Gopalakrishnan was born on 3 July 1941 in the village of Pallickal 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 inTamil 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.