His films release once every five years or so. He is known to lapse into long periods of meditative repose, when he explores different ideas for his future projects, often drawing inspiration from his childhood and dreams. His films are known to baffle even the staunchest cinema-lovers and yes, he has seen his audience dwindle over the years. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, however, continues to bank on the small and faithful section of the crowd that has refused to desert him, and continues to redraw the map of Malayalam cinema with his trademark perfectionism.
After Nizhalkuttu (Shadow Kill, 2002), Gopalakrishnan is back with Naalu Pennungal (Four Women), based on the short stories of well-known Malayalam writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai. The world premiere of the film will be held at the Toronto International Film Festival (from 6-15 September), where it will be screened for the public on 10, 12 and 14 September. Appropriately enough, the film has been placed in the Masters section, where he shares the screen with stalwarts such as Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Ken Loach and Hou Hsiao-hsien. He will not be the only Indian there, as Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s The Voyeurs will also be featured in the same section.
The story is set in the form of four episodes dealing with the lives of four women in the erstwhile state of Travancore before and after independence: a prostitute struggling to establish a normal life; a farmhand married to a man who refuses to consummate the marriage; a housewife living with the frustration of being childless; and a middle-class spinster who challenges the established norms of society. “Although the stories span from the pre-independence days till the late 1960s with all the authoritative details, it is as real and relevant today,” says the director, who will be in Toronto to attend the festival. The film was shot in 55 days in Kuttanad, in Kerala’s Alleppey district.
Gopalakrishan grew up reading Pillai and had to revisit many of his old favourites to extract the seeds for this film. Actress Nandita Das, who plays the part of Kamakshi, the spinster, was delighted at the prospect of working with the auteur. “Usually, he does not take actors who do not speak Malayalam, but I was quite happy when he briefly narrated the story over the phone,” she says. “When I asked do I get the script, he replied that it’s in Malayalam and he cannot get it translated into English.” Later, on the sets, she was surprised to find out that the film was virtually all in Gopalakrishnan’s head and she was the best informed of the actors. “None of the actors had any idea what part they were playing,” she says.
Das harbours the deepest admiration for Gopalakrishnan. “I have never seen a more focused and more involved director, who is so immersed in his film. What an eye for detailing, art direction and performances,” she says over the phone.
“Gopalakrishnan is the most important Indian director in the post-Satyajit Ray, post-Ritwik Ghatak era. He is the only film-maker who successfully bears the legacy of Ray, though he has adapted Ray’s mode of realistic expression to his own,” says Manas Ghosh, lecturer in film studies at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. According to Ghosh, one has seen a definite shift in Gopalakrishnan’s work, from his earlier films such as Elippathayam (Rat Trap, 1981) which had an inherent sense of politics, to later ones such as Kathapurushan (Man of the Story, 1995) which were lyrical in nature and concentrated much on the poetic events of everyday life. “His unfolding of the narrative has a bizarre and challenging effect on the spectator and there is always a question mark put in front of him,” says Ghosh. Adding: “Unlike Ray, the tussle between tradition and modernity does not always end with the triumph of the latter, but Gopalakrishnan tries to prove that the journey to modernity is full of discontent and challenges.”
Though none of Gopalakrishnan’s films have been huge box-office successes, he has never lost money on any of them. Naalu Pennungal is expected to hit theatres in Kerala by October and Gopalakrishnan is working out the logistics of a possible commercial release elsewhere. While many of his contemporaries have opted for a financially- lucrative existence in the mainstream, Gopalakrishnan has always refused to budge. “There are very few purists left even in our parallel cinema. Whether one likes his cinema or not, one has to admit that he has really stuck to the kind of work he has always wanted to do,” says Das.