ADOOR INTERVIEW | ‘I shed my caste surname at 20. So please don’t give me lessons on casteism’

Adoor Gopalakrishnan  speaks to TNIE on the ongoing storm over caste discrimination at the K R Narayanan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts.

Published: 15th January 2023 06:26 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th January 2023 09:36 PM   |  A+A-

Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Adoor Gopalakrishnan. (Photo | BP Deepu, EPS)

By Express News Service

A filmmaker par excellence who has made his mark on world cinema with his influential works, Adoor Gopalakrishnan has completed 50 fruitful years in cinema. The auteur, however, is no stranger to controversies. He speaks to The New Indian Express on the ongoing storm over caste discrimination at the K R Narayanan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts, his vision of good cinema, his perception of the new generation of film directors and his favourite actor and actress. Edited excerpts

Let us start with the current controversy at the KR Narayanan Film Institute... The entire student community is up in arms against the institute's director Shankar Mohan and they allege that you are the one behind the director.
First of all, there is a factual error. At KR Narayanan institute not all the students are agitating. The 2019 batch students are the seniors there. Students of the 2022 batch have just joined the institute. They have no active role in this.

What about the allegations of caste discrimination?
I don’t understand it. Caste has no place in a film institute.

The student's allegation is that the reservation quota is being undermined in the institute by the director.  
Shankar Mohan is a professional. Why should a professional like him turn against a section of students? It is a false charge. The other day there was a sitting of the Scheduled Caste-Tribe Commission. The commission had called the complainants, Shankar Mohan and the witnesses. When the Commission verified the complaints it was proven that the complaints were not true. The main complainant is a clerk of the institute, Nikhil. The students were not receiving the grant for a long time.  When Shankar Mohan took charge, he inquired about it. It was found out that the file was with Nikhil for a year. Shankar Mohan issued an explanation notice and gave him an ultimatum to clean up his act within three months. Nikhil, a contract employee, realized his tenure was to come to an end by December 2022 and to avoid that he moved a complaint to the SC-ST Commission alleging caste discrimination. This had been reported in the media as caste discrimination at the institute. The SC/ST Commission Chairman who looked into each complaint has now realized that all the allegations were wrong and false. The Chairman reportedly told Nikhil that it was people like him that who shame upon the SC/ST commission.


Another allegation is that a student in the reserved category was denied admission...and that he has got admission in the Calcutta film institute.
It is not correct. I am told he was put on the waiting list.  The editing professor and the subject expert had decided not to give admission to candidates scoring marks below 50%. As per that criteria, only four students qualified. The Director and the Dean insisted on decreasing the bar to 45%. Two more students got in. No further dilution was agreed upon. The candidate in question had scored only 42.4% marks. A Government Agency which has expertise in handling admission processes including in rules and practices governing reservation, and which has been assisting the Institute from the very first admissions way back in 2014 was contracted for the work related to the 2022 batch of admissions as well.  So, who is the culprit in this case? 


If this is the case, then who is behind all these controversies?
Let me come to the point of how it developed into a controversy. From 2014 onwards, the security of the institute was handled by the ex-servicemen supplied by an establishment called Kexso. There are about six security persons. The senior person is deputed at the main gate. He is also from the neighbourhood. He has been doing duty at the main gate from 2014 till 2022. He was identified as the person responsible for the supply of cheap liquor in the campus. After taking charge, Shankar Mohan inspected the whole campus. And 17 sacks of empty liquor bottles were found on the premises of the Institute. Shankar Mohan asked the agency to shift the security guard immediately. He was accordingly removed after much resistance from his side.

Subsequently, he has been sending anonymous complaints to the government against the Director. This security guard has conspired with a few disgruntled members of the staff within the Institute.

The cleaning staff had alleged that they faced casteist slurs from Shankar’s wife...
Since there was no scope for directly attacking Shankar Mohan, the same security guard used one of the sweepers to slander and sully Shankar's wife's reputation by using the caste card. The security guard has subsequently confessed to his role in the affair.

The sweeper was tutored by the security guard to mouth all kinds of allegations. He was the one who alleged that Shankar's wife had forced the staff to clean the toilet. The charge is absurd and factually incorrect as none of the staff have ever cleaned the toilets or even the bathroom.

Students complain that the institute doesn't even have a good archive...
We have acquired material for regular screening. It's true that there's no archive, as it would need crores of rupees to set up one. So, that's totally out of the question. We source and borrow movies from different sources including the National film archive to screen. But nowadays, students prefer to watch low-grade movies on their mobiles; hardly any takers for classics.

Students have reportedly been organizing parallel classes too.
That is to get news coverage.  

All students and the majority of staff have taken a stance against the director...
Not all staff. The majority of the staff is with the director.

But will anyone believe that a security officer is behind the whole issue?
He is not alone. There are accomplices from within and without.

What are Shankar Mohan's credentials to be the director?
He studied in the film institute and subsequently joined government service. He rose to prominence by heading several film-related organizations like the Directorate of film festivals, Ray Film Institute, Kolkata, IFFI, Goa, MIFF Mumbai etc.

As per news reports, you said Shankar hails from an aristocratic family...
I never said that. I judge people based on their actions. Caste has nothing to do with one’s performance.  In fact, there are only two castes – good and bad people.

Does Shankar feel it's time to call it a day?
I played a major role in bringing him here. He expects an honourable exit. He was appointed initially for two years and the contract was later renewed from time to time. If Shankar leaves, most of the efficient faculty would quit along with him. Two former directors have already left following the students' strike.

How did you become part of the film institute?
I was approached by KT Jaleel, the higher education minister in the previous LDF government. I told him that I would step down the moment there is political intervention. He assured me that there would be no such thing. But now the situation has changed under the new minister.

A statement you made about the cleaning staff at the institute has also become controversial. You said that those women “dress up like members of the WCC and give interviews every day...” That statement looks problematic. Also, it is taking a dig at the WCC which plays a crucial role in the fight against sexism and misogyny in the Malayalam film industry...
It looks problematic because it was taken out of context. What I said was that those poor women are being manipulated. They are dressed up every day and are forced to tell lies against the director.

Many feel these statements betray the casteist in you...
I am someone who discarded my caste surname at the age of 20. So please don’t give me lessons on casteism.

Many younger filmmakers like Aashiq Abu and Rajeev Ravi have criticised you on the issue...
They are criticising me for getting publicity. They know nothing about the institute and they are casting aspersions. It is totally irresponsible on their part. And they call themselves new-generation filmmakers. What is new about them?

Many of your statements are being criticised by the younger generation of filmmakers. Is there a disconnect between you and the new generation?
Many young filmmakers approach me seeking opinion. Jeo Baby, who recently withdrew his films from a festival because I was inaugurating it, had sent his first film for my approval. He had then told me that  he was highly influenced by my film Elipathayam.  I liked the film and told him that on camera. Jeo Baby used my statement to the hilt. How do you explain that? (chuckles)  

Who are your favourites among the new generation?
There are half a dozen young filmmakers who I admire.  I appreciate any film that is out of the ordinary. Paka was a film I liked. When the director sent the film seeking my opinion, I told him to reduce half an hour and he did it. I also liked Don Palathara's Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam. I always acknowledge good talents. Many youngsters who watch my film on YouTube write to me. There is so much communication, actually.  I always encourage them.

Your take on censorship?
I am against censorship. Every conscientious filmmaker does self-censoring. But I am against the argument that anything goes in films. Freedom of expression must be within the confines of our Constitution.

These days actors are getting targeted for doing certain kinds of films. For instance, Shah Rukh Khan in Pathaan and Unni Mukundan in Malikappuram...
They target actors out of ignorance.

Your decision to choose Vairamuthu, who was facing MeToo allegations, for the ONV award had created controversy. Your argument was that the award is for Vairamuthu the artist and not for the person.
Changampuzha was a horrible human being, especially to his wife. But can you think of Malayalam poetry without Changampuzha?

So you think the artiste and his art are separable?
Of course. Many nasty people have produced brilliant art.

But cinema is an art form that influences a lot of people. So doesn’t cinema need a different yardstick while recognising people with a nasty personal profile?
Cinema is a creative work.  Every art form has that liberty.

You had backed Dileep too while the case against him was going on...
Where is the proof that he is involved in it? I am against tarnishing others without any proof. My belief is that Dileep is innocent. Am against labelling someone without any proof. I will give you an example. I have witnessed K Karunakaran being booed and insulted during the ISRO spy case.  Later, he was proven innocent.  Like that now baseless stories are being circulated against Shankar Mohan's wife.  What harm has she done to you people? I have asked them to file a defamation case.

The government has appointed a commission to inquire into the matter. We heard that you have threatened to quit the post of chairman of the institute if the commission report is not in favour of Shankar. Is that true?
Many have pinned their hopes on that...(laughs) On a serious note, I cannot compromise on truth. It will be very unfair as he was the one who built the institution from scratch. Now, it has better facilities than any other film institute in the country. I have gone to the finance minister's office many times to get funds. We both have invested so much of ourselves.  Our interest is only to make it a renowned institution.

Have you discussed the matter with the CM?
Yes. The commission was formed as per my request.

Now, let’s talk about your films... Your film Mukhamukham was criticised by the Left as an anti-communist one...
That was because many did not understand the film here. But I received many letters from comrades in West Bengal who wrote to me saying it’s their lives. Then Bengal CM Buddhadeb Bhattacharya personally told me that he loved the movie.  So there are knowledgeable Communists too (chuckles).  

You have cast many stars like Madhu, Mammootty and Dileep in your films. Were you eyeing their star value then?
My only criterion is how well they fit into my characters. They are all good actors. Casting is half the acting, it’s said.  

Why didn’t you cast Mohanlal even once?
His image of a ‘good rowdy’ was problematic for me. I could not convince myself to shake off that image.

Who is your favourite actor?
BK Nair. He has acted in all my films. He has fascinated me as an actor. 

Among actresses?
Kavya Madhavan. I was amazed by her performance in Pinneyum

G Aravindan was your contemporary. Which are your favourite Aravindan films?
Thambu is my favorite film, though it is amateurish. . I have played a crucial role in bringing Aravindan to movie making. He had great potential. But he came under the wrong influences. His best work, according to me, is his Cheriya manushyarum valiya lokavum. That will last longer than his films.

John Abraham was celebrated as an anarchist filmmaker. How do you assess him?
He had brilliant ideas on filmmaking. But the problem was that he was very disorganised. Only an organised person can make a film.

Who is your favourite Indian film director?
Satyajit Ray is my favourite. He always said I was his favourite director. What else one needs... (chuckles) Those words still give me the energy to live. I have the blessings of many stalwarts like him, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen.

It is going to be 50 years of Swayamvaram. Are you writing anything new?
The institute has taken away the past three years of my life. I was fully invested in it. It has affected my creative life.

Do you think there are no ‘masters’ today?
Not really. It’s just that they need to be discovered. In Kerala, ‘masters’ are discovered only after their death. Malayalis refuse to revere anyone when they are alive (laughs).


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  • Max

    Malyalees it seems are born with the "anger gene". They are mostly angry with anything
    8 months ago reply
  • Mohit Pathak

    Hope alteast you do justice to your race.?
    8 months ago reply
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