The Kathakali, one of India’s most revered classical dance forms, was developed in the state of Kerala, where it is still being practiced today. The art-form is known for its distinctive facial make-up and elaborate costumes, and I bring it up as a starting point to my article because of how subtly connected I find it to be with the art of cinema. The Kathakali is performed largely by male dancers, who act out a story by expressing exaggerated emotions on their faces to describe real human sentiments. This exaggeration is quite voracious, strikingly differentiating Kathakali from the reality that it depicts, similar to how a film following a narrative sets itself apart from reality using the essence of fiction. In fact, one can find a strange likeness in the Malayalam cinema of the formative years (pre-1970s) with the presentation of the Kathakali, showing just how influential a role Keralian culture played on Keralian celluloid. Before the Parallel Cinema Movement (the French New Wave – of sorts, of India) found a place of nourishment in Kerala, much of the films produced had an overemphasis in style, regarding their locations, stories, performances, and even make-up.
Some interesting films did come up during this early era, like Neelakuyil (1954), Bhargavi Nilayam (1964), Odayil Ninnu (1965), Chemmeen (1965), and Iruttinte Athmavu (1967); films that followed the overpoweringly exaggerated style with dramatic expressions and actions, restless cinematography, unrealistic dialogues, somewhat implausible stories, and numerous songs, though they were handled by their directors with a distinctive flair that made them a lot more memorable than the below average competition they faced upon release. Malayalam-language cinema, which is what is made in Kerala, had an objective (more-or-less) in the ’50s and ’60s to communicate strong social morals, and in their attempts to do so, screenwriters often sacrificed a good story for a three-hour value lesson that would end up reaching the wide audience. To talk about Adoor himself (now that I’ve left him out for some time), given that his relatives from his mother’s side of the family were culturally active, he had been witness to several of Kerala’s core dance and drama forms from his early childhood on, with some of them (like the Kathakali) being played out right within the walls of his household. Without a doubt, all of this must’ve influenced his craft that would come later, as he grew to become one of the greatest filmmakers India had ever seen, though he wasn’t one to conform without thought, and without international exposure working as an added inspiration.
This isn’t to say that Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s cinema is simply on the other side of the equation adding up the culture and history of Kerala with international filmmaking styles and standards, but that was one of the many things he pioneered when, in 1972, he directed his first feature film, Swayamvaram (By the Choice of Oneself), which bagged the National Award for Best Film the following year. Here was a film that had no songs to accentuate character emotions or word their silent thoughts; no artificialities communicated with far and wide camera pans, tracks, and zooms (Adoor’s style, if one can define it as such, is characterized by mostly standstill cinematography, especially in those works captured by genius cameraman Mankada Ravi Varma); no dramatic emphasis on expressions and decisions; and no morals communicated. It was a film unlike anything that had come before it, relating the story of a young couple and the hardships they face when attempting to carry their lives thus forth upon their shoulders, perhaps in an attempt to justify their decision to abandon their respective houses and families, or to be more precise about it, to satisfy their personal egos. Swayamvaram presented the audience with ideas more than it did answers, and was open to interpretation, allowing the audience to think about what they had just seen.
Kodiyettam (The Ascent, 1978), his second feature, is concerned with the betterment of its protagonist, a lazy and irresponsible man who is kind at heart, but cannot survive in the society he is born into, given the duties, obligations, and practices that it has in store for him. The first Indian film to not use any background music to describe the character’s surrounding atmosphere (both internal and external), Kodiyettam‘s biggest strengths then lie in its strong writing, masterful direction, and praiseworthy lead performance (for which actor Gopi went on to win a National Award, which helped him earn the nicknames Bharat Gopi as well as Kodiyettam Gopi). In 1982, Adoor directed Eippathayam (The Rat-Trap), which is by far his most popular film. A criticism of the feudal system, Elippathayam takes the route of a dark comedy to tell the tale of a man and his three sisters, all of whom are, in their own separate ways, driven to pauses in their lives as a result of the high position that was enjoyed by their family in the society at a point of time in the past. Adoor’s usage of colors and exceptional character writing help complement – and not in any small way – his poetic lyricism, that relies on simple yet meaningful symbolism and real emotions to communicate a story of broken and confused individuals.
Mukhamukham (Face To Face, 1985), Anantaram (Monologue, 1987), Mathilukal (Walls, 1990), Vidheyan (The Servile, 1994), Kathapurushan (The Man of the Story, 1995), Nizhalkkuthu (Shadow Kill, 2002), Naalu Pennungal (Four Women, 2007), Oru Pennum Randaanum (One Women and Two Men, 2008), and Pinneyum (2016) make up the rest of his filmography, some of which I enjoy more than the ones I’ve discussed in the paragraphs above (I will further explain my appreciation for each of his best films in a while). Parthajit Baruah writes in his splendid book Face to Face – The Cinema of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, “His cinema is not just storytelling, but its impact goes beyond to provide a sense of awareness of the society one lives in.” This is very true when you consider the subjects that he has tackled in the best of his works: culture, custom, identity, politics (particularly Communism), social morals and practices, submission, tradition, and, though rarely, poverty, among others.