An excerpt from the booklet essay by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur
‘Why Aravindan’s Kummatty and Thamp̄?’ was invariably the first question I was asked when people heard about Film Heritage Foundation’s decision to restore the poetic yet relatively unknown 1979 and 1978 masterpieces – an unusual choice if compared to the more obvious “classics” that India has produced over more than a century of cinema. I would say the journey that culminated in the restoration of these films began in 1992 when I had just joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune to study scriptwriting and film direction. It was a time when we were immersed in watching the films of masters of world cinema… Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Bresson, Antonioni… but even almost three decades later, I have a distinct memory of coming out of the FTII auditorium after watching my first Aravindan film Kummatty… poetic, gentle, visually so powerful, meditative, with silences that spoke… I was captivated.
I watched every one of Aravindan’s films. Kanchana Sita (1977), Thamp̄, Pokkuveyil (1981), Chidambaram (1985)… and the wonder of it all was that each film was different, each a unique exploration of the cinematic form, impossible to pigeonhole in conventional genres and narrative styles, free from the dictates of film theory and canon as he was an autodidact. His uniqueness lay in creating poetry on celluloid through his tranquility and silence, almost a language of its own, so deeply influenced by the landscape, folk art and culture around him. His cinema is like a mirror reflecting reality as well as its magic. In my opinion, he is one of India’s greatest masters whose name should rank alongside Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak in the pages of India’s cinematic history.
Even today Aravindan is a legend in Kerala. But the people of the state first came to know this master filmmaker as the cartoonist responsible for the popular cartoon series Cheriya Manushyaram Valiya Lokavum that appeared in the Matrubhoomi journal from 1960 to 1973. With a degree in Botany, he found a job with the Rubber Board in Kerala that made him travel all over the state, yet he found the time to paint in oils and watercolours, learn Hindustani music from Sarathchandra Marathe in Calicut and play a major role in establishing theatre groups in Kerala. As Aravindan narrates it, he became a filmmaker by accident. He and his playwright friend Thikkodiyan were trying to find finance for a film written by Thikkodiyan. The writer Pattathuvila Karunakaran agreed to fund the film on the condition that Aravindan would direct it. Despite Aravindan’s protests that he knew nothing about filmmaking except for the films he had watched and books he had read, Karunakaran remained adamant. And that was how Aravindan’s first film Uttarayanam (1975) came about. The film won five Kerala State Awards and two National Awards. That was the beginning of a remarkable body of work by a filmmaker who was at the vanguard of the parallel cinema movement in Kerala and whose work was celebrated all over the world. The Cinémathèque Française in Paris honoured him with a retrospective of his work in 1984 and his films were screened at festivals all over the world including Berlin, Cannes and London.
In a career spanning seventeen years, Aravindan directed ten feature films and five documentary films, but his career was tragically cut short when he passed away in 1991 at the age of 56. While Aravindan is undoubtedly considered a doyen of the alternative cinema movement in India, the circulation of his films has been diminishing with the passage of time. When renowned Japanese film critic Tadao Sato saw Kummatty for the first time, he said it was the most beautiful film he had ever seen. And that was the beginning of Japan’s love affair with Aravindan. The National Film Archive of India (NFAI) in Pune had digitized some of his films a few years ago, but I knew that the digitization did not do justice to the original vision of an artist like Aravindan. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the beauty of the imagery, the colours and the soundscape that had captivated me as a young film student all those years ago. I spoke to Shaji N. Karun whose painterly cinematography had captured Aravindan’s vision on celluloid for nearly all his films, and had conversations with Ramu Aravindan, the son of the filmmaker,
and so many others who had watched Aravindan’s films in the years after they first released. The conclusion was unanimous that the digitized versions were a travesty. I knew then that if his films were not restored soon, what would be left would be poor replicas which would reflect a mere shadow of the artistry of the great filmmaker. I began a quest to assess what celluloid elements remained of his films and I soon realized that the situation was urgent as the original camera negatives seemed to be lost and prints that were available were deteriorating rapidly. When Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation asked me for my recommendation for Indian films to be restored under the aegis of their foundation, Aravindan’s films were an obvious choice and I suggested Kummatty and Thamp̄.
Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's complete essay, from which this excerpt is taken, appears in the booklet which accompanies the release.
i. 10 Great Indian Arthouse Films
ii. On the Restoration of The Circus Tent (Thamp)
iii. Aravindan Govindan: The Magical Tranquility of a Lone Ranger
iv. The Poet-Philosopher of Contemplative Cinema
v. Cinematographer Shaji N. Karun interviewed
vi. Shaji N Karun on shooting The Circus Tent
vii. Film Heritage Foundation