It is the 40th anniversary of auteur Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s first feature film Swayamvaram. The filmmaker talks about the film and its cast and the period in which it was made. Swayamvaram was Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s first feature film, made seven years after he passed out of the Film and Television Institute of India. It celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year and is being screened in Goa on November 24 as part of the event to honour Dada Saheb Phalke awardees.
Adoor talks about the film and the experience of making the film.
When you look back what do you feel about it?
As the negatives of most of my earlier films are lost, I was recently involved in the digital restoration of these films. Along with that, I had to go through Swayamvaram frame by frame to revise its subtitles. When I see it now, what strikes me is the freshness of its images. One never gets the feeling that it is an ‘old’ film. In fact, I watched it along with the audience in recent screenings in Munich and Paris. And I saw that it had great impact amongst young audiences.
Yes, it deals with certain themes that are universal and timeless. The first part of the film is a series of abstract sequences where Viswam and Sita, the lovers who have eloped to the city in search of love and a new life, is shown in romantic and lyrical settings. It was something new in Malayalam cinema, which was always loud and obsessed with storytelling.
The film is actually a journey from illusion to reality. And the characters are typically middle class. Many of the images in that sequence are drawn from romantic scenes in popular cinema; you can even see some film posters and postures in it. The dreams about good life nurtured by the average middle class are in fact moulded by film images; they dream about the life of the stars they see in films, which is a life full of song and dance. But if you look at the sequence closely, you can see elements of tragedy in it: at one level it shows the intense love between this man and woman.
But why is it so intense? It is because of the fear of losing, of losing the object of your love, which is a major theme of the film.
This theme of losing is repeated thrice in this part. So it is actually a story foretold at the beginning of the film itself, the rest of the film is a detailed elaboration of this theme.
Actually references about their past are sparse and next to nil in the film. The only reference is about Sita’s father, when she has a nightmare..
Yes, it comes just after she comes to know that she is pregnant. It is a kind of situation where she is suddenly reminded of the past, because she is now carrying a link to the future in the form of her pregnancy. References to the past are done in such subtle ways and not explicitly.
Another important aspect of the film is the collective energy behind it; not only was it produced by Chitralekha Film Cooperative, one can see a lot of writers and artistes participating in it…
True, it was a period when all the arts like literature, theatre, painting and film joined hands, creating a new force or energy. It was also a period when there were a lot of discussions about art and literature, under the leadership of intellectuals like C.N. Sreekantan Nair and M. Govindan. We had organised the first major festival in 1965-6 as part of the Literary Conference. During that time there was also a movement in theatre called ‘thanathu nataka vedi’ (indigenous theatre). In a way the film is a culmination of all these efforts. Now you can’t see any such efforts around us, even among the youngsters. Earlier, those who were involved in such pursuits were connected with each other and interested in other arts too. But now their only connection is with the net from where they download stuff to access them. They have no relationships with people working in other areas of art.
How was it received at the box office?
It was not received very enthusiastically when it was released first. But once the national awards were announced, it was well-received and widely seen. It was the Malayalam film that received the National Award after Chemmeen. But Swayamvaram bagged several National awards, including best film, direction, cinematography etc. No other film had received so many national awards before that. Now the situation is totally different, award-winning films are neither seen by people nor taken for distribution by agents or theatres. If Swayamvaram received a boost after it received the national award, in the case of Kathapurushan, awards didn’t help it at all. It is also because of the fact that national award itself has lost its credibility due to very undeserving films being ‘honoured’ with it. The quality of the jury is also a big issue.
Why is that happening? Is it due to the influence of television or the excess of images around us?
I think one major factor is television, which, in fact encourages lazy viewing; one only needs to ‘listen’ to it. Most often people switch it on and do their daily chores while images and sounds go on flowing. This, in a way, devalues images and promotes superficial viewing, because you don’t need to concentrate on them. Moreover, all those narratives are absolutely predictable and loud; everyone seems to be neurotic. It has also lowered the level of expectation of the viewers. Subtlety has lost its value in our society.
Your cast includes some of the most popular artistes of the time like Madhu, Sarada, Thikurissi… while most of the other New Wave filmmakers used new faces..
Actually, I wanted to cast new faces, and also tried a lot for that. We searched and enquired in all the colleges and even drama troupes for that. But women were not willing to come for film acting. As for theatre, their style was often too loud and dramatic to my tastes. Finally we decided to approach Sarada to play the role, and she readily agreed to do it. Madhu was already known to me and had acted in an earlier venture of mine – Kamuki, based on a C.N. Sreekantan Nair script, which was never completed after a few days of shoot. But, when I look back, I think it was a good choice, both of them did well. It is one of Madhu’s best performances in his career. Though they were all popular and successful actors, I never had any problem directing them; they were all very cooperative, professionals in the true sense.
What was the budget for Swayamvaram? What do you think is the state of affairs for such films now?
We spend Rs. 2.5 lakhs; Rs. 1.5 lakh came from Film Finance Corporation and we raised 1 lakh from our own sources. We could complete the film within the budget. At that time, we could manage to release it in main centres so that people can watch it. I think the scene is far more depressing now. The distribution networks are run by vested interests whose tastes determine what gets shown in the theatres. The theatres don’t want to spare their screens for our kind of films.