The unhurried genius of G Aravindan

Ahead of an event to mark the Malayalam master’s 25th death anniversary and 80th birth year in March, memories of the ‘Chidambaram’ shoot with actress Smita Patil.

I met Govindan Aravindan through Satti Khanna, a common friend, 36 years ago in Bangalore. Aravindan exuded a rare and intense tranquillity, although he spoke so little and so softly that sometimes you did not even catch the few words he did say. An observant man who could read your thoughts and feelings, but did not let on that he had. It is not a surprise that the power of his films is in his images and not in the words – in what he did not say rather than said.

In 1983, with Jean Loup Passek, I curated an Indian film festival comprising a hundred films at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, and it included an Aravindan season. He came to spend three days there. He was undemanding and easy to be with. One evening we had dinner with his artist friend Viswanathan, and the other days were spent in official outings and long walks. I cannot say it was friendship that we developed, but more a sense of being accepted as part of his world.

Govindan Aravindan. Photo by Nasreen Munni Kabir.
Govindan Aravindan. Photo by Nasreen Munni Kabir.

A year or later, I asked Aravindan if Peter Chappell, a very close friend who photographed all of my documentaries, and I could spend a few days on his Chidambaram shoot in Kerala. He agreed and on January 26, 1985, Smita Patil, Peter and I had planned to fly from Mumbai to Trivandrum on the morning flight.

We boarded the plane and waited for Smita. When she finally rushed in and sat down, she turned to me and said, “I have just heard the news. I have to see my parents. Please tell Aravindan I’ll come on the afternoon flight.” Before I could say anything, she was out of the plane. The plane doors closed. Without having a clue why she had vanished, Peter and I were soon on our way to Trivandrum. When we exited at the gate, Aravindan’s distant relative and friend, Sethu, was standing there, a tall and striking man with a long grey-flecked beard. He was wearing a purple kurta and a white lungi, and was, in every way, the magician of Kummatty.

Sethu informed us that we had to wait at the airport till Smita arrived – five or six hours later because the location near Munnar was too far away to “up-down”, as Delhi drivers would say.

Smita’s sudden disappearance was also explained. That very morning she had heard that she was awarded the Padma Shri and wanted to share the moment of celebration with her parents. I wondered at first why she had come all the way from her apartment in Bandra to the airport and boarded the flight knowing that her mind was in two places. Sitting in that plane for all of one minute, the decision was clear. That was Smita in many ways. Her impulsive and spontaneous nature seemed at times in conflict with her emotions and sense of duty. In the end it was emotional relationships that mattered most to her.

Smita landed some hours later in Trivandrum, and like us, was instantly mesmerised by the presence of Sethu. He had organised two Ambassador cars and off we headed to Madupatty near Munnar. It was, if I remember correctly, a seven-hour drive and so we arrived very late that night.

Patil and Kabir during one of many nightly drives to Munnar. Photo by Peter Chappell.
Patil and Kabir during one of many nightly drives to Munnar. Photo by Peter Chappell.

We were led into a modest house with several sparse rooms – each had a mattress, a chair and a small table and nothing much else. It was late and so we all settled into our rooms. Smita was so endearingly unfussy and undemanding. She never wished to be treated as the celebrated actor that she was, and nor did the well-known Gopi, who was also starring in Chidambaram.

When we saw Aravindan the next morning, he gave us a warm smile, and did not say very much. Peter and I were effortlessly accepted by his crew and the other cast members. We were Aravindan’s guests, Smita’s friends and Sethu’s new disciples. From the Trivandrum airport, Sethu had taken us entirely under his wing and we, including Smita, looked to him for everything. His long slender fingers would dance in the air, and magically, things would happen. He seemed to be able to solve any problem. Sethu had a deep voice, a terrific sense of humour and a most infectious laugh. Peter and I once remarked how all the core members of the Aravindan team, except for the director of photography, Shaji N Karun, had beards of varying lengths. Sethu burst out laughing and said: “And Aravindan is called the Big Beard.”

Aravindan with Shaji N Karun. Photo by Peter Chappell.
Aravindan with Shaji N Karun. Photo by Peter Chappell.

For the next five days, we set off early in the morning to the location of the day. I have been on many sets in India, but none were as silent as Aravindan’s set. One could not really call it a set, as he was either filming in the natural surroundings of Madupatty or in a modest little house far from anywhere.

Aravindan had a most unusual way of working. It was impossible to know when the actors were actually being filmed. Smita and Gopi would know their scene and then be placed in front of the camera. You never heard Aravindan call out “Action” or “Cut.” The shots were miraculously canned through a series of nods. I remember Smita telling me that at times she had no idea whether the camera was rolling, or what she was supposed to do. Aravindan just let things happen, although there was never any question of who was in charge.

Take the shot of flying birds, in, I think, Esthappan. Aravindan does not cut for a long time, allowing the flock of birds to gradually make amazing patterns across the sky. When working with actors, he also let things happen and so a deeper level of emotion emerged through stillness in which feelings were allowed to unfold. Aravindan was not a man in a hurry. He told his stories quietly yet firmly. He related to the world in much the same way.

Every evening after the wrap, Smita would tell Sethu that she wanted to call Raj Babbar. There were no telephones for miles around and so we had to drive to the Munnar telephone exchange from where Smita could make her “lightning” call.

Aravindan was not too pleased when he heard about these nightly jaunts. He told Peter and me to accompany Smita and Sethu. He was nervous that something bad would happen on those unlit roads; that we might meet with an accident and become stuck miles away from help. When Aravindan realised Smita wanted to call Raj Babbar every night, he gently said no. Smita did not argue with him.

The filming of Chidambaram seemed to just happen. The members of Aravindan’s team were in great awe of him, more like disciples before a master. I am embarrassed to say the only voices that you could hear between shots were Smita’s and mine.

Smita Patil prepares for a shot. Photo by Peter Chappell.
Smita Patil prepares for a shot. Photo by Peter Chappell.

I wish I had kept a diary of those days – our meals together, the long conversations late into the night, even the mad drives to Munnar, and then the waking each morning to watch Aravindan silently make his wonderful film, scene by scene. But those five days in January 1985 came to an end. Some memories and Peter’s photographs are all that we have left.

I would not have guessed that spending those days with Aravindan and Smita in Madupatty would today take on another meaning. We met many times again in Mumbai, never thinking that parts of our world would ever disappear. But in life, you never know when you’re saying the last goodbye.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Putting the patient first - insights for hospitals to meet customer service expectations

These emerging solutions are a fine balance between technology and the human touch.

As customers become more vocal and assertive of their needs, their expectations are changing across industries. Consequently, customer service has gone from being a hygiene factor to actively influencing the customer’s choice of product or service. This trend is also being seen in the healthcare segment. Today good healthcare service is no longer defined by just qualified doctors and the quality of medical treatment offered. The overall ambience, convenience, hospitality and the warmth and friendliness of staff is becoming a crucial way for hospitals to differentiate themselves.

A study by the Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions in fact indicates that good patient experience is also excellent from a profitability point of view. The study, conducted in the US, analyzed the impact of hospital ratings by patients on overall margins and return on assets. It revealed that hospitals with high patient-reported experience scores have higher profitability. For instance, hospitals with ‘excellent’ consumer assessment scores between 2008 and 2014 had a net margin of 4.7 percent, on average, as compared to just 1.8 percent for hospitals with ‘low’ scores.

This clearly indicates that good customer service in hospitals boosts loyalty and goodwill as well as financial performance. Many healthcare service providers are thus putting their efforts behind: understanding constantly evolving customer expectations, solving long-standing problems in hospital management (such as long check-out times) and proactively offering a better experience by leveraging technology and human interface.

The evolving patient

Healthcare service customers, who comprise both the patient and his or her family and friends, are more exposed today to high standards of service across industries. As a result, hospitals are putting patient care right on top of their priorities. An example of this in action can be seen in the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. In July 2015, the hospital launched a ‘Smart OPD’ system — an integrated mobile health system under which the entire medical ecosystem of the hospital was brought together on a digital app. Patients could use the app to book/reschedule doctor’s appointments and doctors could use it to access a patient’s medical history, write prescriptions and schedule appointments. To further aid the process, IT assistants were provided to help those uncomfortable with technology.

The need for such initiatives and the evolving nature of patient care were among the central themes of the recently concluded Abbott Hospital Leadership Summit. The speakers included pundits from marketing and customer relations along with leaders in the healthcare space.

Among them was the illustrious speaker Larry Hochman, a globally recognised name in customer service. According to Mr. Hochman, who has worked with British Airways and Air Miles, patients are rapidly evolving from passive recipients of treatment to active consumers who are evaluating their overall experience with a hospital on social media and creating a ‘word-of-mouth’ economy. He talks about this in the video below.


As the video says, with social media and other public platforms being available today to share experiences, hospitals need to ensure that every customer walks away with a good experience.

The promise gap

In his address, Mr. Hochman also spoke at length about the ‘promise gap’ — the difference between what a company promises to deliver and what it actually delivers. In the video given below, he explains the concept in detail. As the gap grows wider, the potential for customer dissatisfaction increases.


So how do hospitals differentiate themselves with this evolved set of customers? How do they ensure that the promise gap remains small? “You can create a unique value only through relationships, because that is something that is not manufactured. It is about people, it’s a human thing,” says Mr. Hochman in the video below.


As Mr. Hochman and others in the discussion panel point out, the key to delivering a good customer experience is to instil a culture of empathy and hospitality across the organisation. Whether it is small things like smiling at patients, educating them at every step about their illness or listening to them to understand their fears, every action needs to be geared towards making the customer feel that they made the correct decision by getting treated at that hospital. This is also why, Dr. Nandkumar Jairam, Chairman and Group Medical Director, Columbia Asia, talked about the need for hospitals to train and hire people with soft skills and qualities such as empathy and the ability to listen.

Striking the balance

Bridging the promise gap also involves a balance between technology and the human touch. Dr. Robert Pearl, Executive Director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, who also spoke at the event, wrote about the example of Dr. Devi Shetty’s Narayana Health Hospitals. He writes that their team of surgeons typically performs about 900 procedures a month which is equivalent to what most U.S. university hospitals do in a year. The hospitals employ cutting edge technology and other simple innovations to improve efficiency and patient care.

The insights gained from Narayana’s model show that while technology increases efficiency of processes, what really makes a difference to customers are the human touch-points. As Mr. Hochman says, “Human touch points matter more because there are less and less of them today and are therefore crucial to the whole customer experience.”


By putting customers at the core of their thinking, many hospitals have been able to apply innovative solutions to solve age old problems. For example, Max Healthcare, introduced paramedics on motorcycles to circumvent heavy traffic and respond faster to critical emergencies. While ambulances reach 30 minutes after a call, the motorcycles reach in just 17 minutes. In the first three months, two lives were saved because of this customer-centric innovation.

Hospitals are also looking at data and consumer research to identify consumer pain points. Rajit Mehta, the MD and CEO of Max Healthcare Institute, who was a panelist at the summit, spoke of the importance of data to understand patient needs. His organisation used consumer research to identify three critical areas that needed work - discharge and admission processes for IPD patients and wait-time for OPD patients. To improve wait-time, they incentivised people to book appointments online. They also installed digital kiosks where customers could punch in their details to get an appointment quickly.

These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the marketing team and not by the editorial staff.