Kerela, like Bengal, was a remarkably secure home to meaningful cinema for several years, amidst the regular rattle of over-the-top commercial films in both states. Of course, several directors contributed to this miracle but two names clearly stand out, as much for their cinematic brilliance as for the quiet dignity with which they went about their work. Bengal of course had the legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray and Kerela was blessed with Govindan Aravindan and his unique brand of lyrically incisive films.
Like Ray, G Aravindan was a man of few words and many contrasting facets: painter, cartoonist, composer and writer on one hand and a Kerala Rubber Board administrator on the other. No wonder, his initiation into the world of films was entirely self-driven, collectively fuelled by the rich character and imagery of his native Kottayam, his folk theatre roots, rubbery stability of his Board job besides a chance encounter with Kurosawa’s ‘Rashoman’.
Long before he ventured into films, he had already achieved considerable fame with his ‘Mathrubhoomi’ cartoon series titled ‘Small Men and Big World’, a humorous account of an idealist grappling with everyday realities, one named Ramu after his own son. The cartoon sketch paved the way for the destined canvas of cinema when Aravindan found a sensitive and devoted producer in his long time theatre peer and cashew merchant Ravindran Nair. Thus began an enduring tryst of lyrical creations purposefully adorned with inventive music and vibrant imagery that raised the bar for Malayalam cinema, essentially through a daring and decisive departure from established norms.
Here was a director who for the first time let the idyllic nature play an integral part of his films and his cinematic approach called for an equal involvement from actors and the audience – almost simulating a stage on screen. His camera was only a tool for detection, never an instrument of projection. Like nature, his music was an element of freewheeling introspection ahead of wary interpretation. Even so, the social activist in him was fully awake to the larger cause, just that he chose largely redolent expression to service it, discarding the abstract symbolism that was popular among the offbeat filmmakers of his time. And this ingenuity was well employed, in the sheer diversity of his chosen themes.
‘Uttarayanam’ brought to the fore harsh post-independence realities seeped in incidental opportunism and discarded idealism. The contemplative ‘Kanchan Sita’ humanised Lord Ram as an individual tormented by his wife’s needless loss, lurking behind the righteousness unfurled only through external pressures. ‘Thampu’ was a compassionate probe into the trials and triumphs of transient relationships embodied through the desolate lives of circus artistes. ‘Kummatty’ was a fantasy genre that placed a popular myth at the centre of reality. ‘Esthappan’ exposes the frailty and diffidence of human interpretation shown through desperate attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding an eccentric spiritualist called Esthappan.
‘Chidambaram’ studied man-woman relationships, individual culpability and caste differences. ‘Oridathu’ is set in the 50s, in a tiny, remote village, a humorous take on the impending darkness of imminent electricity, highlighting the elusive complexities of human mind. While ‘Pokkuveyil’ traced the life of a young man wrestling with contrasting personal conflicts and social encounters, his last film ‘Vasthuhara’ looked at the problem of refugees. His superb documentaries included ‘The Seer Who Walks Alone’ on the philosophy of J Krishnamurti.
G Aravindan, like Ray, held a discernible edge over his peers both in style and substance but again like Ray; he was too busy to stake claims or seep in adulation. From ‘Uttarayanam’ to ‘Vasthuhara’, he was relentlessly focused on the task at hand.