interview: adoor gopalakrishnan
When was SWAYAMVARAM made?
After coming out of the Film Institute, I had to wait for almost seven years to make my first feature film. Mean while I had submitted a script Kamuki to the Film Finance Corporation, but they were not willing to finance it. Later, I happened to meet its MD. When I enquired why our application was turned down, he said, "why do you want to make films on romance and all that? India has become a free country and we have a lot of problems. Why don't you make films constructively? I told him I couldn't tackle India's construction problems all by myself (later I came to learn that he was also acting as the M D of a cement company!)
Later, under changed circumstances, I submitted the script of SWAYAMVARAM and it was accepted. The loan was for one and half lakh rupees. The cost of production of the film was around Rupees two and a half lakhs. Before that we had made a documentary on family planning, a popular one with stars and all that. We also had some money from it. Initially there were problems distributing the film, but later we did it ourselves.
Were you able to complete SWAYAMVARAM according to your plans?
We shot it in two schedules, because we had problems getting the dates of the actress, Sarada. She was working in several films at that time. So we had to arrange the schedule to suit her convenience. But usually I like to complete my films in one schedule. I prefer to do a film at one stretch when my creative energies are at its peak; you need complete concentration while doing a work.
In SWAYAMVARAM, the couple is coming to the city, and the rest of the film unfolds in the city. But after that, city has not been a significant presence in your films.
There is no city in Kerala; the urban reality is something alien to us. Just-electricity and telephone poles don't make a city. You have a semblance of a city in Kochi, but it is within a small radius. It is actually a big town. We don't have a city like Bombay or Calcutta in Kerala. So stories of the city are improbable in Kerala, which is basically semi urban. Neither do we have a typical rural population as it exists elsewhere in the country.
While making films I am not concerned about strictly contemporary, day-to-day issues. Any good film has to survive the period of its making. It has to go beyond today to be relevant tomorrow. I am very particular about that. As a result these films also don't age, I hope. They remain contemporary.
While most of the fIlms of the Indian new wave went back to the village and dealt with rural violence and caste issues, SWAYAMVARAM was a love story set in a town.
In Kerala, there are no such villages or such feudal situations. All that is in the past. It would be falsifying a reality by hankering after such themes.
While making films I am not concerned about strictly contemporary, day-to-day issues. Any good film has to survive the period of its making. It has to go beyond today to be relevant tomorrow. I am very particular about that. As a result these films also don't age, I hope. They remain contemporary. When SWAYAMVARAM was shown in Paris last year, it was the youth who particularly liked it. A film I made more than thirty years ago in Kerala is liked by the youth of Paris today! Its theme is universal. It is basically about youth, its struggles, aspirations and ambitions, etc. And it is about a real situation, which has a haunting quality about it.
Another interesting thing is that Viswam is an aspiring writer. Hero as a writer or one aspiring to be one is a recurrent theme in your films. It is there in KATHAPURUSHAN also. In MATHILUKAL, the hero is a writer.
And ANANTARAM is about the process of writing.
Has it something to do with your own adolescent dream to be known as a writer?
Probably. Our views are formed in the years of our childhood. Our worldview is also influenced by the way we saw and experienced the world around us. All this goes into our work. ANANTARAM deals with this. The artist is revealing and also rediscovering himself through his work.
In conceiving SWAYAMVARAM, were you influenced by any films or filmmakers?
In SWAYAMVARAM, you may find traces of some influence, like Ghatak, Ray etc. But in later films, it is not there at all. Some have pointed out its resemblance to Ghatak's SUBARNAREKHA. In that film also there is love and an elopement to the city. But SWAYAMVARAM is more about the trip. And its treatment is entirely different.
Was it invited to any international film festival?
Yes, it was in the competition section of the Moscow film festival. It was greatly liked by all and was rumoured to win the prize. But as things turned out, that was not be. Decisions were made elsewhere, not by the jury. I think it was the first film from India that didn't get an award in Moscow. A dubious distinction!
Today things are different. Young filmmakers have great opportunities before them. If a filmmaker's first film is outstanding, he has every encouragement, moral and financial, to make his next. There are several agencies to fund him. World today encourages new talent.
How was the critical response in Kerala?
Not much. I think it was more of a question of insensitivity rather than personal enmity. Or, may be, powers-that-be in certain quarters felt threatened.
There was a good write up by T M P Nedungadi. Another one was by Murkoth Kunjappa. It was actually a letter to the editor. It was very encouraging, because it appeared at a time when many people were running the film down. All this gave me great courage to continue. T M P Nedunagadi in his article asked, 'SWAYAMVARAM over, what next in Malayalam cinema?'
What about the film societies?
Film societies were not a strong presence then. It was not yet a movement. I don't think they ever had a positive attitude to local initiatives. From the beginning they were addicted to films from outside. What is a film society movement for? All this exposure should lead to the making of better films here. Otherwise what is the point? What happened here was the opposite. Always looking outside for inspiration, they only helped in developing a sort of disdain for our own films. We respected only a Bergman or a Fellini, no one from our own midst. What it should have developed is a cultured mind.
When SWAYAMVARAM was completed, there was a preview and the noted writer and thinker M Govindan wrote a cover story in his prestigious magazine 'Sameeksha' and organized a seminar on the film in Madras. A number of intellectuals and writers took part in it. They all welcomed the film without any reservation. I had invited all the film people in Madras. I can't forget P Bhaskaran coming out and talking in such excitement, he was deeply touched by the film. Balu Mahendra came and hugged me and said, "You saved us". It was a time when new filmmakers, particularly Film Institute graduates were going through a tough time in Madras and elsewhere.
When it was screened in Thiruvananthapuram, many people came and said that they had the same feeling as watching an 'English movie' (whatever that meant). May be because of the theme and treatment, or because of the careful use of sound and economy of story telling.
How was it received at the theatres?
I used to get calls from the theatres. They said "If only you had some songs in it, it would have done well". But the awards helped us. After the announcement of the national awards we could re-release the film properly. And it ran well. Probably for the first time in the history of FFC, the whole amount of loan was repaid! In those days no one used to repay FFC loans. We were able to repay it because we ourselves did the distribution.
The FFC didn't finance any other project?
No, after SWAYAMVARAM I never approached them.
The Indian 'new wave' was in a way financed by the FFC. They produced most of the offbeat films of that period. How come they didn't finance many films in Malayalam?
Probably not many from Malayalam applied. In contrast, the Bombayites had access. Among other things, the distance too came in between. It was difficult for us to travel all the way to Bombay. So, it was Bombayites who made the most of it. We were lucky to have got it for SWAYAMVARAM.
I think SWAYAMVARAM may be the only film by FFC that got its money back through theatre exhibitions. I don't think it has happened anywhere else. Very few of the FFC-funded films were released, and if at all they were released, not many were successful at the box office.
Yes I think it was an exception. And in spite of all that, that year's Kerala State award committee chose to ignore it completely. The bureaucracy and the vested interests in film industry campaigned against it. P K Nair was the Chairman of the jury. They outnumbered him and even abused him afterwards. This happened at the regional selection committee for the national awards also. The regional committee at Madras didn't recommend the film for the national awards.
Then we sent a lengthy telegram to Ramesh Thapar, who was the Jury Chairman. We heard nothing from him, but evidently he took it seriously and overruled the decision of the regional committee. He also strongly recommended for the dissolution of regional committees. SWAYAMVARAM was instrumental to that historic decision.
Why did you use 'stars' like Madhu and Sarada for the film?
Actually I wanted fresh faces for both the roles. And I tried in various ways. I wrote to the heads of colleges and universities. But there was not a single response. Later we decided upon Sarada. She readily agreed to do the role. Then we couldn't have cast a novice against her. So we invited Madhu. He was an old friend and right from the time he came back from the NSD he had expressed his wish to act in my film when I made one. By the time I was back from the Institute, he was already a star. So, he had no hesitation in agreeing to it. Then in order to match the cast of the central characters, we included Thikkurissi etc.
In contrast, KODIYETTAM was done entirely differently. I didn't use any stars in it. As for the other films, ELIPPATHAYAM featured Karamana Janardhanan Nair, and MUKHAMUKHAM had Gangadharan Nair as lead actors. None of them were stars.
As a novice, did you have any problems in directing the 'stars'?
Many people had asked me at that time, 'will a senior actor like Thikurissi obey you?' But actually I faced no such problem. First of all as professionals they know what is required of them. And then they cannot refuse to do what I instruct them to do. They are acting to me and not to an audience. Moreover, from my experience in theatre I already knew how to deal with actors. I would tell them what to do. If they are not able to follow, I will show them how to do it. Once they are convinced that you know what you are saying, they will follow your instructions.
Did the star presence help the film to run in the theatres?
No, it was not the stars that helped it to succeed, but the national awards. It didn't run well initially. But once it got several awards at the national level, people wanted to see it and it ran well. Today it is the other way round. If a film receives a national award, people decide not to see it. That is the change that has come about in the attitude of the Malayalees during the last decades. When CHEMMEEN got the national award, people rushed to see it. SWAYAMVARAM was the second film to get a national award. But now things have changed. Now, we take such recognition to mark a film out. It is a depressing trend.
Looking back, what do you feel about it now?
SWAYAMVARAM is a first film in more than one sense. I think it has something to do with my oeuvre too. SWAYAMVARAM was all about choices. The protagonist in it had so many choices before her. It seems, as a beginner, I also had different choices then. I also could have made the obvious choice of going to Bombay or Madras and work as someone's assistant in the industry. Or, you can choose to stand on your own and fight. It was about an individual who, like me at that time, was facing life without any support from society. I have also grown after that; I have become more rigorous in my work. I have become more refined, I think...
After SWAYAMVARAM bagging several national awards, did any producer approach you?
No. The only producer who ever asked me to make a film was Ravindranathan Nair. That was after I made KODIYETTAM.
In the intervening years between SWAYAMVARAM and KODIYETTAM, what did you do?
I made several documentaries.
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