Gopalakrishnan was born on 3 July 1941 in the village of Mannadi ( Medayil Bungalow ) near Adoor, present day Kerala, India as the son of Madhavan Unnithan and Mouttathu Gauri Kunjamma. He started his artistic life as an actor in amateur plays when he was 8. Later he shifted his base to writing and direction and wrote and directed a few plays. After securing a degree in Economics, Political Science and Public Administration in 1961 from the Gandhigram Rural Institute, he worked as a Government officer near Dindigul in Tamil Nadu . In 1962, he left his job to study screenwriting and direction from the Pune Film Institute. He completed his course from there with a scholarship from the Government of India. With his classmates and friends, Adoor established Chithralekha Film Society and Chalachithra Sahakarana Sangham; the organization was the first film society in Kerala and it aimed at production, distribution and exhibition of films in the co-operative sector.
Adoor has scripted and directed eleven feature films and about thirty short films and documentaries. Notable amongst the non-feature films are those on Kerala’s performing arts.
Adoor's debut film, the national award winning Swayamvaram (1972) was a milestone in Malayalam film history. The film was exhibited widely in various international film festivals including those held in Moscow, Melbourne, London and Paris. The films that followed namely Kodiyettam, Elippathayam, Mukhamukham, Anantaram, Mathilukal, Vidheyan and Kathapurushan lived up to the reputation of his first film and were well received by critics at various film festivals and fetched him many awards. However, Mukhamukham was criticized in Kerala while Vidheyan was at the centre of a debate due to the differences in opinion between the writer of story of the film Sakhariya and Adoor.
Adoor's later films are Nizhalkuthu, narrating the experiences of an executioner who comes to know that one of his subjects was innocent, and Naalu Penungal, a film adaptation of four short stories by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai.
All his films have won national and international awards (National award for best film twice, best director five times, and best script two times. His films have also won his actors and technicians several national awards). Adoor’s third feature, Elippathayam won him the coveted British Film Institute Award for 'the most original and imaginative film' of 1982. The International Film Critics Prize (FIPRESCI) has gone to him six times successively for Mukhamukham, Anantharam, Mathilukal, Vidheyan, Kathapurushan and Nizhalkkuthu. Winner of several international awards like the UNICEF film prize (Venice), OCIC film prize (Amiens), INTERFILM Prize (Mannheim) etc., his films have been shown in Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto, London, Rotterdam and every important festival around the world.
In consideration of his contribution to Indian cinema, the nation honoured him with the title of Padma Shri(India's fourth highest civilian award) in 1984 and Padma Vibhushan(India's second highest civilian award) in 2006.
Adoor is settled in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) in Kerala. His daughter Aswathi Dorje is an IPS officer (part of the Assam cadre, 2000 batch), currently acting as Deputy Commissioners of Police in Mumbai since June 2010.
Apart from nine feature films, he has over 30 short films and documentaries to his credit. The Helsinki Film Festival was the first film festival to have a retrospective of his films. He has headed the jury at the National Film Awards and many international film festivals.
Apart from his films, Adoor's major contribution towards introducing a new cinema culture in Kerala was the constitution of the first Film Society in Kerala, "Chitralekha Film Society". He also took active part in the constitution of "Chitralekha," Kerala's first Film Co-operative Society for film production. These movements triggered a fresh wave of films, called "art films," by directors like G Aravindan, PA Becker, KG George, Pavithran, and Raveendran. At a time this movement was so strong that even popular cinema synthesised with art cinema to create a new genre of films.Bharat Gopi starred as hero 4 times in his ventures.
Adoor has been known as a director who completely dictates every fine detail of his films. On the performance of actors in his movies, he stated that - "It is not the artist's job to do the detailing. I do not want different interpretations of roles that may clash with each other. It has to be absolutely unified." He normally does not encourage his crew to read the script or even the stories. The actors are told at the time of shooting about the role and the scenes before conducting several rehearsals. According to Adoor "[i]n movies, the actor is not performing to the audience like the stage actor. Here they are acting for me. I am the audience and I will decide whether it is correct or not, enough or not."
Some of the awards Gopalakrishnan has won for his films include:2013 - Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award C. B. Kumar Endowment for Cinema yum Samskaravum (Essay)2010 - Honorary Doctorate [D.Litt] from University of Kerala2006 - Padma Vibhushan — Second highest civilian award from Government of India 2004 - Dadasaheb Phalke Award — Lifetime Achievement Award in Film awarded by the Government of India1984 - Padma Shri — Fourth highest civilian award from Government of India 1984 - Legion of Honour — French order, the highest decoration in FranceNational Film Awards — Various categories for Swayamvaram, Kodiyettam, Elippathayam, Mukhamukham, Anantaram, Mathilukal, Vidheyan, Kathapurushan, Nizhalkkuthu and Naalu PennungalKerala State Film Awards: — Various categories for Kodiyettam, Elippathayam, Mukhamukham, Anantaram, Vidheyan and Oru Pennum RandaanumInternational Film Critics Prize (FIPRESCI) — won consecutively for six feature films (Mukhamukham, Anantaram, Mathilukal, Vidheyan, Kathapurushan and Nizhalkkuthu)London Film Festival — Sutherland Trophy — in 1982 for ElippathayamBritish Film Institute Award — Most Original Imaginative Film of 1982 — ElippathayamCommandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by French Government (2003)Lifetime achievement award at Cairo International Film Festival.
National Film Awards (Detailed):1973 - Best Film - Swayamvaram1973 - Best Director - Swayamvaram1978 - Best Feature Film in Malayalam - Kodiyettam1980 - National Film Award – Special Jury Award / Special Mention (Non-Feature Film) - The Chola Heritage1982 - Best Feature Film in Malayalam - Elippathayam1984 - Best Book on Cinema - Cinemayude Lokam1985 - Best Director - Mukhamukham1985 - Best Feature Film in Malayalam - Mukhamukham1985 - Best Screenplay - Mukhamukham1988 - Best Director - Anantharam1988 - Best Screenplay - Anantharam1990 - Best Director - Mathilukal1990 - Best Feature Film in Malayalam - Mathilukal1994 - Best Feature Film in Malayalam - Vidheyan1995 - Best Film - Kathapurushan2003 - Best Feature Film in Malayalam - Nizhalkkuthu2008 - Best Director - Naalu Pennungal
Kerala State Film Awards (Detailed):
Best Film1977 - Best Film - Kodiyettam1981 - Best Film - Elippathayam1984 - Best Film - Mukhamukham1993 - Best Film - Vidheyan2008 - Best Film - Oru Pennum Randaanum
Best Director1977 - Best Director - Kodiyettam1984 - Best Director - Mukhamukham1987 - Best Director - Anantharam1993 - Best Director - Vidheyan2008 - Best Director - Oru Pennum Randaanum
Best Story1977 - Best Story - Kodiyettam
Best Screen Play1993 - Best Screen Play - Vidheyan2008 - Best Screen Play - Oru Pennum Randaanum
Best Documentary Film1982 - Best Documentary Film - Krishnanattam1999 - Best Documentary Film - Kalamandalam Gopi
Best Short Film2005 - Best Short Film - Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair
Best Book on Cinema2004 - Best Book on Cinema - Cinemanubhavam
A retrospective of his films was conducted inKolkata, by Seagull Foundation for the Arts and Nandan, 2009.The Slovenian International Film Festival, 2009.The Munich Film Museum, 2009.The French Cinematheque, Paris, 1999.
Adoor also worked in several respected posts in the film fraternity. He was a member of Sivaramakarath committee formed by the Government of India for framing a national film policy. He was a national film award committee member in 1974. He was a member of jury in Venice, Singapore, Hawaii and Delhi international film festivals. He was the chairman of International Film Festival of Kerala in 1999. He headed the National Film Development Corporation in the years 1980–1983. He was the director of Pune Film and Television Institute. In the years 1975–1977, he was a member of the advisory board for National Film Archives, Pune.