Adoor and the Crystal Pyramid
by Elizabeth Menon

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Dada Saheb Phalke Award, Padma Vibhushan and now the Crystal Pyramid: his name is synonymous with Malayalam cinema: he took Malayalam cinema to the centre of the world and the name of a small village in Pathanamthitta District in Kerala was on everyone’s lips. You guessed it! I am talking about Adoor: Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the creator of films with diamond precision. He graduated in direction from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Poone in 1965, following which his life has been part of Malayalam cinema’s history. If his first film 'Swayamvaram' won National award for the best film, best director, best cinematography and best actress in 1972, his first film in colour ‘Elippathayam’, received the most coveted award from the British Film Institute for the ‘most original and imaginative film’ in 1982; but that was only the beginning!

'Swayamvaram' was a breakthrough in the history of Malayalam cinema and from then on, it was 'Malayalam cinema before Swayamvaram and after Swayamvaram'! National awards, State awards, Critic awards and International acclaim in various forms followed. His films were shown at festivals in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Rotterdam, Toronto etc. and most cities around the world. He was the recipient of the International Film Critic Award (FIPRESCI) six times consecutively, for Mukhamukham, Anantharam, Mathilukal, Vidheyan, Kathapurushan and Nizhalkkuthu. Government of India was not far behind with honours, Padmasree in 1984 and Padma Vibhushan in 2006. The ultimate honour in Indian Cinema, Dada Saheb Phalke Award was bestowed on him in 2004, which was presented to him by the President of India Dr Abdul Kalam in October 2005.

Therefore, it was no great surprise that South Asian Cinema Foundation (SACF), based in London chose Adoor Gopalakrishnan for their most prestigious award ‘ Excellence in Cinema’ and celebrated his unique achievement by organizing a Retrospective of his films, an Adoor festival, first ever in the UK. Adoor was chosen for this award for his entire body of work, nine films, from Swayamvaram to Nizhalkkuthu and more than thirty short films and documentaries in between, spanning over three decades. The award ceremony was held at the Nehru Centre in London on 15th June, in the presence of distinguished guests, including India’s High Commissioner in London Mr. Kamalesh Sharma, Dr Atul Khare Minister for Culture and Director Nehru Centre and Mr. Lalit Mohan Joshi Director SACF. Mr Kamalesh Sharma presented Adoor with the 'Crystal Pyramid'; the citation described Adoor’s uniqueness and consistency of approach to film making. But this beautiful Crystal Pyramid had nothing to do with the famous 'inverted pyramid or the submerged stone pyramid at Louvre', except for the shape and the symbolic use of technology and ability to reflect light!

Adoor released SACF's new publication, 'A Door to Adoor', an insight into the great man's life and work, a rare collection of essays and reviews of Adoor's cinema, with a foreword by Shyam Benegal and edited by Lalit Mohan Joshi and C S Venkiteswaran. This book also includes an article by the Master himself, 'Image, Imagination and Creativity', which very clearly shows how his ardent followers could have easily lost a Master of creation and gained a great writer, if he didn’t have the passion to spread the gospel of cinema! After the release of the book, Lalit Mohan Joshi was in conversation with Adoor about his life and films. He talked about his films, family and the difference in his audience in Kerala and around the world. He felt that Indian cinema does not get the right attention and hopes to change the wrong notion of our films abroad. He went into the intricate details of filmmaking, and to the audience it was sheer pleasure as they could almost watch each shot being allotted 'time long enough, but not too short'! He was very humble when he told the audience that he is still a struggling filmmaker in every which way.

'Adoor Gopalakrishnan Festival' was held between 16-18 June at Waterman's Art Centre, showing four of his films, Elippathayam, Kathapurushan, Vidheyan and Nizhalkkuthu, followed by discussion and Q& A sessions with Adoor. There was a brief ceremony at the Waterman's Art Centre prior to the screening of Elippathayam; Malayalee Association of UK (MAUK) honoured Adoor with a Crystal pyramid, which was presented to him by the Deputy High Commissioner of India in London, Mr Ranjan Mathai, in the presence of distinguished guests.

It was the first time that a Festival was held in the UK for Adoor's films and his ardent followers flocked in everyday to watch the films and discuss each film shown, and the others. After the last screening on 18 June, Adoor was in conversation with Paul Willeman, writer and co-author of Encyclopaedia of Indian cinema and Professor at the School of Media and Performing Arts, University of Ulster and Dr Atul Khare.

I was amazed at the audience participation and their knowledge of Adoor’s films, as most of them were non- Indians. They knew Seetha, Rajamma, Unni, Patellar, Kunjunni, Thommy, the Hangman and the others and what each film represented. Elippathayam that was made in 1981 received such enthusiasm from the audience that made me realise that Adoor has achieved his dream, that his films are faithful social documents of the history of a particular period, which should stand the test of time. The film is a study in itself about human nature, inability to cope with life, undergoing depression and ultimately withdrawing into a hole and hopefully, coming out of it after a 'shock treatment'! One can relate to the situation at some stage in One's life, if one takes the trouble to understand this film. Vidheyan tells you the story of a cruel landlord and his most obedient slave of a man and what a change of circumstances can do to relationships. Kathapurushan, Vidheyan and Nizhalkkuthu also received great applause from the audience.

Mukhamukham and Kathapurushan delve into politics, independence struggle and the concept of martyrdom. Its worth to remember that Adoor dealt with schizophrenia, depression, complexities of human nature and it’s intricate make up in most of his films in such a way that these could have been interpreted in many ways; this is most relevant in Anantharam, Mathilukal, Elippathayam and Kathapurushan. In Nizhalkkuthu, the latter half of the film could have been kaliyappan’s nightmare in his delirious state, real life and imagery blending into one, which makes the audience think and reach their own conclusions. And here, the master of creation is at his best.

Adoor gives a lot of respect to his audience and its only fair that he expects it to be reciprocated. It’s a known fact that a film must tell the audience something and it should make one think; it does not take long to realise that ‘Adoor films’ do that and more! Though most women in his films may appear to be suffering silently, he makes them strong enough to endure the suffering and gives them the importance, being truthful to the social situation of that period, as he does not like to deviate from the truth. I feel that women are partly responsible for this image; women in Kerala, though with the highest literacy rate than anywhere else in the world are quite reluctant to come forward to take part in any open discussions or activities; I am not saying this, disregarding the few who do! Seetha in Swayamvaram could be interpreted as the emergence of a new woman

Towards the end of Elippathayam, a child is dragged away by his mother from the front of Unni's house, a sinking ship or rat hole of a place, and I felt that this was Adoor’s way of giving a message to the women, to take responsibility in carving the future of our children. When I was beginning to believe that Adoor's characters are devoid of dreams, there comes a film to shatter that belief! Even in a delirious state, Kaliyappan in Nizhalkkuthu has this vivid fantasy filled with the most beautiful landscape, grass meadows swaying in the breeze, Palmyra tree playing to the wind, birds singing and the enormous pond with the most exquisite lotus flowers and of course, the splendor of the sky streaked with gold and the silhouette of a shepherd boy with the flute, playing melodious music. There’s even a very subtle hint of an innocent love theme that reminded me of Changampuzha! Perhaps the world according to Adoor is getting brighter! World is eagerly waiting for more exquisite pieces of work from the Master and I take this opportunity to say that people from Pathanamthitta District are very proud of their most famous son.

(For the uninitiated, Changampuzha Krishna Pillai (1911-1948) is the most popular poet who brought romanticism to Malayalam literature, who has written around 57 books and mostly known for 'Ramanan', written in 1936)

© E Menon

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