Swayamvaram (One's Own Choice, 1972), Gopalakrishnan's very first feature, was an immediate sensation. It swept practically all the major national film awards in India. Hailed as a landmark in the history of Indian cinema, it self-consciously sought to assert its otherness as a new form of cinematic discourse intent on breaking all the rules. It was a call to arms against the crude, melodramatic, formulaic films of the south, especially Kerala. It bristled with innovative visual and auditory effects and boasted a complex narrative form—a mix of documentary, fiction, and fantasy—that sought to interrogate film as film. It also subscribed to an evocative poetic realism drawing on metaphor and symbol, which was unprecedented in the history of southern cinema. Many of these innovations became staples of the New Wave when it evolved into a pan-Indian phenomenon a few years later.
The story is deceptively simple. Sita and Viswanathan, both from the middle class, are runaway lovers who come to Trivandrum to live together as an unwed couple. They start out dreamy-eyed but watch their hopes flounder in their struggle to survive. On one level, the film covers well-trodden terrain about the fight to stay alive in the harsh and unforgiving environment of a small town. (Unlike most states in India, there is no rural-urban divide in Kerala, and hence no metropolitan centers. The area is best described as “rurban.”) Like Kodiyettam, Swayamvaram also features a marriage, except it has no legal sanction and is based entirely on mutual trust, love and commitment, which sustain the couple as they deal with their hard lot. When Viswanathan dies from an unspecified illness, Sita, now alone with their child, must make a choice with regard to her future. The film thus begins with a choice and ends with the possibility of another one.
The couple's decision to live outside wedlock is, of course, a radical one within an orthodox society where women are taught to prize their virginity and marriages are arranged by parents, especially the all-powerful father.