"The Story Is Just an Excuse": An Interview with Adoor Gopalakrishnan
by Patrick McGilligan

Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Adoor Gopalakrishnan is a household name for cinema lovers in India and in Indian households around the world. Over the last forty years he has created a personal body of work that is among the richest of his generation, films set in his native Kerala in the Malayalam language that are regionalist yet universal. “Among the many,” wrote Professor Peter L. Attipetty, “he is alone and his films are exceptional.” Gopolakrishnan has won the prominent National Award of India nine times, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. has presented him at a retrospective as the “Poet Laureate of Indian Cinema,” and he has been decorated with the Légion d’honneur and the Commandeur de Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France.

Few of his films or documentaries are available in DVD in English-speaking countries.1 Although they evince the quietism of Ozu and the naturalism of Satyajit Ray, and they often protest injustices, his films are also lyrical and poetic and not easily compared to other filmmakers. “Like Kirarostami, Gopalakrishnan is a master of the unsaid,” wrote Mark Cousins in Sight & Sound; his films are like “silent screams.”

Among those available in DVD is the third of his eleven features, Rat-Trap (Elippathayam, 1981), which concerns a wealthy aristocrat who is trapped by his own manipulations. Shadow Kill (Nizhalkkuthu, 2002) depicts the inner doubts of a state hangman in the kingdom of Travancore (later part of Kerala) in 1941. Four Women (Naalu Pennungal, 2007) tells the story of four archetypal women under class or societal constraints at different periods in Kerala history. (His documentary explorations of the Kathakali style of classical dance theater can be found in extracts on YouTube.

In the U.S. recently to take part in the Maximum India Festival at the Kennedy Center, Gopalakrishnan passed through Milwaukee to speak at the Milwaukee Area Technical College.


Cineaste: Can you tell me a little bit about the Malayalam culture and the Kerala state in India?

Adoor Gopalakrishnan: “Mala” means “the hills.” “Alam” is derived from the word Azhi, meaning the sea. It is the land between the hills and the sea. Over time the whole culture became known as Malayalam and that became the name of the language as well.

What happened some time ago is that there was a reorganization of the Indian states on the basis of the languages spoken. We used to have something like 350 princely states in the whole country. Some of the languages and culture had deteriorated, but on the basis of languages and culture and geographical contiguity some areas were joined together—in the South, for example, the area where Tamil was spoken and so it became the Tamil state. Mostly in the northern parts they spoke Hindi—and other languages—but Hindi was the most common. Hindi along with English was the national, universal language. Growing up, everyone in a state had to study three languages—your mother tongue, English, and Hindi. In the South we studied these three languages but in the North they did not study a third language, Malayalam. They studied only Hindi and English.

Kerala is the southernmost part of India, a narrow strip of land on the Arabian coast sea. It’s between the hills and the sea, very fertile land with a high concentration of population. It is the most literate state in India. We have Hindus, Christians, and Muslims living together; forty percent are Hindus; each of the others represent thirty percent each. We even had a small Jewish population for a long time. We have a great tradition of living in harmony because there has never been an incursion from the outside and a forcible conversion from one religion to another; these kinds of things happened in the northern regions, but never in Kerala, which is insulated because of the hills and the sea.

We had more contact with the rest of the world. Kerala used to be known as the Malayalam Coast. It used to be a destination in the old days for Europeans, for travel, and for muslin clothing, for example. It was a stopover when people traveled from China on the spice trail. Over the years there has been a lot of cross-fertilization of cultures, languages, and ideas.

It’s a very modern state also. If you travel in Kerala now the whole state is almost like one contiguous living place. You almost cannot separate one city from the next; there has been an even growth everywhere. We have modern-day amenities and facilities everywhere—electrification, transportation, telecommunications, roads, social services, health care.

In terms of living standards the South is far ahead of the rest of the country. In Kerala we don’t really have homeless or very poor people, for example. Wages are high, people have jobs. Kerala happens to have been the first state with a local Communist government and even today Communists are often involved in the coalitions.

Cineaste: You started out making documentaries. You don’t make as many anymore, do you?

Gopalakrishnan: In the beginning I used to make films on every subject that came my way. In the last few years I have been concentrating on documentaries with subjects that have to do with theater or the classical art forms of Kerala. I don’t do many other documentaries anymore but I enjoy the ones I do make because I learn a lot in the process. The research is always very exciting. To learn how or why a particular form of art or theater has advanced in Kerala, how it reached today’s growth, this is really exciting for me. In between feature films there are long intervals and so I always make these other kinds of films as a change of pace. And it refills my creative energies.

Making documentaries has influenced me in many ways. In the beginning it was for me almost like being a one-man unit. I used to do my own camerawork. I used to do my own sound. I used to do everything. That kind of discipline and learning helped me.

Documentaries also have affected the reason why in my fictional films I don’t like to fake any reality. I try to be truthful. What I am saying in the film may have many levels of interpretation, but I always say that at one level, at the basic level, the film has to be real document of the period, a real place, and people at a certain time in history. Maybe that has come from the documentary experience.

I am not interested in creating a reality that engages the audience just on its surface. I want the audience to explore beneath the surface. I have learned, for example, that holding a shot makes the audience watch more closely what is going on within the frame. In a moving shot, the movement itself becomes important, not always what you are seeing within the frame. The moment you start holding the shot, for some length of time, you start to notice the texture, the composition, and so many other things.

Cineaste: So you prefer static shots?

Gopalakrishnan: Not necessarily. It depends on what I am shooting. Of course I do try to keep the camera moving, but not so much that the audience is watching it. I don’t want them to see that my camera is moving. I want them to watch the scene, not the camera movement.

Cineaste: Has the impulse towards truthfulness and real documents always been present in your film work?

Gopalakrishnan: Always from the very beginning—in film. I used to do plays before film. I used to write, perform, and produce plays in my high-school and college days. I had a job also, for a short period. I gave up all that to join the Pune Film Institute, the national film school, when it was started in 1961. This was the first film school in the whole country. I joined the second year. When I passed out of the school in 1965, I realized it was impossible for me to make the kinds of films I wanted to make right away. The traditional way would have been to apprentice myself to someone for years and then slowly, if one is lucky, one gets a chance to make a film. I made documentaries during that period instead, and it took seven years for me to make my first feature [One’s Own Choice (Swavamvaram, 1971-2)].

During that period I also started a film-society movement in Kerala. We got outstanding films from other countries and from our own country and we showed them to young people who were interested in the cinema. The film society movement started as a low-budget escape but it inspired many young people to go and study cinema and then make their own films.

Cineaste: Wasn’t the impulse towards realism or truthfulness at odds with your theater background? Your films certainly are not very theatrical or stylized.

Gopalakrishnan: When I entered the Pune Film Institute I stopped doing theater and left that behind. But it was important and good for me that I did theater before I did cinema; I learned exactly where theater stopped and where film started.

Film is perhaps innately more realistic than theater. Theater can be realistic too but it has a different vision of reality. The whole thing is different. If you put a piece of furniture on the stage, it takes on a meaning different from that of a mere object of daily use. Everything is difficult in theater—sound, for example, is different in the theater—while everything is possible in the medium of cinema and nothing is taken for conventional and attributed meanings.

Cineaste: Were you influenced from the beginning by particular filmmakers that you had watched in school or in the film society years?

Gopalakrishnan: There have been many because I studied cinema very formally and watched films from Méliès down to all the great masters. I cannot pick out one or two influences.

Cineaste: The Italian neorealists?

Gopalakrishnan: Yes, but my films do not belong to neorealism, not at all.

Cineaste: Do they belong to any school?

Gopalakrishnan: No, I don’t think so, because my reality—the way I experience reality—is different from others. I cannot transplant someone else’s ideas or traditions. The more I watched the great masters, the more I understood you have to have your own way of looking at reality. Your salvation lies in that. Not imitating, not following someone else. All the great masters have taught us how to look at reality, but when each looked at reality their own way, their films become very personal statements.

Cinema has a lot to do with one’s own culture—my culture in my case. I’m not just telling a story. It’s beyond that. The story is just an excuse. I am trying to make the audience experience many things—not just that one thing—the story. The story is just an excuse to keep the audience inside the hall. Of course there has to be this element of the audience wanting to know what happens next. That’s why they stay. Otherwise they’ll walk out. The story is what keeps them sitting. But my primary goal is for the audience to share the experience I want to give them, hopefully an experience on many levels.

Cineaste: Does the humble way of life, the village life, still exist in Kerala as is depicted, for example, in your films Shadow Kill and Four Women?

Gopalakrishnan: Those films take place in the 1940s, the British period. Then there were very few amenities. In Four Women, for example, I show a very waterlogged area of Kerala. Transportation in the country in those days was by boats. Now things have changed, to a great extent.

Cineaste: You seem very attuned to the rituals of the period.

Gopalakrishnan: In some ways. I have to be faithful to the period and those films are documents of that period. Very truthful documents—I’m proud of that. And the rituals are very important. Shadow Kill is about the ritual of killing someone, and in Four Women, for example, the coming-of-age or fertility ritual for young women is also very important. That’s the whole point of one story in that film, because with the coming of age the relationships change in that house—suddenly the father becomes protective of his daughter; her older sister becomes jealous and selfish; and the brother-in-law sees another man in the picture. The relationships change. The fertility ritual is really important because the lives of the women depend on those relationships—on marriage and the coming of age. The fertility ritual becomes the real ground for the story to take place.

Cineaste: I cannot help but notice that you prefer to set the stories of your films in the past.

Gopalakrishnan: My films are devoted to the period I have lived through, yes. I would find it harder to make a contemporary film because I feel you have to have had the perspective of living through a particular time. I don’t know what I think about something until I have gone through the experience and some time has passed.

The farthest back I have gone is the 1940s, not before, because I was born in the Forties and I grew up in the Forties, so I am physically depicting things I really knew, things I’ve seen and heard and experienced.

Cineaste: So the films are always, in some sense, autobiographical.

Gopalakrishnan: I suppose so.

Cineaste: Are the actors in your films always professionals?

Gopalakrishnan: I use both, professionals and nonprofessionals. The casting is done on the basis of whether the particular actor will look like the character or the role, not based on his fame or popularity. A popular actor can be harmful because some of them have only been seen in a certain mould. If you try to break the mold that can be a problem—for the actors also—if they have been doing a certain type all their life it can be difficult asking them to change too much.

Normally, if I do not know an actor, I cast him in a small role first, see what he does and if he’s good. If I find that he is responsive and can do what I want him to do, then I cast him in a bigger role. With nonprofessional actors I don’t cast them in the main roles of course. If I see them somewhere—on the stage or in other films or even sitcoms—and their look is right.

Cineaste: Do you cast people from seeing them on the street or at the market in town, for example?

Gopalakrishnan: I’ve done that also. Many people come to me, in fact, often when I’m between films, to ask for a role in my next film. I tell them to come back when I’m ready—but only if they have the right look.

Cineaste: Do actors sometimes contribute anything to the ideas in the script? In the case of Four Women, for example, because it is all about women’s lives, I wonder if the actresses contributed anything to the content of the scenes, either in discussion or improvisation.

Gopalakrishnan: I don’t want actors to interpret a role on their own. What the actor thinks might lead to a clash of styles. I ask them to follow the script specifically. No improvisation.

Cineaste: I notice that you are rather stingy with music in your films, or that music doesn’t play that big a role unless it is integrated into a scene, with characters playing instruments for example. Is that a reaction to Bollywood?

Gopalakrishnan: I don’t use music too much, no. I don’t use it to heighten a scene. I might use it as a theme, or a leitmotif. But I don’t score music under everything on the screen. I don’t believe in that. Music can really hurt you unless you use it with real restraint.

In general sound can contribute a lot. You can listen to so many other alternative sounds in one of my films. And silence also can be effective. In the commercial films, from frame one to frame last, there is a score. People have gotten used to hearing music all the time. Where they don’t hear a diagrammed score they think something must be wrong. They grow restless. This is the sad part.

Cineaste: The colors of nature are so lush in your films, sometimes in contrast to the humble lives of the people. Do you put a lot of thought into the color scheme?

Gopalakrishnan: One has to think about the colors. You can’t always allow the predominant color to be green, for example. And there are many, many shades of green. In fact there are two main monsoons in Kerala, and during the monsoon you see so many shades of green. I love that. I have shot one entire film [Man of the Story (Kathapurushan, 1996)] during the monsoon because everything is so clear and clean—just waiting for the rains to stop and then shooting. I wanted to catch the many shades of green.

Cineaste: Is there a big tradition in Kerala of noncommercial filmmaking, or are you pretty much the tradition?

Gopalakrishnan: [Laughs] There were other filmmakers in Kerala before me but they were not off-beat like me. They were trying to do better films in the framework of the commercial cinema. Their films were not a departure from anything. In the beginning, my films were seen as a departure from what had been there before.

Cineaste: Who is the intended audience of your films? How are they distributed inside India?

Gopalakrishnan: They are mainly shown in Kerala, but Kerala has a huge population. We have thirty million people and an educated audience and something like 4,500 cinemas. There are a number of big commercial houses in a number of cities all over India where they also can be shown with subtitles for non-Malayalam speaking people.

Cineaste: In how many other languages are your films subtitled or dubbed within India?

Gopalakrishnan: Just English, because almost everyone in an educated audience understands English, and they are the people who go to see this kind of film. There is a whole lot of the other kind of cinema, the popular cinema, where they sing songs and dance dances and there is nonstop action. Those are the big Bollywood kind of films, which is not cinema.

Cineaste: How do you define your cinema?

Gopalakrishnan: It is a very personal kind of cinema, which tries to communicate with good audiences anywhere, everywhere.

Cineaste: After Kerala are the metro cities scattered throughout India a good market for you?

Gopalakrishnan: Yes—or I should say, it is a developing market. We also get media exposure on national television.

Cineaste: After the films have been shown theatrically?

Gopalakrishnan: Yes, until recently. They used to show “The Best of India” on national television, but for the time being this has stopped. National television also wants to make more money, and they feel these kinds of films don’t make enough money, even on national television, which is run by the government. They think they don’t get as many advertisements as they do with the other kind, the big films, the more commercial films.

Cineaste: It doesn’t sound as though the “parallel cinema” is very healthy in India.

Gopalakrishnan: I don’t promote that term. I don’t encourage people to say “parallel cinema.” I don’t make “parallel cinema.” I just make cinema. It’s a journalist’s coinage. You may as well call it “off-beat cinema,” because we have no real “parallel” way to screen our films to audiences. We depend entirely on the same cinemas where they show the commercial films to the masses.

Cineaste: Really?

Gopalakrishnan: There is nothing like a parallel distribution.

Cineaste: There’s no such thing as an art house?

Gopalakrishnan: We don’t have art houses. We say art-house films because that is the term used, but there are no art houses.

Cineaste: So a theater in a metro area might show your film one week and a Bollywood film the next?

Gopalakrishnan: Yes. Bollywood and all kinds of films like Bollywood, because other regions make all kinds of bad films too. Each region produces its own bad films, which are very popular with audiences, which follow the ballads of its local heroes and stars. The so-called Bollywood of Bombay—that’s the commercial cinema of Bombay—they don’t even produce thirty percent of the total production of the films made in India. The bulk of the production comes from the South in four different languages—Malayalam, Tamil, Telagu, and Kannada. Those are not Bollywood but the bulk of them are bad films often very much like Bollywood.

Our films are indeed small films by comparison. It’s very difficult to make our films because we don’t get the same size audiences. The audience is complexly conditioned by the other kind of cinema. For them, cinema means all those things that we consider nonessentials—singing, dancing, action. The nonessentials become essentials in those films.

Cineaste: Personally, do you struggle to reach an audience?

Gopalakrishnan: I do, but my struggle is not very difficult now because I have made so many films and I have a certain reputation. It’s not extremely difficult for me to get financing, and normally people don’t lose money on my films. Most of the other small films do badly perhaps, but mine cover the costs and are sometimes profitable. I have faithful audiences.

Cineaste: What’s a typical budget for one of your films?

Gopalakrishnan: It varies. I don’t work on so-called shoestring budgets, because I always say I don’t want a big budget or a small budget, I want the right budget. I prefer to make my films the way I want to make them and I always have. I never compromise on the film because I don’t have the right amount of money.

Cineaste: What was the budget of your last picture, for example?

Gopalakrishnan: Ten million rupees. A typical Bollywood picture, by comparison, might cost three hundred million rupees, but some cost ten times more than that.

Cineaste: Do you have to go outside Kerala to get financing?

Gopalakrishnan: It’s always possible to get financing in Kerala. Four Women actually was a production of my own because I was doing it also as a program for national television. Shadow Kill was a coproduction with France because there are certain advantages to French collaboration. The film is then released in France and Europe.

Cineaste: What’s your best market outside of India?

Gopalakrishnan: It depends. Each film is different. Some films do well outside of India, other films don’t.

Cineaste: What are you working on now? Have you decided on the subject of your next film?

Gopalakrishnan: I don’t know. I’m not settled on anything yet. It takes a long time for me to decide on an idea. I ask myself, is it a transient subject? Or is it an idea that will have standing value beyond the time when the film is made? I ask myself these kinds of questions over and over before I even start writing a script. An idea has to be very strong, strong enough to sustain and carry me along this whole process of making a film. For myself, it also has to be something new, not repeating something that I’ve done before, because for me, films are both ruminations and discoveries.

  1. Shadow Kill is distributed by the Global Film InitiativeRat-Trap and The Man of the Story (The Protagonist) are distributed by Second Run DVD.

Patrick McGilligan is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Backstory 5: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1990s and Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 4