Interview: Adoor Gopalakrishnan

‘Indian cinema began with Ray’

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Photo: Vipin Chandran

A scene from "Elippathayam", the first award-winning film Doordarshan televised nationally. Photo: The Hindu Archives

100 years of Indian Cinema

On the ‘Indian’ in Indian cinema

Indian life is different, and if a film is able to reflect that, it is “Indian” cinema. We do not belong to either the fork-and-knife people of the West or the chopstick holders of the East. We have our fingers dipped deep in reality. Our reality is a palpable reality, close to our skin, burnt by the sun and washed by the rains. By the term “reflecting” I don’t mean mere depiction of the surface reality but reflecting the inner core, the spirit of our lives, which is different and has an identity of its own. For instance, the films churned out from Bombay, by and large, are not Indian cinema in the sense that they do not reflect the truth or reality of our lives, though there may be rare exceptions. Each and every film by Satyajit Ray is Indian cinema; it shows our life, our vision of the world and our culture.

On Indian storytelling traditions and cinema

While filming a scene, a film-maker chooses a particular angle and size of the image. It is his or her decision on how a particular visual is to be seen by the viewers. So the choices begin from there: what do you want to show and how? And what has to be shown and is seen is Indian life; and it could mean many things. It could be the life of a farmer, an artist or an ordinary person. But in many aspects, we hold unique views about life, views that are our own; if it is a sincere work and artistically integrated, all that comes into play, directly or indirectly. Take, for instance, a film like Slumdog Millionaire. Many people think that it is an Indian film. The fact is it is far from it. To call someone a “slumdog” just because he is poor is not in the Indian character. In fact, the inner core of our culture values sacrifice and renunciation as great virtues. The idea of wealth does not change the attitude to a person. When you realise that, Slumdog Millionaire cannot be seen as an Indian film; it is actually an anti-Indian film. It is the most un-Indian of films ever made. If you watch closely, it is not difficult to see that each and every twist and turn in that film is fake….

The notion that Indian cinema is nothing but song and dance existed earlier. It is the outsiders’ notion about Indian cinema. But, of late, we too have started celebrating that notion. That is why we unabashedly promote the term Bollywood for Indian cinema. Actually, the very term “Bollywood” is a derogatory one and we should be ashamed of condemning ourselves to such subservience. It is to be studied as to why Bombay film-makers have chosen this lowly role for themselves. Now we are propagating Bollywood as a brand name. These days, in several world capitals, Bollywood is paraded as Indian cinema, and awards are distributed to oneself in a flagellatory fashion unmindful of what others think about it. Thus, the bad ones masquerade as Indian cinema to the total detriment of the genuine ones. But what we witness is the aping of violence in Hollywood films. New technology is put to use here. Gradually, surreptitiously, these films will find an audience here too, further deepening the crisis faced by genuine cinematic work.

The situation is aggravated by the fact there is a real dearth of quality cinema. In the present situation, the possibility of such films being made in languages other than Hindi has become non-existent. First of all, there is no one to invest money in it. Government agencies provide no help; all the institutions created in the public sector for creating good cinema have shied away from the scene. Culture takes the last priority in terms of government policies. Cinema, its cultural status still being unclear, is at the bottom of the list. Institutions like the National Film Development Corporation [NFDC] have long gone dormant. Even the officials there do not know why they exist. As a result of all this, the lone film-maker, with no support forthcoming from anywhere, is left in the lurch. The reason why some of the enterprising film people in Mumbai get noticed is that they are able to create an illusion of difference even while being loyal and subservient to the system.

Once Derek Malcolm, The Guardian’s film critic, told me it was difficult for Westerners to appreciate and identify with south Indian films, and he pointed out our clothing as an instance. It is something closely related to our climate and convenience, but it has no similarity with that of the Westerners. As a result, they feel a certain mental distance from our films. But as far as north India is concerned, their dress is somewhat similar to Western clothing, winter being a part of their life. Similar is the case with food and eating habits.

The impact of the digital

With the coming of the digital, one hoped that film-making would become more affordable, and one would be able to make films of one’s choice and taste. In fact, now, at least theoretically, it is possible to take our films to theatres through methods like wide distribution. But the commercial film industry, having its wide sway over distribution, now controls the theatre network and has usurped all those channels, closing the doors to a film that is offbeat.

Unlike in other countries, there is no theatre network here to show offbeat films. There is a sizable audience for such films amongst the urban educated all over the country. But they go unaddressed, unattended, as we have no channels to reach out to them. I would say such a smart, intelligent and enterprising distributor is yet to be born in this country. When the NFDC was established, there was a proposal to build a theatre network across the country to show good films. But those who came to head it had no knowledge or interest in such things. I think it is the bane of the public sector in this country.

All those institutions—the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), which later became the NFDC, and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the National Film Archive of India, the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), and so on—were established following the recommendations in the S.K. Patil Committee Report. Now most of them are in a state of disarray; some of them are limping. Look at the National Film Archive today. The person who heads it is a bureaucrat who holds “additional charge” as its director!

On Phalke

I do not think Indian cinema began with Phalke in the true sense. It began with Pather Panchali and Satyajit Ray, who was the first complete film-maker to choose to work in cinema. All those before him were mere storytellers. Phalke was inspired to make films after he saw The Life of Christ. A major influence on his films was Raja Ravi Varma, who was his guru and guide. The paintings of Ravi Varma were about certain dramatic moments in our mythology; there is an innate drama in everything he painted and an entertaining narrative too.

Cinema came to India at a time when the urbanisation of the country had just begun. It thrived in the urban centres of India, where industrial workers lived in large numbers. They were people uprooted from their villages and they lived a life of hardship and penury in the city. Cinema targeted them, offering them narratives about the villages, an occasion to relive the memories and dreams they had left behind. But those who made films did not have any direct knowledge about village life as most of them were city-bred. What they adapted and devised for songs and dances were their own idea of what the original experience was like. People needed entertainment, of which they had none in the cities. Thus even the fake could stand them in good stead. Not surprisingly, cinema with all those ingredients became popular with the urban displaced.

Actually, the early films from Calcutta, particularly from New Theatres, were very different because the people behind them came from a different background. Most of them had a background of theatre and literature. For instance, an actor like Balraj Sahni came from The Indian People’s Theatre Association. Ritwik Ghatak too. People like Bimal Roy and Guru Dutt represent a distinct stream within the Hindi commercial cinema. It was people like Sadat Hasan Manto and K.A. Abbas who brought certain social values to it. Even a great writer like Premchand had written stories for Hindi films. But many of them later became part of the Bombay film industry, like many talented European film-makers who chose to settle down in Hollywood and eventually got forgotten.

The Indian new wave of the 1970s was the result of many factors, and the Film Institute was perhaps the most important among them. The institute produced not only directors and scriptwriters but also technicians, who were instrumental in bringing about a qualitative change in our cinema. The commercial cinema was quick to recognise them and absorb them into the whole. The film society movement contributed a lot to propagate good cinema, and the National Film Archive of India under the leadership of P.K. Nair played a great role in distributing classic films all over the country through the film society network.

The new wave was a wave and so it passed over. But individual film-makers still remain, and many of them are still making films: Girish Kasaravalli in Kannada, Shyam Benegal in Hindi, and so on. But it has become increasingly difficult today to make films of one’s choice and that does not augur well for the future.

On Ray, Ghatak and Sen

Ray was a complete film-maker; he was a great artist and his works are very refined, and they brought a radical break in Indian cinema. The films of Ray and Ghatak were totally different. Ray was a disciplined film-maker, but Ghatak was not. He was the typical enfant terrible of Indian cinema. Though he had sparks of greatness, he overemphasised melodrama, maybe because of his theatre background. Unlike Ray, Ghatak had certain ideological orientations. For Ghatak, ideology was not something divorced from art but part of it. Both of them were very interested in music and were adept at composing. As many people seem to think, they were not enemies but persons who respected each other. In terms of his artistry and commitment, I would place Mrinal Sen in between. His films have been the most experimental in nature. He was never afraid to experiment with his medium. With all his ideological predilections, he has been true to his art and has his artistic integrity intact.

On television and its impact on cinema

I think television has had a very negative impact on cinema. For instance, look at Doordarshan, our national public channel. Most of the films they show are commercial trash. They are not ready to show good films on the pretext that they do not bring revenue through advertisements.

However, a new initiative has just been started by the National Network of Doordarshan to showcase the best of Indian cinema through weekly screenings. A welcome move, we all look forward to it.

But the saddest part is that today our cinema survives because of television. It is the telecast fee paid by private channels that sustains it, and so, films depend more on television than on box-office returns. But television fixes its price on the basis of the star value of a film and not its aesthetic value. This, in turn, prompts the industry to make more of such films.

Indian cinema in the international context

The situation that existed in the 1960s has changed. The status that Indian cinema enjoyed during the time of Satyajit Ray no longer exists. There are various reasons for it. For one, the time when Ray was making films was a great age of cinema, when a lot of exciting things were happening; it was a period of the youth of cinema itself. Great films were being made in all parts of the world; exciting works were coming from Germany, France and East Europe, and a lot of masters were emerging on the scene. It was at such a time that Ray and his generation were making films, which received international attention. Our generation came after that, and we didn’t have such opportunities. Moreover, the upswings and waves in world cinema are seen from a very Eurocentric perspective, where cultures and expressions like ours are not given any importance. Our cinema is neither erotic nor exotic to boot. The tragic part is that we ourselves have begun to accept it. Take, for instance, the media uproar here over the Oscar Awards; even our National Awards do not evoke such interest and attention. Only in Hindi are films of a different kind being attempted; in other cinemas, there is hardly any money coming forth for investment.

The government needs to wake up and do something about it. Once in a meeting Indira Gandhi convened, I raised this issue, “My cinema becomes ‘Indian’ only when it goes abroad. Within India, it is only a ‘regional’ film. I don’t even have the mechanism to show it to people outside my region. And Doordarshan says it cannot be comprehended by villagers who watch television. But I don’t understand how the same villagers enjoy ‘The Lucy Show’? Please find some remedy to this.”

It was after this meeting that Doordarshan started showing award-winning films. My own film Elippathayam was the first film they showed. But they have made a retreat from all that again. Sadly, our film-makers accept it as a fait accompli, which is not a good sign.

As told to C.S. Venkiteswaran

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