Satyajith Ray's role in revolutionising Indian cinema during 1950s with his first film Pather Panchali was taken-up by Adoor Gopalakrishnan in Kerala to create a drastic change in Malayalam cinema. Adoor's first film Swayamvaram (1972) pioneered the new wave cinema movement in Kerala.
It was his interest in drama, which lead Adoor to take up the direction course in 1962 at the FTII at Pune, thinking that it would help him to enhance his skills in stage productions. But there he found that stage plays and cinema are entirely different mediums.
Notable 'literary' films like Neelakuyil, Chemeen and Oolavum Theeravum produced before Adoor's first film, but all had the regular ingredients of popular cinema, highly dramatic plot and song-dance sequences. Swayamvaram was a rejection of all these populist formulas. This radically different film was reluctantly taken by the mass. Only a minority eagerly waiting for a change in this powerful medium welcomed the film.
Apart from his films, Adoor's major contribution towards introducing a new cinema culture in Kerala was the constitution of the first Film Society in Kerala, 'Chitralekha'. He also took active part in the constitution of 'Chitralekha', Kerala's first Film Co-operative Society for film production. These movements triggered a fresh wave of good films, often termed 'art films' by directors like Aravindan, P A Becker, K G George, Pavithran, Raveendran etc.
Before Swayamvaram Adoor had made his first short film The Myth of 50 Sec duration for a festival in Montreal. His second short film And Man Created was ‘Chitralekha’s’ first production. He also directed numerous documentaries for different government organisations before he started his first feature Swayamvaram.
All the ten films he directed, from Swayamvaram to Oru Pennum Randaanum, were screened at several International film festivals and won him several National and International awards. He won the British Film Institute award for Elepathayam. He also won National Film Awards four times and several State Film Awards. Adoor received the Padma Shree in 1984 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2006.
The Nation honoured Adoor for his valuable contributions to Indian cinema by awarding him the highest cinema award of India, the Dabasaheb Phalke Award for the year 2004.