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Like Satyajit Ray did with Bengal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan draws upon the history and aesthetics of his native region, Kerala. But where Ray’s films glow with a bittersweet, redemptive humanism, Gopalakrishnan’s four recent features analyze darker aspects of society and existence with a forthrightness that affords few comforts. He sets social-realist tales within the detached, almost clinical structures of fairy tale and myth, confronting both negative and positive aspects of the human organism. Gopalakrishnan’s worldview could be compared to the Marxist concept of dialectical struggle (minus utopian finale) or Hindu cosmology’s inexorable yoking of creation to destruction.
Needless to say, these films do not include singing and dancing. Even incidental music is kept to a minimum, replaced by the chirps and susurrations emanating from the forests of southwestern India. Though Gopalakrishnan’s contemporary works investigate the psychological intricacies of modern India’s history, the primeval trees provide a timeless backdrop.
Set in Karnataka, on the borderlands of Kerala, The Servile (1994) plays out the relationship between a ruthless feudal chief (Mammootty) and his simpering servant (M.R. Gopakumar). Though it takes place in the 1960s, the sadomasochistic tale has an ancient quality, enhanced by the stylized nighttime cinematography. Akin to the dramatic lighting of kathakali, a classical dance form native to Kerala and practiced by Gopalakrishnan’s family, characters frequently appear in globes of lantern light, set against pitch black.
The semi-autobiographical Man of the Story (1996) revisits Indian political upheavals from Gandhi’s era to the 1980s through the experiences of the stuttering Kunjunni (Viswanathan), who grows from teased child to notorious Maoist author; his linguistic struggles allegorize the nation’s lurches through self-determination. Shadow Kill (2002) returns to a tighter existentialism. In late-colonial 1941, a retired hangman (Oduvil Unnikrishnan) faces a moral dilemma when called upon for a rare execution. Cosmic myth, political history, and individual mortality elegantly collapse into a meditation on the paradoxical interconnectedness of life and death. Though regimes change, the ultimate rule of death remains.