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 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 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.

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