Is a film still a film if it doesn’t play in a theatre? Big or small, does the format matter?
“A film like Pather Panchali is absolutely lost on the small screen because of the landscape, the mood and the atmosphere. I regret the fact that the large screen is dying,” Satyajit Ray said in one of his last interviews. The year was 1992.
Large screen is not yet dead, or even dying, but it’s feeling the pinch.
Cut to 2020, a year when giant streaming sites are redefining our age-old movie viewing habits, it is veteran Malayalam director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, one of the finest film-makers in the country, who asserts his belief that “cinema should be seen, heard and experienced in a regular theatre only”.
Adoor also predicts there will be no significant change in the way films are made even in the post-COVID world.
In a long e-mail interaction, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award-winner talks about the lockdown days, his relationship with Ray, his travel experiences in the country and abroad, a multitude of film festivals across the globe, the new phase in Malayalam cinema and how he plans to convert the KR Narayanan Institute of Visual Arts and Science in Kottayam into a world-class institute. Just for the record, the Kerala government has appointed, Adoor, 79, as the chairman of the institute. Excerpts.
You are one of the most travelled Malayalis and the lockdown has forced you to stay at home for the last six months. Tell us about your routine these days. If and when the world returns to normalcy, where will you be travelling first?
I was supposed to travel to Italy and the US last June. But everything got cancelled as coronavirus made it a point to visit all these places long before I could. The lockdown was not that painful or suffocating for me as I had a lot to read and occasionally write as well. One destination (later) will be the US where I was to speak at some universities that were planning to screen my films as part of tributes/retrospectives. Anyway, we cannot set any firm plans yet as COVID-19 shows no signs of slowing down.
The movie screen is getting smaller and people seem to be enjoying films on their mobiles. You have never liked the idea of people watching films on a small screen. In a post-COVID world, how do you see the process of film-making itself?
I cannot imagine watching a film on mobile and enjoying it. I don’t think we should take lessons from it because those people are not watching the films in the true sense. They probably listen to the unending flow of dialogues explaining everything like in the old days. Cinema should be seen, heard and experienced in a regular theatre only for its proper appreciation. COVID has taught us many bad lessons. They should be forgotten the moment the virus is driven away. I do not imagine any significant change the way films will be made in the post-COVID scenario.
But technology is fast changing the way we live life itself after COVID. Remastered prints are being lapped up and even a coloured version of Pather Panchali has come out. Purists are irked, what do you think about the trend?
I see it as an encroachment on a great artist's domain. He had conceived the film in black and white. And it was beautifully shot. Let us not tamper with something that is holy and sacred.
Talking about Ray, you had a great relationship with the film-maker, who had a liking for you and your works. In one of his last interviews, he termed Mathilukal one of the best films he had seen. When and where was the first time you saw Ray?
We were both staying in the Ashok Hotel, Delhi, at the time of the International Film Festival of India. The year was 1979. I had held a private screening of my film Kodiyettam for a few guests of the festival and I met Ray and invited him to the screening. He liked the film a lot and we had a long chat at the foyer of the hotel after the screening. It was a great meeting and then the relationship developed over time. I used to invite him to every screening of my films in Kolkata and he used to come and watch them. And he would invariably ask me to come home the day after to reflect on the film and discuss it. Fortunately, he had only good things to talk about them.
And the last time you saw Ray?
I can’t remember exactly. May be we met last when he was in Trivandrum.
In a recent interview, you described Aparajito as your favourite Ray film. Besides the Apu trilogy, do you have any favourites?
I love Jalsaghar, Devi and all his children’s films too.
It was you who brought Ray to Kerala; what were his observations about the state? How many times did he visit the state?
He visited Kerala only once. This was in connection with Soorya Krishna Murthy’s Ray Retrospective in Trivandum. Krishnamurthy wanted my help in persuading Manikda to accept the invitation. He very graciously obliged me. We could make his visit a big event. As I can recall, he stayed here for three days. He was overwhelmed by the public reception he got here. He was a State Guest and the media gave wide coverage of his visit.
You have attended innumerable film festivals across the globe. Which festival has left you in awe?
Cannes, of course, is the biggest and the best. Sometimes very original and significant films get awarded there. Once in a while you are also upset by the decisions made by the jury. I believe the awards are simply indicative of the character of the jury rather than the quality of films.
How many countries have you visited? While visiting cities, do you venture out to discover the places? Like driving around or walking down the lanes?
I don’t have an exact count of the countries I have visited so far, but it could easily be 50+. All of these trips were always connected with the screening of my films (sometimes as part of juries as well). Museums were of great interest to me and every town in Europe and the US had a museum. Even the small ones would boast of a few priceless collections. I can claim to be one of those who have seen the maximum number of original paintings and sculptures by great artists around the world.
And in India? A city you love to be.
Trivandrum, of course. Next should be Bombay. I have been to most places in India. Bangalore used to be a favourite, but no longer.
It is also quite amusing that you have not shot any of your films outside of Kerala. At any stage in your career/life, have you thought of a film in an urban setting, national or international? [Even MT Vasudevan Nair has written a story with an American backdrop]
Malayalam is one language I know fairly well. I do not think I can make films in other languages. Only on two occasions, I did bilingual films using Tamil and Kannada along with Malayalam. These are border case/areas. And the languages spoken in the border areas are not that alien to us. If I decide to make a film in another language, I cannot be in full control of what and how the actors speak. I will have to go by what my language expert tells me. Not a happy situation for someone who keeps everything under his control. No, I am not planning to shoot a film either abroad or in one of our cities, at least not currently.
You have been appointed the chairman of the KR Narayanan Institute of Visual Arts and Science. You have talked about elaborate plans to make it the premier institute in India. What is brewing in your mind?
The KR Narayanan Institute has a great campus built by the architect Shankar. It has an excellent academic staff as well. There has been a lot of laxity on the part of the government in administrative matters. This has been partly solved too by appointing an experienced director. The Institute is still awaiting autonomy – both managerial as well as financial – for its smooth and efficient functioning. If good support comes forth, I am confident of raising the Institute to international levels.
You said in an interview that students from Kerala are not being admitted to the prestigious Pune and Calcutta film institutes. Legally, can they do it? Also, what is the way out?
What I gather is that there is no formal order by the Centre, but in practice, they have not been admitting students from Kerala. Obviously, the authorities feel that Malayalis are trouble-makers and so they should be kept out. There is no easy way out. Our MPs should raise the question in Parliament with proper statistics. Those responsible should be made to answer.
Of late, Malayalam cinema has garnered so much hype across the country, thanks to online streaming sites. How do you see the emergence of new-age film-makers?
Of late, one notices a bit of change in terms of choice of subjects and treatment. This is a pleasant shift in a formulae-ridden film industry. I have not seen all the new-age films, but from amongst those whose work I have seen I would gladly mention Vipin Vijay, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan and Dileesh Pothan. There are one or two more who deserve to be noted.
Commercially, which is your biggest hit? Also, which film has won you the maximum awards?
Kodiyettam was the biggest commercial hit. Award-wise, Mathilukal got the largest number of International awards and Swayamvaram won the largest number of National awards.
None of your films are on any streaming sites. Is there any particular reason?
I do not know why, none of the streaming channels have contacted me yet. I think they are also going after the downright commercial stuff.