Transcending the mundane

Print edition : June 20, 1998

Award-winning Kannada film-maker Girish Kasaravalli laments the poor audience response to serious cinema.

MAKING good films is nothing new to Kannada film-maker Girish Kasaravalli. Neither is winning awards. Each of his previous seven cinematic works has won him national, and in some cases international, recognition. His latest film, Tai Saheb (the Marathi for respected elder sister'), was awarded the Swarna Kamal, the national award for the best feature film (1997). It was chosen from 93 entries.

Tai Saheb also won three other awards: the Special Jury Award for Jayamala, who played the title role; the Best Costume Designer Award for Kasaravalli's wife Vaishali; and Best Art Director award for Ramesh Desai.

Although Kasaravalli has made critically acclaimed films, he is yet to find favour with the masses. Even Tai Saheb failed at the box office. Some of his films have not been released in Karnataka. That worries him. "Contrary to the general perception, I cannot say that I do not care whether my films are accepted by the audience or not." he says.

Kasaravalli denies that he makes films only for awards. "I have studied this medium and have great faith in it and so I would like to speak to like-minded friends (audience) through it."

Kasaravalli is the only Kannada film-maker who has not experimented with commercial cinema. "In commercial films," says he, "the stress is on sentimentality. In serious cinema, you cut sentimentality down and bring out the political and social ethos, and the forces that make the subject behave in a particular manner. So it does not become the story of the individual but the story of the era. Your perspective is different, your pitch is different." Kasaravalli is critical of the "politics of popular cinema". He says, "There is a need for this genre. But the way images are used in most popular films is reactionary, not progressive. They talk of women being subservient to man, lay emphasis on virginity and other oppressive values. What most of popular films propagate is unquestioning acceptance of these traditional notions. I strongly oppose the politics of what they are trying to say."

His method is to unfold the stories of individuals on a larger canvas and bring out the nuances of fluid, transitory periods in India's political and social history. Kasaravalli says, "The pitch of my films makes you think, not just cry for an hour and then forget about them."

Girish Kasaravalli and wife Vaishali Kasaravalli.-RAVI SHARMA

A criticism made against Kasaravalli is that he is too clinical, in the process making his characters seem emotionless. His answer is: "Yes, in my films a lot of things remain unsaid. That is because I want the viewer to put in an effort. Only then the film becomes a dialogue. Otherwise it remains a monologue."

Critics say that he "bends over backwards" to make the "perfect film". He responds, "If that the criticism against me, then I am happy. It is my aim to make a perfect film. I have not reached that stage as yet." Meticulous planning is his watchword. He scripts his films himself. Once he finalises the script he takes a year to work on it. For Kasaravalli every scene has to be visualised to the last detail. Nothing is left to chance.

Kasaravalli does not understand why Tai Saheb failed. Neither do critics. Tai Saheb received excellent reviews at the time of its release. Like most of Kasaravalli's films, Tai Saheb has an autobiographical streak that reflects the film-maker's views on life. It is about people getting away from the mundane, discovering themselves and struggling against entrenched norms.

Tai Saheb is Kasaravalli's first period film. Set in Jamakhandi taluk in northern Karnataka, the story revolves around the travails of the protagonist, Narmada Tai, her world inside the wadi (as the sprawling homes of the era were called), and the outside world that is essentially that of her freedom-fighter husband, Appa Saheb (played by Suresh Heblikar). The skilful weaving of these two strands, one positive and the other negative, into an integrated whole elevates the movie from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

The film traverses the period from 1946 until Jawaharlal Nehru's death in 1964. Kasaravalli says: "The film is about the effect of the changes in the Indian socio-political milieu on the life of an individual - Tai." It does not confine itself to a small world. It is the story of an era.

Narmada Tai hopes to set her house in order after India achieves freedom. But that is not to be. Even after Independence, her husband gets involved in one movement or another. Labelled a Communist by his erstwhile comrades, Appa Saheb is arrested on false charges and he never returns. The first strand is about Appa Saheb, who starts out in the film as a staunch Gandhian but gets caught in the changing political situation where idealism is lost and people become self-centred. The second strand is about Narmada Tai's awakening.

Narmada Tai, who has never stepped out of the wadi, is forced to go in search of her husband and her adopted son, who leaves home. During the search, the realisation dawns on her that the outside world has changed. More crucially, she also discovers herself. Women's emancipation? Kasaravalli explains: "Yes. There are nuances of that. In the first decade after Independence some of the existing socio-political structures crumbled. One was the feudal zamindari system. This forced women, who were earlier confined to their homes, to come out and take a stand."

Narmada comes to terms with a system that she realises is at fault. She also finds out that she is capable of taking decisions. She gives away her land, files a false declaration and gets herself arrested - all in a bid to have her adopted son Nanu (Harish Raju) released.

Nanu's tribulations are also part of Narmada's awakening. Realising that times have changed and Appa Saheb's idealism is misplaced, Nanu laments the former's attitude towards his family, especially the neglect of his two wives and his mistress. "Why didn't he marry his mistress, at least then her children could have led a decent life like us? De-adopt me, I want to marry her (Appa Saheb's mistress's) daughter," he tells Narmada.

In one of the most moving shots of the film, Narmada, after switching on all the lights in the house, sits in the central corridor, waiting for the police to come and arrest her. The lights, according to Kasaravalli, signify the enlightenment that has dawned on Narmada. "She has lost everything but she has transcended the mundane."

CAN Tai Saheb be considered Kasaravalli's best film? He said: "I am not yet sure if I have achieved what I set out to achieve. Although the script and the visualisation took about a year, we shot the film in just four months." Given the social and cultural milieu and the historical events that the film traverses, the dwellings, decor, sartorial details, dialects and even the culinary habits were meticulously studied and adapted into the film. These areas were looked into by Vaishali Kasaravalli.

Vaishali told Frontline that this was certainly her most challenging movie. "I took months to study the jewellery and costumes of the region. Most of the heavy jewellery shown in the film are genuine and were borrowed from pawn brokers. I paid great attention to the sartorial aspects since we were incorporating fashions across two generations."

Jayamala's performance as Narmada came in for high praise. Here is one scene towards the end of the film when, after giving given up material life, Narmada Tai tells her son: "You are free. I am no longer Tai or Saheba. If you want you can call me ayi (the Marathi for mother)." Kasaravalli says that Jayamala has effortlessly achieved the aura required for the scene, which signified that Narmada Tai had transcended the mundane.

Jayamala, who is also the film's producer, said that the film "should act as a tonic and help change people's tastes and wean them back to watching good films." She confessed that she had been wanted to make a film with Kasaravalli for more than 10 years. The film cost Rs. 40 lakhs to produce and has hardly recovered anything at the box office. She hopes that Doordarshan will reverse its current policy and telecast the film on the national network. (This would bring in Rs. 8 lakhs.)

Kasaravalli is also all praise for art director Ramesh Desai, the young cameraman H.M. Ramachandra Rao and editor M.N. Swamy.

Kasaravalli is cagey about his plans for the future. He says that he is "planning a film". Although he has not finalised the script, a film for children based on a story by Jayant Kaikini is a possibility. He is on the lookout for a producer. Despite his failure at the box office, he is not disheartened; he feels that his kind of films have an audience.

Kasaravalli's Ghatasharddha (Excommunication) won him the President's Golden Lotus Award for the best Indian film of 1978; it made him the youngest director to win this award. The film won two other awards at the National Film Festival that year and five awards at the State Film Festival, besides two international awards. Banna Vesha (Mask) won State awards.

Again, Tabarana Kathe (Tabara's Story) won the President's Golden Lotus Award. Kasaravalli is one among three directors to have won the award more than once. The film won eight other awards in the State. His Krourya (Cruelty) won the President's Silver Lotus Award for the best Kannada film of 1997. His films have been screened at many international film festivals.

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