How Swayamvaram represents Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s philosophy
The writer talks about the famous director's first film and how it introduced a new style of filmmaking
Through his first film, Adoor Gopalakrishnan told a story of independent individuals. He emphasised the need for individuality when it comes to one's work of art. And he introduced Malayalis to a fresh style of filmmaking that was earlier associated with filmmakers like Vittorio de Sica and Federico Fellini.
One scene, in particular, sums up Adoor's thoughts on art. The conversation in this scene involves literature. It's the moment right before Vishwam (Madhu) approaches the editor of a publishing firm with a request to serialise the long-form novel he has written. The editor and a couple of writers are sitting around discussing the quality of work published. One of them says, "Today's writers put form over content," and another says, "Literature without life won't last." This sentiment applies to any form of art, especially cinema. How can one write good stories if one hasn't had enough life experiences?
The 'form over content' argument is at times true of some of Adoor's work too. Take Swayamvaram, for example. There is not much in the way of content but that is more than made up for in its form. Other filmmakers, most notably Satyajit Ray, have explored similar subjects before. Satyajit Ray's Calcutta trilogy and Apu trilogy have featured similar characters. Pratidwandi and Jana Aranya — both part of the Calcutta trilogy — have an unemployed protagonist desperately in search of a job. In contrast, the Apu trilogy was more intense and tragic. Swayamvaram has more in common with the Apu trilogy, especially the third entry in it, Apur Sansar. But Adoor chose to dial down the melancholy considerably. MT Vasudevan Nair would adopt a similar approach an year later in his debut, Nirmalyam.
Speaking of melancholy, there is another scene in the same editor's office, when Vishwam goes back to inquire about the status of his novel, and the editor politely rejects him, saying, "Your work is promising but it's too sentimental." I don't know if Adoor thought of his own film as too sentimental, but one gets the sense that he went through a similar experience when pitching his story to someone. Also interesting is the response of Vishwam's wife Sita (Sharadha) who, when asked what she thought of the novel, tells him, "I didn't like that the heroine dies in the end."
The impression I got from Swayamvaram is that Adoor believes that there is space for all kinds of cinema, even though one senses a tone of dismissal — of anyone discouraging arthouse cinema. Let me go back to the first scene in the editor's office. The perspectives of both sides are presented. "Just because you don't understand a work doesn't automatically make it inferior," the editor's subordinate tells an intellectual writer. And when the same intellectual writer dismisses a short story he read as "trash", the editor asks, "Do you have to be that cynical?"
In Vishwam and Sita, we see two individuals who have opted for the less travelled path, just like Adoor. Their pathetic financial situation makes Vishwam constantly question the decisions he has made with Sita. More than once, he asks her if she regrets making the choice of going against her parents and eloping with him. But she always seems to be surer than him, and she is resolute even after the tragic finale. Sita is going to remain independent no matter what; anything she wants to do is her choice, not someone else's, regardless of how difficult it is going to make her life. Zero compromises, just like Adoor's filmmaking.
The open-ended finale suggests several possibilities. Sita can either go back to her parents, or she can remain where she is and look after her kid, or become a prostitute like her neighbour Kalyani (KPAC Lalitha). Similarly, Adoor is free to make any film he wants. He can make an arthouse film, or a commercial film, or an arthouse film starring mainstream actors.