Interview: Adoor Gopalakrishnan

‘He lived life cinema’: Adoor Gopalakrishnan on Satyajit Ray

Print edition : November 05, 2021

Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Photo: S. Mahinsha

A still from ‘Aparajito’. Says Adoor Gopalakrishnan: “The Apu Trilogy is my favourite, but between the three, I love ‘Aparajito’ best. This film has touched me deeply, especially because of the truthful and beautiful portrayal of the relationship between the widowed mother and the son.” Photo: Courtesy: Adoor Gopalakrishnan

A still from ‘Aparajito’. Says Adoor Gopalakrishnan: “The Apu Trilogy is my favourite, but between the three, I love ‘Aparajito’ best. This film has touched me deeply, especially because of the truthful and beautiful portrayal of the relationship between the widowed mother and the son.” Photo: The Hindu Photo Archives

Interview with Adoor Gopalakrishnan.

Adoor Gopalakrishnan, one of the most notable and renowned film-makers in India, pioneered the new wave in Malayalam cinema during the 1970s. During a career spanning five decades, he has won the National Film Awards (16 times) and the Kerala State Film Awards (17 times), apart from the coveted British Film Institute Award in 1982 for Elipathayam. He was honoured with Padma Shri in 1984, the Padma Vibhushan in 2006, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award in 2004 for his valuable contributions to Indian cinema and the J.C. Daniel Award, Kerala government’s highest honour for contributions to Malayalam cinema in 2016.

Excerpts from an interview he gave C.S. Venkiteswaran on Satyajit Ray’s legacy:

Satyajit Ray brought about a radical break in Indian cinema in terms of aesthetics, form, content and narrative style. What is your view of Ray’s legacy?

Satyajit Ray was the first versatile artist who came to work in Indian cinema. His background as a writer, painter, designer, illustrator and composer in the Tagore tradition made all the difference. Primarily, he was a visual artist. It is well known that instead of writing a film script for Pather Panchali, he drew pictures of the scenes with the characters. He was an outsider to the establishment and owed nothing to the film industry. Practically everyone who worked for him, including the cinematographer and art director, were novices. None of them brought with them any baggage from the ‘film industry’. Together they were ‘inventing’ a new cinema far removed from cliches and conventions of storytelling.

On a close analysis, Pather Panchali rewrote the grammar of Indian cinema. Ray’s only exposure to practical film-making was watching while [Jean] Renoir chose locations, arranged the scenes, and shot them methodically. The one advice Renoir gave his assistants, including Ray, was, “Never imitate Hollywood, be Indian and be on your own.”

In terms of cinematic vision and aesthetics, what do you think are the unique contributions of Ray?

Cinema for him was artistic expression, not a commodity. He had watched and studied the best of Hollywood in his youth and has acknowledged it too. Hollywood taught him both how to make films and also how not to make them, he has said. He took his inspiration from real people and real life. No story was imposed on the characters. It emanated from life lived by people with variegated experiences.

Also read: A Century of Ray

Ray did not make any compromises in order to draw audiences to the shows. Genuineness and artistry were the hallmark of a Ray film. He had an eye for detail. In fact his films evolved through details. He was never averse to adapting outstanding novels by Bengali authors like Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay that offered him rich inspirational material. The literary texts were transmuted into extraordinary cinematic experiences often excelling the original. Suggestiveness, nuances and underplaying added a new dimension to his storytelling.

You belong to the post-Ray generation in Indian cinema, and Ray closely followed the works of younger film-makers. Moreover, you also had many personal interactions with him. Can you share your experience of those interactions?

It was in 1979 that I first met Ray. The International Film Festival of India was on in Delhi, and I had gone there with a subtitled print of my second film, Kodiyettam. My plan was to hold a private screening for an invited audience. Since Ray was staying in Hotel Ashok, and so was I, I sought him out and invited him to the screening. He readily agreed and came. A few minutes into the film, he started laughing aloud and I could see that he was well involved in the film. When the screening was over, he came out all pleased and asked me to come over. We sat down in the foyer of the hotel and started conversing. I was thrilled by his response. I still remember one question he asked, are you going to do away with music? I explained that I was not averse to background score and had used it in my first film, Swayamvaram. But since Kodiyettam was ‘following’ a character who was free and footloose and could not be put in any defined single track, which I had feared the background score would dutifully do, I resisted the temptation of using music. He seemed to agree with me but advised, “Music can create good impact when used sparingly and judiciously.” We talked at length, and that was the beginning of my great association with Ray. Every time I showed him a film of mine (he saw all my films starting with Kodiyettam and ending with Mathilukal), he would ask me to visit him the next morning to talk about it.And I considered myself very privileged that he had only good things to say about them. Unforgettable was his response to Mathilukal, which he came to see at Gorky Sadan in Calcutta, braving his illness and despite advice from doctors not to climb steps. “Marvellous, Adoor, marvellous!” was his spontaneous response to the film. It was like I was always afraid of failing in his estimation.

I was very pleased when he suggested once, “Now that you have got the necessary recognition as a film-maker, you should make at least one film a year.” I tried to explain that it was my dream, too, but in practice it did not work as I had to do practically everything about my films single-handedly. Coming out of a screening of Mukhamukham, he enquired if it was based on any literary work. I answered, no, it was based on my own idea and script. Then came his comment, “Now I understand.”

In the last three films of Ray, one can see a certain despair about society, polity and culture, and the cancerous spread of corruption in public life, erosion of scientific temper, dangerous ascent of communalism, and an all-pervasive degeneration of values. Three decades after his last film, ‘Agantuk’, how do you look at Ray’s apprehensions?

For someone like him, the fears and anxieties expressed in his last films were very natural as the situation in our country had worsened over the years. A genuine film-maker observes and responds to the prevailing climate of culture and life in the society he lives in more intensely than others.

In a career spanning over four decades, Ray probed the “home and the world” at various levels and dimensions, personal and social, male and female, domestic and public. How do you look at this rooted cosmopolitanism of Ray?

Ray never lived in a village. All his life he was closely associated with the urban ethos of Calcutta—a Calcutta that provided him with his education and where he found his films, his books, career and friends. His experience of rural Bengali life came mostly from books deeply rooted in rural Bengal. Pather Panchali is the best example. An artist with an urban upbringing goes to make a story set in a West Bengal village of the early 20th century. And the nature and people seen in the film thrive with village vibes.

Also read: ‘I am not conscious of being a humanist’

His real roots were in rural Bengal, but he lived life cinema, which was the most modern and cosmopolitan art. Strangely, there is no dichotomy in it.

Satyajit Ray while writing about the “Indian New Wave” was severely critical of some of the avant-garde film-makers of your generation like Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani.

As I can recall, Ray was not very enthusiastic about the idea of a Film Institute in the beginning. Although he was invited several times, he did not care to respond to it. One has to concede the fact that Ray’s rise as a film-maker of international repute was all his own making—the result of the unceasing passion and devotion he invested in the pursuit of the study and mastering of the film technique.

When Ritwik Ghatak, a well-known rebel and an iconoclast, joined the faculty as the Vice Principal and Professor of the Direction Department, the originality of his approach to cinema and his scholarship in general had a big impact on the students. As a student of his, I have benefited a lot from his presence. It did not take long for Ghatak to become the real icon of offbeat cinema in the country.

Both Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani became his apostles. In their new-found faith and enthusiasm, they started criticising Ray. (It was little known at that time that it was at Ray’s insistence that Indira Gandhi, then Minister for Information and Broadcasting, had Ghatak posted at the Institute.) Naturally, Ray did not take it lightly. He had a score to settle. There were also those famous exchanges between himself and his long-time friend Chidananda Dasgupta over a critical article published in Calcutta.

Which is your favourite Ray movie? Why?

The Apu Trilogy is my favourite, but between the three, I love Aparajito best. This film has touched me deeply, especially because of the truthful and beautiful portrayal of the relationship between the widowed mother and the son. From the departure of the two for the remote village from Benares after the death of Harihar, the father, to the death of Sarbajaya, the mother, is specifically the period I am referring to. It starts from the boy Apu wanting to study in a regular school in preference to training for priesthood, his father’s profession. Every day, he comes back home from school with the excitement of having learned something new, and he shares it with his mother. The mother is pleased to see her son catching up with the lessons fast. Simple scientific devices like a sundial are set up in the courtyard for the mother to watch and feel amazed.

Apu excels in every subject and becomes the recipient of a scholarship to study in Calcutta. There comes the time for separation. It is a sweet and sad situation.

The mother wants to see her son study and come up well in life, but alas, to see him go away, leaving her alone, is bitter too. Apu keeps writing her letters and comes home on holidays. The time for the two to be together gets shorter and shorter as the years pass and the son reaches the higher classes. Now he is enrolled for a degree course, and there is hardly any spare time to write home the usual letters. He has to work overtime to keep his studies going.

The mother keeps waiting. She doesn’t know how hard it is to find money for fees, lodging and other expenses. He misses his trip home even in vacation time. Letters are exchanged seldom and she is becoming more and more lonely and also ill. Whereas Apu’s world has expanded, hers has shrunk. When he finally goes home, she is gone and he has become an orphan.

I have never seen or read anywhere such portrayal of deep affection and love between a widowed mother and her son getting slowly thinned out most naturally and ending in the inevitable and sad death of the mother, who leaves behind an unforgettable image of waiting.

Ray’s humour

Ray has been very eclectic in his themes and stories, basing his films on literary classics, children’s stories and whodunits. Among these, which other aspects of Ray do you admire?

Humour in Ray’s cinema is all pervasive. He had the ability to create humour from humdrum situations. In Pather Panchali there is the scene of a village festival. There is vigorous drumming accompanied by the blowing on a trumpet. We get to see two old men who are obviously short of hearing, trying to start a conversation. One is shouting something into the ear of the other. The respondent cannot hear anything in the din of the orchestra and shouts back, “Kee?” (What?) It is repeated with the same result.

Also read: How Satyajit Ray foregrounded modernity and enlightenment throughout his career

Similarly, the sweetmeat seller is a comical heavyweight figure with a pot belly, carrying two earthen pots balanced on a thin rod across his broad shoulder. The accompanying music keeps the rhythm of his strenuous strides.

The old pre-primary teacher who also sells grocery is another funny character. He has in store different expressions reserved for each of his varying pursuits. The dull boy-student is threatened with a stick and a change of facial expression. While the blow is meted out, a waiting customer, a girl, takes to her heels seeing the sudden change in the scene. And then the teacher starts conversing heartily with a visitor friend.

Ray’s children’s films are a real treat. They are full of music, humour, adventure and sheer joy. Unfortunately, they are not widely seen by either children or parents or even teachers. My favourite is Sonar Kella, a must for children, the young and the old.