Indian director deals in potent metaphors
Adoor Gopalakrishnan offers a clear and rigorous profile of his countrymen's lives
NEW YORK — AS the summer continues its barrage of blockbusters, it's important to remember that movies can be art as well as entertainment, and that memorable films are regularly made far from the sound stages of the Hollywood studios.
Manhattan's marvelous Walter Reade Theater, operated by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is dedicated to these propositions. One of its major offerings this season is a series of ambitious works from India, directed by a cineaste whose works deserve much more notice by American audiences.
The program is called ``The Politics of Experience: New Indian Cinema by Adoor Gopalakrishnan,'' and while it isn't likely to make filmmaker Gopalakrishnan into a household name, it will at least remind the motion-picture world that India's movies range considerably beyond the popular potboilers and Satyajit Ray art films usually associated with that country.
Gopalakrishnan believes that cinema, if thoughtfully and sensitively made, can reveal powerful truths about contemporary Indian life.
For most filmmakers of his generation, who came to professional maturity during the 1970s, this goal is pursued through dramatic stories about compelling or unusual characters - the kind of material that typifies narrative movies all over the world.
What makes Gopalakrishnan's work stand out is his special concern with the social and cultural forces that act upon his characters, making them think and behave the way they do. Also praiseworthy is his avoidance of the simplistic psychologizing that such an approach could invite from a less-gifted artist.
The rigor and clarity of his approach are evident in movies from very different periods of his career. ``Ascent,'' made in 1977, is about a young layabout whose wife and sister painfully show him the need for responsible living. ``The Servile,'' just completed and having its United States premiere in the Walter Reade program, is about a groveling peasant who becomes implicated in his landlord's criminal acts.
Both pictures center on men with deeply flawed personalities - so unfocused (in ``Ascent'') and cowardly (in ``The Servile'') that in a more commonplace movie they would elicit only pity or contempt from the audience. But working deliberately and methodically, Gopalakrishnan takes care to show how their deficiencies are reflected and even heightened by the social structures around them.
This allows the characters to function not merely as colorful antiheroes, designed to touch our feelings for a couple of hours and then fade forgettably away, but as poignant metaphors for the entire way of life that produced them - and Gopalakrishnan himself, who was born and raised in the southern Kerala region where his films take place.
Although his work has evolved over the years, Gopalakrishnan's methods show impressive consistency. Separated by a decade and a half, ``Ascent'' and ``The Servile'' both have a leisurely pace and an episodic structure. As employed in the films, these qualities recall playwright Bertolt Brecht's use of an ``alienation effect'' to distance the audience from the emotions within his stories, encouraging active thought rather than passive absorption on the spectator's part.
``The Servile'' enriches its appeal with a sensuous, sometimes breathtaking color scheme. But while this film has more visual and dramatic impact than the earlier ``Ascent,'' it still makes no concessions to the Hollywood norms that cast a spell on so many directors.
Gopalakrishnan has been influenced by the form of ritualistic Indian theater known as Kathakali, which has long flourished in the region where he lives. In Richard Schechner's stimulating book ``Between Theater & Anthropology,'' the performance scholar notes that Kathakali actors strive for excellence ``but not `professionalism' in the Euro-American sense of slickness, polish, or even stage presence.''
Much the same may be said of Gopalakrishnan's filmmaking. It shows rough edges and moments of disjointedness, but its cumulative effect can be as daring and dazzling as anything the commercialized movie world currently has to offer.
Additional films to be shown in the Lincoln Center program are the American premieres of ``One's Own Choice,'' made in 1972, and ``The Walls,'' made in 1989, as well as ``Rat-Trap'' (1981), ``Face to Face'' (1984), and ``Monologue'' (1987).
* ``The Politics of Experience: New Indian Cinema by Adoor Gopalakrishnan'' runs through Aug. 25 at the Walter Reade Theater, and will include at least one personal appearance by the filmmaker. The films are subtitled in English.