By Apurva Asrani
When we think of Indian filmmakers who have left an indelible mark on world cinema, two names immediately come to mind – Satyajit Ray and Adoor Gopalakrishnan – both filmmakers who are known for telling home-grown stories that reflect the struggles and the celebrations of their native states.
Ray was almost 20 years older than Gopalakrishnan, and the two directors made their debuts two decades year apart as well. Ray’s was Pather Panchali (1955), the first film from independent India to attract widespread international acclaim. Gopalakrishnan announced his arrival with the stunning Swayamwaram (1972), credited for pioneering the new wave cinema movement in Kerala. It might not be a coincidence then that these two auteurs home states, West Bengal and Kerala, continue to produce some of the most experimental and daring Indian films in the last few decades.
Both were avid movie buffs who, besides making important films, also endeavoured to bring the best of world cinema to India, and to give local audiences a taste of Kurosawa, Bergman, Godard and Elia Kazan. Gopalakrishnan established Chithralekha Film Society and Chalachithra Sahakarana Sangham; the first film societies in Kerala, and Ray started the Calcutta Film Society that was responsible for curating the first International Film Festival of India in 1952.
Ray made around 40 films, out of which Jalsaghar (1958), The Apu Trilogy (1955-1959), Charulata (1964) and Mahanagar (1963) will remain my all time favourites. The critic Roger Ebert once said ‘The great, sad, gentle sweep of “The Apu Trilogy” remains in the mind of the moviegoer as a promise of what film can be. Standing above fashion, it creates a world so convincing that it becomes, for a time, another life we might have lived.’
My dear father, a flight steward with India’s national carrier, and a die hard fan of Satyajit Ray, had the good fortune of flying the filmmaker from London to Bombay once. The year was 1977, and my mother was pregnant with me, her first child. My father charmed Ray by mellifluously singing Ami Chini Go from Ray’s Charulata in the plane’s galley.
Needless to say, the auteur was impressed, especially to know that the young purser had learned Bengali only through watching his films. When my father told him that he was going to be a father soon, Ray asked if he had thought of a name. My father told him the name that he and my mother were contemplating, and Ray smiled. But needless to say, my father changed his mind after that flight, and my parents finally settled on Apu (Apurva) after the protagonist of Pather Panchali.
While I was introduced to the cinema of Ray as a child, I only became acquainted with the films of Gopalakrishnan as an adult—through my partner, who is a Malayali. This great film-maker’s seemingly simple stories reveal unseen complexities as the narrative unfolds.
Ellipathayam (1981, The Rat Trap) explores the story of a man trapped in his own feudal mindset, brilliantly symbolised by a doddering aristocratic mansion infested with rats. Nizhalkuthu (2002) is about a hangman who spends his older years guilt ridden and drunk, after he comes to know that a person he hanged was actually innocent. These films are masterclasses in the complexity of human emotions, and can result in some serious soul searching- where one might question one’s own mind and ego.
When I interviewed Adoor Gopalakrishnan a few years ago, I asked him why his films were easier to find abroad than in India. He seemed disappointed, and said “I make films in Malayalam and this limits the audience for my films to Kerala. I am aware that there exists a niche audience outside my state, but there has been little effort to make these films accessible to the audiences outside it. We have so many big cities in India and they can substantially support a movement for meaningful cinema in this country. The governmental agencies have done precious little, and even private initiatives are wanting. We lack an intelligent and enlightened distribution system that does not hesitate to explore new avenues for a different kind of cinema.”
Another note of interest about Ray and Gopalakrishnan is that neither made films in the Hindi language, despite the promise of bigger audiences and wider distribution networks. Ray dabbled once, but Adoor just never did. They both stayed loyal to their native tongues, and predominantly told stories about characters from their respective states. When I asked Gopalakrishnan if he would ever make a film in Hindi like Ray, he laughed and said, ‘I don’t see the need. Also, my understanding of the Hindi language is very rudimentary. And don’t forget, language is the flower of a culture. It is not just a mere vehicle to transact ideas. It should not be forgotten that Ray made only one attempt at making a film in Hindi (Shatranj ke Khiladi -1977).”
Apurva Asrani is a National Award winning filmmaker, film editor and screenwriter based in Mumbai, India. He has a multimedia body of work in film, television and theatre. He is best known for editing films like Satya (1998) and Shahid (2013), and for writing the acclaimed human rights drama Aligarh (2016).