Cinema

Aravindan: Anew and again

Print edition : April 15, 2016

G. Aravindan. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Aravindan on the sets of "Thampu" (1978). Photo: The Hindu Archives

A still from "Kummatty" (1979). Tadao Sato, the president of the Japanese Institute of the Moving Image, said he considered it the best international film and Aravindan himself among the best film-makers in the world.

FOR a film-maker to be in advance of his time during his lifetime is rare enough. To continue to be so two and a half decades after his death is nothing short of phenomenal. The allure of G. Aravindan’s unique artistic instinct and the way it transcreates the filmic screen so that it seizes our imagination in a mesmeric hold and yet eludes our grasp was demonstrated at a three-day commemorative event marking his 25th death anniversary in early March in Thiruvananthapuram. The magic came alive almost like a frisson of interactive mirror neurons among those who had gathered—those who knew him and his work intimately, those who had worked with him—to rekindle the Aravindan mystique dormant in them. It was, at the end of the day, like receiving grace.

That mystique is as compelling as it is strange. It has an enduring afterlife because it is as much about the man as his work. He was always accessible, personable, genial, large-hearted and individually and implicitly in sync with each of those who connected with him when he was alive. The rapport was instant. The communication was mainly unspoken. What was left unsaid was always more than, and more significant than, what was discussed. Ideation was intuitive rather than discursive.

Intuition was the sensory language in his close relationships. Professor Satti Khanna of Duke University recalled, in a video tribute to Aravindan, once asking him what the word for “father” was in Malayalam. “Do you want to know what the word for father is, or what I say when I wish to speak to my father?” Aravindan asked him. “What you say when you wish to speak to your father,” Khanna replied. “When I wish to speak to my father,” said Aravindan, “I find that he is already looking at me.” Such instances of sublimation are common in the experience of those who interacted with him frequently. A Malayalam term he often used was nimitham, which would literally translate as fortuitously of-the-moment. It would seem that he plotted his journey as film-maker, if he plotted it at all, from nimitham to nimitham.

He was no hermit or saint, although a part of him always dwelt in some deep reserve of his mind to which none had access. He had his share of human foibles. He was quick to be upset if he felt the circle of trust around him was breached. He cartooned and sketched and painted brilliantly, was a compulsive doodler, sang soulfully and with abandon in memorable soirees with close friends, where he would also occasionally launch vehement laments against those he considered devious or dubious or generally, in his opinion, on the wrong side of life.

His films, the best of them, seemed not so much to be made as to spontaneously evolve and happen. There was little mechanistic or structured about them. In its approach to the temporal, in its contemplative gaze of the image, in its noumenality, his cinematic work was a clear departure from the organisation and method, the cluttered frames, the development of multiple characters and narratives, the meticulous calibration of time and Euclidean use of space that informed his earlier substantive body of cartooning work.

Through the decade of the 1960s and well into the beginning of the next, Aravindan’s cartoon series “Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum” (Small People and the Big World), which was a fixture on the last page of the Malayalam periodical Mathrubhumi, captured the zeitgeist of the times through the humdrum quotidian concerns and larger existential reflections of his characters. As the contemporary cartoonist E.P. Unny pointed out in a perceptive analysis of Aravindan’s cartoons, there was clockwork precision and chronometry in his schema. His stock characters were, even in their appearance, meticulously subject to the progression of time: for example, a stubble would sprout on a clean-shaven face and develop as the days of the week went by. This, noted Unny, was rare in the world of cartooning even now and was certainly exceptionally unique at the time when Aravindan’s trademark series was being published in the magazine.

From that detailing and subjection to the agency of time in his cartooning to internalising optical and acoustic and musical time in his filmic image was a transition that was occurring even with his first film, Uttarayanam (1974), although that film itself may have borne vestigial traits of his cartoon narrative. In the five successive films coming year after year from 1977— Kanchana Sita (1977), Thampu (1978), Kummatty (1979), Esthappan (1980) and Pokkuveyil (1981)—he transcended into the language of the pure image; the image that was self-referential, not representative. In these films he was already moving, boldly and intuitively, beyond the neorealist tradition into which much of what is seen as prestigious new Indian cinema has been slotted, a tradition that Satyajit Ray exemplified and one that a host of film-makers off the mainstream, including Adoor Gopalakrishnan, carried forward and continue to practise.

In his taxonomy of cinema in the two volumes, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image, published a decade after Aravindan had begun making these films, Gilles Deleuze deals mainly with the European, Anglo-Saxon, American and Russian film-making of the pre- and post-Second World War period. Japanese cinema (Yasujiro Ozu, Kon Ichikawa, Akira Kurosawa, among others) is fairly strongly in his ken but little else of the emergent cinema of the East. He does not, unfortunately, look at modern (or for that matter any) Indian cinema. If he had, he would have found the distinctive and breakaway visual idiom and aesthetic of Aravindan anticipating, idea for idea, his postulate of the time-image as the more evolved cinematic expression.

Deleuze really suggests that the transition from the movement-image to the time-image is a maturing into self-realisation of the cinematic language, although he is at pains to point out that he is not partial to one over the other: “It cannot be said that one is more important than the other, whether more beautiful or more profound. All that can be said is that the movement-image does not give us a time-image.” The sensory-motor linkage which is implicit in the movement-image, and which is already being snapped in neorealist cinema, is completely broken and separated in the cinema of the time-image, which proceeds beyond neorealism. “Time is out of joint and presents itself in the pure state”, and a “purely optical and sound situation” replaces the “sensory-motor situation”.

This is not to suggest that the time-image does not allow for movement. It does mean an economy of movement, but more crucially “it implies the reversal of the subordination; it is no longer time which is subordinate to movement, it is movement which subordinates itself to time”. Viewers are not asking themselves “what are we going to see in the next image?”, but “what is there to see in the image?” The “seer (voyant) has replaced the agent (actant)”.

Although the theorist and the film-maker may have been strangers to one another, it is almost uncannily striking how closely Deleuze’s concept of time-image tracks, and is fulfilled, in these five films of Aravindan. Reading the one is like watching the other. In his later works such as Chidambaram (1985), Oridathu (1986) and Vasthuhara (1991), Aravindan himself may have broken the spell of his image meditation and shifted to movement, plot and characterisation (the disparateness of his work makes it really difficult to speak in terms of a definitive Aravindan oeuvre). It is as if the savant had come down from the mountain to dip into the narrative in currency on the plains. But while he was up there in communion with the time-image, it was a revelation, frame by epiphanic frame, he offered for those who could, who cared to, see.

Stunning disclosure

Among those who cared to see are some who know the finest work in world cinema. In his video statement remembering Aravindan, Tadao Sato, the president of the Japanese Institute of the Moving Image, made the stunning disclosure that he considered Aravindan’s Kummatty the best international film and Aravindan himself among the best film-makers in the world. It was stunning only because it was not known here in India until now that someone like him, who could compare with the best, thought so. And we ourselves have a way of not recognising genius in our midst until someone abroad points us in that direction. Sato was unequivocal about it. He was not saying it just for the occasion of Aravindan’s death anniversary but said so every time anyone asked him to name the best film in the world. He also disclosed that he had introduced Kummatty to the Japanese film-maker Shohei Imamura (the legendary director of The Ballad of Narayama and winner of the Palm d’Or twice) and that Imamura “was really dumbstruck by the beauty of the movie”.

By the same token, it is perplexing that Adoor Gopalakrishnan is in a state of denial about Aravindan’s stature and accomplishment as a film-maker. In the lead-up in the Malayalam press to the Aravindan anniversary, Adoor made it known that he did not think much of Aravindan as a film-maker, although he rated him high as an artist. He has said as much before, in an interview on television a few years back. While Adoor is, of course, entitled to his opinion (who is not?), when he draws this distinction between Aravindan as artist and as film-maker, the assumption is that a great artist need not necessarily be a good film-maker. One wonders whether, without any insinuation, the opposite can be as true: that a celebrated film-maker need not be a good artist.

Adoor, of course, must mean what he says, and without malice, even if it raises the hackles of cineastes who have followed Aravindan’s work and believe his work to be trailblazing and in a class if its own. It may just be that Adoor is unable to break free of his neorealist moorings and empathise with Aravindan’s visionary, crystalline, cinematic perception, a perception unencumbered by craft and narrative devices. Maybe, just maybe, the Aravindan film is in advance of Adoor’s time too.

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