G Aravindan is one of the greatest filmmakers Malayalam cinema, actually Indian cinema, has seen. An extremely important director of the New Indian cinema of the 1970s and 80s, his films have a haunting quality to them and what makes them unique and poetic is their constant yearning to break limits, to go beyond, their symbiotic links with music, mysticism and painting. All of Aravindan’s films, in one way or other, draw from and work with other art forms, classical and folk music, drawing and painting, dance, classical and folk art forms etc. It is this constant transgression of boundaries – of medium, form, aesthetics and sensibility – that marks Aravindan’s works and makes them stand out from that of other filmmakers. Quoting another great Indian filmmaker, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, “Aravindan was not a Malayalam filmmaker, he was an Indian filmmaker. His work was original. Tagore may have written in Bengali but his art, his literature was universal. So also Aravindan, his films knew no boundaries.”
Govindan Aravindan was born in Kottayam, Kerala on January 21st, 1935. If one looks at his oeuvre of work closely, we see there there are at least three Aravindans. The one who took Uttarayanam (1974) as an extension of his formative years and as the cartoonist of the celebrated ‘Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum’ (Little People, Big World), serialized in the Mathrubhoomi Weekly in the 1960’s. Working on contrasts like black and white, past and present, idealism and degeneration, memories and experience, the film ends up with an ambiguous smile on the face of the protagonist an outsider and rebel. It was as it were a gesture of transcendence, an attempt to go beyond the polemics that life, and sometimes art, gets trapped in. One can see him coming back to this format later at a different phase in his later film, Oridathu (1986).
The second Aravindan explored the ‘beyond’ in film. In Kanchana Seetha (1977), Thampu (1978), Kummatti (1979), Esthappan (1979) and Pokkuveyil (1981) one finds Aravindan at the peak of his imaginative abilities. Thematically diverse, all of them are intensely poetic overtures into the beyond stretching the medium of film and its aesthetic possibilities. Kanchana Seethais a visually contemplative film that strips the timeless story of Ramayana to its bare essentials. Based on C N Sreekantan Nair’s play, Kanchana Seetha sets the narrative amidst the Rama Chenchu tribe from Andhra Pradesh, who considers themselves descendants of the lord Rama. Here the godly Rama is a simple tribal chieftain in the midst of his all-too human desires, conflicts, follies and sorrows. Thampu, one of the most lyrical films in Malayalam, is about the arrival and departure of a circus troupe in a sleepy village, and the ripples it creates there. It is all about the here and now, the transient thrills and excitements that seem to animate the little world of the circus tent. It brings into subtle contrast endless travel against idiotic rootedness, the yearning for the beyond against the exigencies of the mundane, and it is this break from stagnation that the local youth makes when he decides to join the troupe when they leave his village.
From the entrapped world of the circus tent, Kummatty takes us into the imaginary world of childhood fantasy. One of the most beautiful children’s film ever made in India, Kummatty is about a playful village bogeyman who inadvertently forgets to transform a local boy back into a human being after turning him into a dog. Aravindan’s next film Esthappan (Stephen) is about the stuff legends are made of, about how we, transcend the everydayness of our lives by weaving tales out of memories, dreams and imagination. This narrative about Esthappan, who turns into a visionary in the minds of the Christian fisher folk in their village, weaves into itself local myths and legends, folk play and songs. Pokkuveyil is an attempt to rise to the level of music, a jugalbandi of images and sound where the visuals, in long, meditative shots, try to transform themselves into a sort of accompaniment to the haunting Subhapantuvarali in the background (Hariprasad Chaurasia on flute and Rajeev Tharanath on Sarod). For the film, Aravindan recorded its music first as a composition and then the visuals were ‘composed’ to accompany the musical notations.
In the third Aravindan, one witnesses a growing concern with the linear narrative. In Oridathu and Vasthuhara (1991) one finds him grappling with narratives about ravages of history and change in the lives of people. Oridathu is about the arrival of electricity in a village and is imbued with a deep sense of apprehension about ‘progress’. The narrative gathers momentum by piecing together little anecdotes and incidents that are triggered by the arrival of this alien technology, and gradually turns into a catastrophic vision about it. In the final sequence, we see a human figure is seen flying in the sky, as if it had lost all its connections with the earth and human life. Chidambaram (1985) is a wrenching portrayal of guilt and the endless pursuit for redemption while Vasthuhara is about the inexorability of history and the havoc it wreaks with human lives and relationships. The narrative is set between two traumatic dispossessions in Indian history – the exodus of people from East to West Bengal following partition of the country in 1947, and the 1971 exodus from Bangladesh to West Bengal following the war and formation of Bangladesh.
If in Pokkuveyil Aravindan explored the synergistic experience of music and film, in Marattam (1988) it is film and dance, where fluid camera movements combine with the body movements of the performers to evoke a rare filmic experience. Based on the work of noted Malayalam playwright Kavalam Narayana Pannikar, Marattam is deals with the various dimensions involved in the process of performance and spectating, where the actor identifies and plays out a role, and the audience ‘falls’ for the character through the medium of the performer. Various folk-music forms of Kerala like Thampuran Pattu, Pulluvan Pattu and Ayappan Pattu etc are used to accompany the acting performance that is set in the classical mode of Kathakali. Despite the diversity in themes and treatment, throughout his oeuvre one gets glimpses of the cartoonist in him, a vital element of humour that was/is conspicuous by its absence in the films of our ‘art’ filmmakers. Many of his films like Uttarayanam, Esthappan and Oridathu make creative use of the episodic cartoon format. Formally, it lends a sort of wholeness to the parts and pre-empts a definitive closure of the narrative. Not surprisingly most of his films are open-ended and enigmatically ambiguous – another reason why they continue to vibe with us.
Aravindan was keenly interested in music (he was trained in Hindustani music in the Kirana style Khayal), literature, painting and theatre. He took active part in theatre movements in Kerala and was associated with playwrights like Srikantan Nair and theatre groups Navarangam and Sopanam. Aravindan also gave music for films like Yaro Oral (1978), Piravi (1988) and Ore Thooval Pakshikal (1988). He also served on the NFDC board for two years and though he helped a lot of young filmmakers get funding for their films, he never took a NFDC loan himself. He was also the recipient of the National Award for Best Director thrice – for Kanchana Seetha, Thampu and Oridathu. He also won the Kerala State Award for Best Direction for Uttarayanam, Thampu, Esthappan, Pokkuveyil, Chidambaram, Oridathu and Vasthuhara.
Aravindan died on 15th March, 1991 following a sudden heart attack. Lamenting his death, Shyam Bengal had said “It is unfortunate everything had to end so suddenly. He had so many films in him – we would have seen films of the sort he had never made before; the kind he was slowly reaching towards. It is unfortunate he couldn’t complete his mission.”
Header photo courtesy Nasreen Munni Kabir