageous resistance to a much older husband whom she had been tricked into marrying. Admi (1939) was one of Shantaram's major works.

Calcutta film Industry

Madan Theatres of Calcutta produced Shirin Farhad and Laila Majnu (1931) well composed and recorded musicals. Both films replete with songs had a tremendous impact on the audience and can be said to have established the unshakeable hold of songs on our films. Chandidas (1932, Bengali), the story of a Vaishnavite poet-priest who falls in love with a low caste washerwoman and defies convention, was a super-hit. P C Barua produced Devdas (1935) based on Saratchandra Chatterjee's famous story about frustrated love, influenced a generation of viewers and filmmakers.

The South Indian Cinema

Tamil cinema emerged as a veritable entertainment industry in 1929 with the creation of General Picture Corporation in Madras (Chennai). Most of the Tamil films produced were multilingual productions, with versions in Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada until film production units were established in Hyderabad, Trivandrum and Bangalore. The first talkie of South India, Srinivas Kalyanam was made by A Narayanan in 1934.

The Golden Fifties

Fifties saw the rise of great directors like Mehboob, Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor who changed the fate of Indian cinema. These directors entered the film industry during the 1930s and '40s, which were traumatic years for the Indian people. The fight for independence, famines, changing social mores, global fight against fascism all contributed to the ethos in which the directors grew up.

 

Mehboob

 

Mehboob made his films down to earth, dramatic, even melodramatic. Roti made in the early 1940s inspired by the German Expressionism, is a real critique of Indian society with prophetic insight. It deals with two models - one of a millionaire, possessed by money and power in an industrial civilisation, the other of a tribal couple living in a primeval state of nature. The millionaire is saved by the couple after an air crash, the tribal couple emigrate to the city, do not find happiness and return. The millionaire is ruined in the city, tries futilely to find salvation among the tribal.

Mehboob remade his film Aurat (1940) in colour and with drastically different imagery as Mother India (1957), which was a massive success and later even acquired an epic status. The story revolves around Radha, played by Nargis, one of the strongest woman characters of Indian cinema. Her husband having lost both arms in an accident leaves her. Alone, she raises her children while fending off the financial as well as the sexual pressure from a moneylender. One of her sons, Birju becomes a rebel and the other one Ramu remains a dutiful son. In the end the long suffering mother kills her rebel son, as his blood fertilises the soil.

Highly successful and critically acclaimed, Mehboob's films often derive from clash between pre-capitalist ruralism and an increasingly modernised state with its commercial-industrial practices and values.

 

Bimal Roy

 

Born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Bimal Roy entered the field of cinema as a camera assistant. His directorial debut was with Udayer Pathey (1944). He introduced a new era of post World War romantic-realist melodramas that was an integration of the Bengal School style with that of De Sica.

Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Sujata were two of the most notable films of Bimal Roy, who basically was a reformist, a humanist liberal. Do Bigha Zamin was one of the Indian first films to chart mass migration of rural people to cities and their degradation in urban slums. Though the situation was tragic, Roy sought to relieve the starkness by brave and hopeful songs and dances. Sujata dealt with the disturbances created to a lost soul from the world of untouchable underclass who escaped accidentally to the world of the urban middle class.

 

Guru Dutt

 

Born in Bangalore and educated in Calcutta, Guru Dutt entered into the Hindi film industry as an actor. He took up the job of choreographer and assistant director before his directorial debut Baazi. His earlier films were entertainers like Aar Paar (1954), Mr and Mrs 55 (1955) and C I D (1956). With the darkly romantic Pyaasa (1957) Duttt launched a cycle of films that have remained India's most spectacular achievements in melodrama. Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) the first Indian film made in Cinemascope was autobiographical in nature. It tells in flashback the story of a famous film director, his disastrous marriage, the entry of an actress into his life that leads to gossiping, his failure as a director and eventually his death. His work encapsulated with great intensity the emotional and social complexities affecting the artist at a time when the reformism associated with Nehruite nationalism disintegrated under the pressure of industrialism and urbanisation. The commercial failure of Kaagaz Ke Phool resulted in a real life repetition of the plot of his film when Guru Dutt committed suicide in 1964.

 

Raj Kapoor

 

Born in Peshwar, now in Pakistan as son of Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor acted the role of a megastar, successful producer and a director. He started as a clapper-boy in the Hindi film industry and latter became one of the most successful directors of the industry. He set up the R K Films in 1948 and made his first directorial venture Aag. His earlier films Awara (1951) and Shri 420 (1955) evince a sentimental approach to social reforms, presenting political Independence as a loss of innocence in exchange of stability. Later he made sexually explicit films like Bobby (1973) and Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), which became huge hits, after the commercial failure of his most ambitious project Mera Naam Joker (1970).

 


 

indian parallel cinema

Through his first film Pather Panchali (1955) Satyajit Ray became the pioneer of a genre of films latter known as the 'Indian Parallel Cinema'. Even though Ritwik Ghatak made his first film Nagarik in 1952, he became well known by his film Ajantrik (1958) and became a strong presence in parallel cinema. Mrinal Sen made his first film Raatbhor in 1955.

The first film society was founded in Bombay in 1943 and Satyajit Ray founded a film society in Calcutta in 1947. By the beginning of 1970s there existed above 150 film societies all over India. Through these societies people could see the best of Indian cinema and also they got access to the best of foreign cinema. The first International Film Festival of India was held in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta by the Films Division in 1952. Western classics like De Sica's Bicycle Thieves shown in the film festival created waves among young filmmakers who were frustrated with the mindless song-dance dramas made in India. The Film Training Institute of India (FTII - presently Film and Television Institute of India) was set up in Pune in 1961 and the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) was established in 1964. The Film Finance Corporation (FFC) was set up by the Government in 1960, with the objective of giving loans to directors who wanted to make feature films outside the commercial circuit. All these factors lead Indian Cinema to a revolutionary change, a new genre of Indian films arrived, which are often termed as the 'New Wave Indian Cinema' or the 'New Indian Cinema'.

Indian New Wave

Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shome (1969) and Mani Kaul's Uski Roti (1969), both sponsored by State owned Film Finance Corporation (FFC), inspired by the French nouvelle vague, set new film sensibility and cinematic language in India. This movement was labelled as the 'New Indian Cinema' or the 'New Wave Indian Cinema'. FTII graduates Kumar Shahani, Mani Kaul, Saeed Mirza, Shyam Benegal and Ketan Mehta were the important names of New Wave Indian Cinema in Hindi. Mani Kaul's Ashad Ka Ek Din (1971) and Duvidha (1973), Kumar Shahni's Maya Darpan (1972) and Shyam Benegal's Ankur (1973) played important role in this new movement in Hindi during the 1970s. M S Sathyu's Garam Hawa (1973) Govind Nihilani who entered film industry as Shyam Benegal's cameraman made his directorial debut through Aakrosh (1980) he continued making socio-political films like Party (1984), Tamas (1987) and Drishti (1990). Saeed Mizra made notable political films like Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastan (1978), Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980), Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! (1984) and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989).

Adoor Gopalakrishnan through his first film Swayamvaram (1972) extended the New Wave Cinema to Malayalam cinema. Aravindan through his first film Uttarayanam (1974) strengthened the movement. John Abraham, K R Mohanan and P A Backer were strong presence of the new Malayalam cinema.

Kannada was the other film industry in South India, which took over the cinema movement in South India. B V Karanth, Girish Karnad and Girish Kasaravalli spearheaded the Kannada parallel cinema. Girish Kasaravalli, graduated from the Pune Film Institute, directed his first film, Ghata Shradha in 1977, which won the National award for best film.

In Assamise, Janu Barua made his first film Aparoopa (1982). His Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Kali (1987), which achieved international recognition, dealt with social problems of rural Assam. Bhubendra Nath Sikia made his first film Sandhyarag (1977) followed by Agnisnaan (1985), Kolahal (1988), Sarothi (1991) and Abarthan (1993).

 


 

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