By Dipankar Sarkar. Posted on March 14, 2016
Adoor Gopalakrishnan is one of the leading luminaries of Indian cinema. He graduated with a diploma in Film Direction from FTII & remains the only alumni of FTII to have won the Dadasaheb Phalke Award (2004). A year later along with a friend of his, he established the Chitralekha Film Cooperative, at the outskirts of Thiruvanaanthapaum, which became a center for efficient production and distribution of sensible & sensitive cinema.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan receiving the Dadasaheb Phalke Award from APJ Abdul Kalam, the then President of India
In 1975, he directed his first feature film, Swayamvaram, which is considered a landmark film within the parallel cinema movement of India. The film depicts the story of Vishwanath (Madhu) and Sita (T. Sarada) who defy the customary ties of marital sanctions from the society and decide to live their lives brazenly. In doing so, the couple has to pay a heavy price, which is devastating & highlights the psychological cost of living life on ones own terms.
The film begins with the introduction of the two principal characters of the film traveling in the bus with other passengers. The entire scene can be interpreted as a journey, which Vishwanath and Sita are about to embark upon, one that will be filled with hardship. The other members of the society, just like the passengers of this vehicle, will not give a damn about their situation. The scene ends abruptly with a stop signal on the road and in the next scene we find the characters in an elevator of a hotel, which in a way implies that they are now placed in a new environment from where they have to take care of one another. From now on, they will also be responsible for the effects of their own actions and choices.
As the film progresses we encounter the various forms of struggle that the characters have to face. In the beginning of the film there is a gentle feeling of fondness between Vishwanath and Sita, but as the film progress strains intrude into their relationship. Vishwanath's dream of becoming a writer is thwarted; he loses one job after another and is unable to find a livelihood. One night, as he returns home after getting drunk, in a state of alcoholic stupor Vishwanath realizes that there is no morsel of food left in the house.
His incapability to find a solution to their material needs sends him on a guilt trip and finally leads to his untimely demise.
Sita is thus burdened with the single-handed responsibility of not only looking after her child but also preserving her esteem. The film highlights the issue of unemployment, that had reached alarming levels in the 70’s. Even the job at the sawmill for which Vishwanath is appointed is actually a replacement for another man, thus reminding us that a job can only be had at the expense of another man.
Even though Vishwanath and Sita want to defy the society by living with each other without getting married, the presence of the society in their lives, is inescapable. One scene that illuminates this is the private moment shared by the couple in the safe confinements of a hotel room. A religious procession passes by in the street below at the same time. The chanting grows louder as the couple engages in romantic bliss & the scene immediately cuts to a dream-like sequence where both of them express their affection for one another next to the splashing waves of the ocean.
The scene in a way depicts the bitter reality that the couples’ detachment from the society is possible, only as long as they decide to remain aloof from the society. The dubious argument between the owner of the hotel & the other customer, the drunkard who tries to intrude into their room and the encounter with the three drunkards late at night are instances which form part of the couples’ encounter with reality.
In another scene, Sita dreams of her father & wakes up frightened. This is the only scene in the film where either of them refers to a member of their family. This also highlights the couples’ complete denial of any relationship with society.
Sita and Kalyani (Lalitha), the neighbour of the couple, represent the two extremes of morality. Kalyani earns her living as a prostitute and is answerable to no one. She is not plagued by any moral dilemma, unlike Sita, who once asks Vishwanath to get her a mangal sutra, that would make her 'normal' in her & the worlds eyes. As the title of the film implies, the choices that the characters make become the loci of the narrative progression. The decision taken by Vishwanath to work in the sawmill initiates his spiritual death. The terminated employee disturbs him because in him Vishwanath perceives his own conscience.
The film begins with the young couples’ decision to find a life of their own and ends with the widowhood of Sita who is left alone with her baby. The final scene of the film fades in with Sita preparing the milk bottle for her child. As she is feeding milk to her child, the rumbling noise of the storm is heard outside. A dilemma faces her & she needs to make one final decision. She can either stay with the family of the old accountant, or go back to her parents or earn her livelihood as a prostitute.
On its release Swayamvaram was a box-office disaster. However it went on to become the first Malayalam film to win 4 National Awards - Best Picture and Best Director (Adoor Gopalakrishnan), Best Actress (T. Sarada) & Best Cinematography (Mankada Ravi Varma). The film made headlines and was re-released in Kerala. This time around, the film not only became a commercial success but also heralded the career of one of the most important filmmakers of our country.
Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film & Television Institute of India. He was selected in 2007 for the Talent Campus organised by the Osian Film Festival. He's currently working as an independent film and video editor.