‘Pather Panchali’ was the first real cinema to come out of India: Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Adoor Gopalakrishnan, one of India’s greatest filmmakers, was among the pillars of the country’s new wave cinema, pioneered by Mrinal Sen. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, he talks about his friendship with Satyajit Ray, his admiration for the craft of the maestro and the declining standards of Bengali cinema.

Edited excerpts:

Q/ Your first film, Swayamvaram, was largely influenced by Satyajit Ray.

A/ Influence is a bad word to use. Like many other filmmakers of my generation, I was excited and emboldened to make a film like Swayamvaram, but it had no direct connection to Pather Panchali or any other Indian or foreign film. The word influence means to copy. I have never copied anyone else’s work. It’s the most unethical and pathetic thing to do. Ray is very important in Indian cinema because for the first time a great artist looked very closely at Indian reality and came out with a true masterpiece. Cinema was his passion. He was not fixing or reforming the old cinema. He created a new cinema. Pather Panchali was the first real cinema to come out of this country.

It was Jawaharlal Nehru who took the initiative to send Pather Panchali to Cannes.

Q/ Did Ray see your first film?

A/ No. He did not do it. He saw all my films, starting with Kodiyettam, except the one I made first. In January 1990, two years before his death, my film, Mathilukal, was screened at Gorky Sadan, Kolkata, as part of the International Indian Film Festival.

I called him and invited him to the screening. He said his doctor asked him not to climb the stairs and pointed out that Gorky Sadan did not have an elevator. But I was hopeful he would come, so I waited outside until the last minute. Then a car stopped and Manik da (Ray was called Manik da by his relatives), got out. I rushed up the stairs to receive him and said apologetically, “Manik da, sorry to have bothered you. He replied, “No, Adoor, I had to come.” After the screening, he came out and said, “Wonderful, Adoor, wonderful.”

Q/ When did you see Pather Panchali for the first time?

A/ I believe it was in 1958. I was then a student at the Gandhigram Rural Institute [in Tamil Nadu]. One day, one of my teachers, G. Sankara Pillai, told me about the screening of a Bengali film. He said it was made by an artist from Santiniketan and won a foreign award. I saw the film without subtitles because the technology was not available at the time.

Q/ What was your first reaction to the film?

A/ I remember a 16mm print being projected onto a white wall using a portable projector. I could barely understand what the characters were talking about. But the striking part was that no one was wearing makeup and the place looked like a coastal village in Kerala. I was impressed by the real people shown in the film, especially the character of Indir Thakrun, the old woman with the deep wrinkles on her face. It was a real Indian film, very close to nature too.

Q/ And when did you see the subtitled film?

A/ Subtitles came much later, in the 1970s. I saw the film several times when I became a film student at the Film Institute in Pune. Theater was my real passion and I always wanted to be a theater person. After completing my course at Gandhigram, I went to Thiruvananthapuram as it offered me the opportunity to produce my plays. At that time, I got a job at the National Sample Survey of India. It was a well paid job and my job was to collect statistical data. I wasn’t even 20 at the time. My older brother, a university lecturer, earned less than me. At that time, a job in the central government was highly coveted because the salary was really good.

But after a year, I had had enough and wanted to quit. I wanted to go to higher education. I first thought of enrolling in the National School of Dramatic Art. But their language of instruction was Hindi, so I gave up on that idea. I came across an advertisement in the Malayala Manorama newspaper, calling for applications for admission to various filmmaking courses at the newly established Film Institute of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. What attracted me was the script writing and directing course. I naively thought that screenwriting wouldn’t be much different from playwriting. I didn’t think about direction because I just wanted to be a better writer. As an avid student of literature, I did not find the exam difficult.

At the institute, I was able to watch Pather Panchali without subtitles, but with full knowledge of the dialogue and the context. My perception of the film has changed. Our film appreciation teacher was Satish Bahadur, who made Pather Panchali the core text of his course. I saw the film with and without sound and in sequence several times, analyzing it to the hilt.

Q/ Would the film have had the same impact if it hadn’t won the special prize at Cannes?

A/ The film only received a certificate of merit at Cannes, but it was already a big success in Calcutta. It was a revolutionary film for India. Before that, V. Santaram was considered India’s most important filmmaker. But Ray’s entrance changed the whole atmosphere.

Q/ It was the first movie in India to earn 010 crore. And the decision of the Union government to send the film to Cannes was also interesting.

A/ You are right. [West Bengal chief minister] Dr BC Roy showed the film to Jawaharlal Nehru. It was Nehru who took the initiative to send the film to Cannes. Nehru was a person of high intellectual caliber. He told parliament that although India produced many films, they fell far short of global standards. He set up a cinematographic commission of inquiry under the chairmanship of SK Patil, MP. The committee issued a series of recommendations, including the creation of the Film Finance Corporation which later became the National Film Development Corporation, the creation of a National Film Institute and the National Film Archive, and the organization of national awards film and international film festivals.

Q/ Ray, however, dealt only with topics from classical literature. He never addressed issues like partition, land movement, or Naxalism.

A/ Yes, he was criticized for not addressing hot topics. But then he did movies like Mahanagar, Pratidwandi and Seemabaddha. Look at the level of these cinemas… While Ritwik Ghatak made you cry, Ray made you think.

Q/ Which Ray film do you think made us think objectively?

A/ Aparajito, for example, which is part of the Apu trilogy. I once asked Manik which of his films he considered his best. He said Charulata. I told him that I felt Aparajito was the best. He smiled and said he wanted to edit this movie some more. So I said to him, “Please let Aparajito be who he is. Please don’t touch it.

Q/ What do you think of Bengali commercial cinema?

A/ I’ve seen a few commercial films in Bengali which have done wonderfully well. For example, I liked Saat Paake Bandha. But the problem with commercial cinema is that everything is standardized and what we see and enjoy is on a very superficial level. They don’t give any impact beyond that. But meaningful films would be skillfully layered so that audiences can go beyond what they see and each viewer can take their own experience with them. The Ray-Sen-Ghatak trio simply did that. But the current situation is quite unfortunate. When I hear that today’s popular Bengali films are inspired by Telugu and Tamil films, I am shocked. How Bengali films could fall to such levels is beyond my comprehension. We have to take a close look at what is happening in Bengal, culturally.

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