When Adoor Gopalakrishnan told the airport immigration officer that he was a filmmaker, the official’s response was predictable and — to cinephiles working to break free of the stereotype that all Indian films end with a Broadway-esque spectacle of singing and dancing — disappointing.
“Oh!” the officer said. “You make Bollywood!”
Gopalakrishnan, an affable man who is considered one of India’s most distinguished contemporary filmmakers, was quick with his answer: “Far from it,” he said he told the officer.
“‘Bollywood’ is a very derogatory term,” Gopalakrishnan said via phone Friday from Milwaukee, where he was staying with friends in between showings of his films at festivals and universities in Houston, Florida, Washington, D.C. and Boulder, where he’ll be screening his 1981 masterpiece “Rat Trap” at the University of Colorado on Tuesday.
“We are known by that name and it is very sad,” he said.
There is a whole other realm of Indian cinema, Gopalakrishnan and others point out. There are films that entertain audiences “not with songs and dances, but with the experience of life and the small, joyous moments of life and also the grief and all that,” Gopalakrishnan said. “Life as it is.”
Gopalakrishnan has been making such independent films since 1965, when he graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India. In 1981, he released “Rat Trap,” the story of a man who descends into paranoia as the last remnants of the feudal lifestyle he once lived collapse around him.
To Gopalakrishnan, “Rat Trap” is about “the human predicament.” That’s a common theme in Gopalakrishnan’s work, said Suranjan Ganguly, a CU film studies professor who coordinated the filmmaker’s visit to campus and is writing the first English-language book about him.
What: Screening of “Rat Trap” and Q&A with director Adoor Gopalakrishnan
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Muenzinger Auditorium, University of Colorado campus, Boulder
“His work is humanistic,” Ganguly said.
In addition to being beautifully shot, Ganguly said, Gopalakrishnan’s films tackle big-picture issues: the psychology of power, the plight of the outsider, the tug-of-war that exists in certain parts of India between tradition and modernity.
“Rat Trap” won several national and international awards, including the British Film Institute’s coveted Sutherland Trophy, which honors “the most original and imaginative film,” in 1982.
But Gopalakrishnan’s work is still relatively unknown in the United States, Ganguly said. Despite all of his plaudits — he’s won nine National Film Awards, the equivalent of an Oscar in India; and retrospectives of his work have been shown at the Smithsonian and New York’s Lincoln Center — many of his 11 feature-length films and nearly 30 short films aren’t available on DVD.
“It’s all been lost because of the huge shadow that Bollywood casts,” Ganguly said.
That’s one reason Ganguly said he wanted to bring Gopalakrishnan to the CU campus. Another is simpler: “This kind of event promotes diversity,” said Ganguly, who teaches international film.
For his part, Gopalakrishnan hopes students see “Rat Trap” without any preconceived notions.
“The audience should be able to discover things on their own,” he said. “In commercial films, all the thinking is taken off you. You are given what’s digestible and you don’t have the opportunity to exercise your mind. These films are not like that. Everybody might not understand these films at the same level. You don’t get the whole of it at once.
“In some way, the film also teaches you.”