By Dipankar Sarkar. Posted on April 18, 2016
Adoor Gopalakrishnan's 2nd film Kodiyettam (The Ascent) was made under extreme financial duress. The film was completed in 1975 but had to wait two years for its release, since there was no money to pay AVM laboratory (of Madras), who were processing the film. The money for the laboratory fee came from shooting a documentary on the Idukki dam, which was to be shown on the day of the inauguration of the Idukki Project.
The troubles didn't stop at that. The film heralded the debut of Malayalam actor Gopi, whose unconventional appearance went against the preconceived notions of a matinee idol in Kerala. The film somehow released in a few theatres and eventually went on to become a success.
The film narrates the story of growth and development of Shankarankutty (Gopi), who is a free soul who hasn't quite grown out of his extended adolescence. His delayed maturity is an essential trait of his persona. He's an idler, who spends his life at the tea shop in the morning & at the toddy shop in the evening. He goes around fishing & climbing coconut trees with young boys from his village.
In one particular scene, he is seen running after a kite whose thread had been cut. He runs across fields & lanes of his village to finally find the kite in a canal. The entire futility of the effort highlights the carefree existence of the character. Attending village festivals, eating and sleeping are the three primary activities that his life revolves around. He is even ready to participate in any political rally that provides him with free alcohol and money.
But as the events in the film unfold, the arc of the character builds exponentially. It starts with Shankarankutty becoming the helper of a truck driver. He is hungover and vomits in the truck which leads to the driver asking him to clean up & also fill up water in the engine as his first lesson as a cleaner. Shankarankutty struggles with this simple task, which the truck driver finds stupefying. In a state of utter amazement, he shouts at Shankarankutty, ‘Fool! Should I teach you how to pour water’, and then shows Shankarankutty the correct spot to pour the water.
Thus, the truck driver & Shankarankutty’s journey in the vehicle, serve as an agent through which the character attains maturity. He later grows a moustache, which in a way, symbolizes the attainment of manhood and his evolution as a man of responsibility.
Three women, Sarojini (Vilasani), Kamalamma (Kaviyoor Ponnamma), and Santhamma (Lalitha) play a pivotal role in Shankarankutty’s quest for identity and coming of age in the film.
Sarojini, Shankarankutty’s sister, cares for him, supports him financially & is concerned with his marriage. Once she's fixed his marriage, she informs her brother about it, only for Sankarankutty to respond with a burp. Later, when he refuses to meet the girl, Sarojini departs, willing to meet him only when he is married.
Eventually he marries Santhamma, but never quite lives up to his role as a husband, continuing to while away his time, almost unconcerned about his wife. Santhamma finds it difficult to cope with this juvenile behaviour of his husband and leaves him for her mother's home once she gets pregnant. When he pays her a visit, she rebuffs him.
With no one to support him, either economically or emotionally, he is forced to get a handle on his life.
Sankarankutty’s relationship with the 3rd woman in his life, the widow Kamalamma, is built upon innocence. He does odd jobs for her in exchange for food. He is also a witness of her affair with the temple priest. When she commits suicide by drowning herself in the village pond, he breaks down. This is an important scene as it is one of the very times in the entire length of the film that Sankarankutty displays such strong emotions.
Another scene where he does that is when the drunken elephant keeper tells Sankarankutty that he is ready to take care of Sarojini. The usually non-violent Sankarankutty is outraged & proceeds to stab him with a broken bottle, thereby displaying a sense of ego & self-pride in protecting the honour his younger sister.
The film doesn't use any background score to heighten the emotion in any particular scene, which is an anomaly in Indian cinema. The entire soundscape of the film is designed using ambient sounds. This can be seen in the use of firecrackers in the film. The film opens with the crackling of firecrackers, as if it invites the viewers to participate in the journey of the film with Sankarankutty, amidst the din of drums.
At the end of the film, the reconciliation of Sankarankutty and Santhamma also takes place amid fireworks. The ingenious use of sound has also been used in other places, especially how Sankarankutty perceives the illicit affair between Kamalamma and the temple priest.
Kodiyettam was the first film of Adoor Gopalakrishnan that Satyajit Ray saw at 1979 International Festival in Delhi. He enjoyed every minute of the film. The film went on to win the National Award for Gopi as Best Actor and Best Feature Film in Malayalam.
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.