Will Adoor’s Elipathayam find a place in Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time?

V K Cherian

Karamana Janardanan Nair in Elipathyam

In 2012, the decadal rating of all-time great films of the British Film Institute’s journal Sight and Sound, the only Indian film to come in the 100 film list was ‘Pather Panchali’. With critics polling it as the 41st great film and directors rating it as 48th, the Satyajit Ray film has been surviving the test of time for a few decades in that prestigious global list of all-time great films. Nearly all the Indian critics and directors in the invited list of 846 film personalities around the world, voted for the Ray classic. These names included critics Khalid Mohammed, Venkateswaran Narayanan, Sukhdev Sandhu, Sanjeev Verma and Directors Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Vindu Vinod Chopra.

“Made for half-nothing, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali is among the most seamless and graceful movies ever made, the best of the Apu Trilogy and a stunning achievement.” Paul Whitington, the critic of the Irish Independent news journal, was quoted by the Sight and Sound list about why they chose Ray’s first film.

The announcement of the decadal voting and the result said, “Once a decade Sight and Sound asks critics to select the Greatest Films of All Time. In our biggest ever poll, conducted in 2012, 846 critics, programmers and curators from around the world nominated ten best movies ever made – and the results gave us a new top film, ending the 50-year reign of Citizen Kane.”

Sight and Sound is not just the oldest surviving film journal of the British Film Institute, but a monthly magazine which has been holding on to the highest standards of film aesthetics and creativity for decades and hence its decadal list is an exciting process for filmmakers and connoisseurs.

Come September 2022, Sight and Sound will announce their decadal all-time best voting results. This year they made their list of critics globally inclusive, as there was a feeling the earlier lists were Europe and US-centric. And I was pleasantly surprised to get a mail from the Editor-in-Chief of Sight and Sound Mr Mike Williams. They had asked me to send in my credentials to be invited a month back too, thanks to my friends who had read my book ‘India’s Film Society Movement: Its Journey and Impact’ (Sage 2017).

For me, the invite was not just a journey into my 45 years of film screenings and its recall, but a testing time for my vision of good films itself. I decided to depend on my gut feelings and recall the value of those films I saw, to create the decadal 10 best. Having seen the lists for 2012, I knew Sight and Sound was looking at films over the century, not just contemporary ones. It is an all-time great list of 10 which will expand to an all-time 100 depending on the votes polled by critics as well as filmmakers for each of the films. The list is a total of the best of films with an aesthetic appeal which transcends time and decades if not a century and a half after film as a medium became part of human life. No one can canvas for anyone as the final list of invitees to participate is only with the editors of Sight and Sound.

I realized that any such choice has to be a series of recalls of one’s four-and-a-half-year-old screening experiences, knowledge of filmy craft and appreciation of creativity of the filmmakers combined with one’s own vision of films combined with general awareness of arts, aesthetics and a world view. Indeed, a testing time for my own film and art and aesthetic sensibility as a person.

I decided that my choice has to be of the films which made a deep impact on me as a person, rather appealing to my sense of not just film aesthetics and its craft, but world view too. Hence my first choice was the Polish film ‘After Image’, by the late Andrzej Wajda. ‘Sight and Sound’, being the mother of all film journals, they don’t just ask you for the name of the film, but states why you think it must be on this prestigious list. After days of pondering, re-writing, and editing, I wrote; “The Polish film After Image is a telling document of a period where the system forced people to stop thinking and start obeying the State like slaves. The lead character suffers all humiliating experiences to uphold the spirit of free thinking. A great effort in showcasing the undying human spirit of freedom of thought and expression and resistance with one's life and work against the prevailing system.”

My choice for the second best of great films was the 1981 Malayalam film of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Elipathayam (Rat trap), honoured by the British Film Institute itself with their Southerland Trophy and also described as a ‘classic’ by Cuban filmmaker Thomas Alea. The Indian Malayalam language Elipathayam (Rat Trap) is a film about people caught in the time trap in a fast-changing society. The lead character Unni refused to accept the reality of change to find solace in feudal habits in a society undergoing quick changes. But time is a cruel interceptor which does not wait for anyone and Unni is given shock treatment by the joint family as well as the society around him. Adoor makes a strong statement about post-feudal India with the characters of his film with an unusual insight into the socio-personal situations. Brilliantly structured, the film sculpts the 1960s Kerala, his home province. The director does not give a definite solution to the issues he raised but leaves a big question mark to the audience for a soul search.

Elipathayam is Adoor’s first colour film and his use of colour for each of the characters, the feudal house and its sepia surroundings to buttress the situations in the film will remain a study material for film students across the world, as it is merged together aesthetically to accentuate the central theme. So will be the haunting theme music of the film.

Elipathayam is a film which haunted me when I saw it first sometime in 1981 in Delhi. I had then written about it in the Sunday Magazine of ‘The Patriot’, newspaper. What haunted me was not just its time capsule, which Adoor brilliantly caught, but its music and also the fate of each of the characters, many of whom I saw around me while growing up in Onattukara in Travancore, especially after the land reforms took away land holding from the feudal lords and gave it to the farmers and the farm workers. Elipathayam had already been compared to ‘Survivors’ of Thomas Alea, but when Alea himself said it is a classic, it cannot be taken seriously, as both creative geniuses were tackling a similar subject on different continents though. Maybe the video series undertaken by me in discussing each of Adoor’s films as part of 50 years of his creativity –Swayavaram- also influenced me. Not just me, but at least another 20 critics and filmmakers have to vote for this British Film Institute-honored film to make it to the list, at least in the top 100s.

Charulatha - The Lonely wife (1964)

The other Indian films which I wanted to include in the ten all-time greats were Satyajit Ray’s ‘Charulatha’ and Ritwik Ghatak ‘Subarna rekha’. Though, I am sure that most of the Western critics and filmmakers will still vouch for ‘Pather Panchali’ for its historic role among global films, I thought I must pitch with the best and most complete work of Ray- ‘Charulatha’. ‘Charulatha’ showcases the Indian film renaissance man Satyajit Ray's best craftsmanship in films. It is a period film, but a human document about loneliness, infatuations, guilt complexes and greed. Unlike his earlier films, Charulatha has a poetic visual quality about it. The film has some excellent visualization of the period and a sweet outer layer of love, poetry and infatuations within a family with a bitter inside, of cheating, guilt complex and artistic rivalry," I justified my choice.

Roshamon (1950)

So was Ritwik’s masterpiece; “The film about the partition of Eastern India, in 1947 and its continued tragedies of human displacement in the context of a new emerging India is a heart touching one. Ghatak who is a cult figure among film students uses many cultural, social and natural props to tell a story full of tragedies, human emotions, struggles, and hard painful choices of his characters with a deeply humane approach…….The storyline is eventful and emotional, but the filmmakers' masterly approach and its design makes it a world-class film from India. Unlike Satyajit Ray, Ghatak uses local cultural symbols to buttress the situations of his characters giving the film a distinctive epic identity.” For me, it was a tribute to the Master filmmakers who helped me formulate my own vision of films.

The other films on my list were ‘Amistad’, the 1997 film by Steven Spielberg, the 1957 film by Ingmar Bergman of Sweden, ‘Wild Strawberries’; ‘Roshamon’, the 1950 film of Akira Kurosawa of Japan, ‘Nostalghia’, the 1983 film of Andrei Tarkovsky made in Italy, “La Strada”, the 1954 classic of Federico Fellini of Italy. I had to see some of the films on the list again to refresh my experience and write the 200-word commentary and I must say I found new fresh enriching insights in the very same films which I saw over the years.

Amistad (1997)

Many have questioned the existence and relevance of such a list-making for years. But as one critic points out it is the combined evaluation of films over a period by people who are connoisseurs of this medium, who have been close observers and practitioners of film as a medium and its evolution for a lifetime. As the respected mother magazine of films did not give any yardsticks to critics and expanded its list of participants across the globe, one wonders whether Orson Wells’ ‘Citizen Kane’ or Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo”’, which replaced the Wells films reign on the top of the list for decades as the all the best, will retain their position in the first ten list or even in the first 100 list. The concept of film aesthetic and creativity are changing just as developments in digital technology so also the viewing habits from being social to highly personal. The only silver line in the whole process of changes is the concept of film aesthetics and creativity in general. One hopes that the film connoisseurs and filmmakers invited for this decadal selection will live up to the traditions of aesthetics and creativity, without overlooking the technological changes. And also all the best to Adoor Gopalakrishnan who is celebrating 50 years of creativity in films to find a place in this prestigious list.

VK Cherian is the author of the books ‘India’s film society Movement: Its Journey and Impact’ (2017) and ‘Chalachitra Vicharam’ in Malayalam (2021) and associated film society movement from 70s and writes occasionally on films in English and Malayalam for the past 42 years.

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