In first person: Girish Kasaravalli

‘Diminishing support’

Print edition : October 18, 2013
100 years of Indian Cinema

FOR me, this 100 years business is something governmental. The government records and the historians need certain dates to mark stages and demarcate them. How is the 99th year different from the 100th year? Films, bad and good, will be made in 99th, 100th and 101st year also. Nothing changes just because it is the 100th year. It is only useful for institutions, statisticians and historians. For me the year in which a film is made is not important; what is important is the movement, where certain socio-political situations lead to changes.

One can look at and measure change in various ways: it can be the history of kings, the description of events, or the history of movements. One can look at change as a shift in terms of infrastructure or mode of production. But, for me, more than the technological aspect, the socio-political situations that changed the equations are important. Sometimes institutional changes, too, create such impact, like for instance the creation of the NFDC or the Film Institute, which changed the quality of films.

Such socio-political changes differ from region to region. One such major shift was the nationalist movement and the notion about using cinema for nationalist purposes. There was the Gandhian approach and also other approaches such as that of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, which emphasised the revival of forms. Some others adopted the IPTA [Indian People’s Theatre Association] way, which had another vision about social change. In this initial phase, the divide between good and bad was very narrow, as even “bad” films had some social theme or aim in mind, and even “good” films were not very good, as they were made to propagate certain ideas and ideals.

The first major shift came after Independence, with the inauguration of the Nehruvian era. At that stage, one kind of aspiration began to die down and there was introspection about many things that had been taken for granted until then. We began to raise questions, and there were many ways of doing it. Initially, people placed themselves outside the system and criticised it, but in the post-1960s period, we became “critical insiders” where we realised that we were also part of the system. So, an effort had to be made to understand and explore the possibilities of changing the system from within. Earlier, it was a narrative of conflict, of changing things from outside, but now it was a kind of introspection, which is not a total rejection, but a modification from within. It was an important moment in Kannada cinema, where instead of blaming and attacking something outside, like the state or religion, we started questioning ourselves, working from within, negotiating with the world and probing ways of overhauling the system.

Pure commerce

But in the commercial stream, the biggest change came with the demolition of the studio system, which forced a change in the mode of production. Each studio had a certain vision, like Prabhat Theatres and its revivalist agenda, New Theatres, Vijaya Vauhini, etc. But in the 1960s, it changed, and independent producers entered the scene. Now, it was pure commerce. There was commerce before too, but studios had followed certain values and ethics.

By the 1970s, there was this growing disenchantment with the Nehruvian era, the feeling that it didn’t deliver what it promised. Nehru’s demise, the disastrous war with China, etc, also contributed to this loss of belief in Nehruvian socialism. At that time, there was a new resurgence in Kannada literature, there was a search for a new idiom. The disillusionment deepened during the Indira Gandhi period, with the Emergency, the J.P. [Jayaprakash Narayan] movement, etc. By the mid-1960s, one can see a shift in Indian cinema. Neo-realism, in a way, was a shot in the arm for Indian cinema, which led to the making of films like Pather Panchali.

Similarly, during the new wave of the 1970s, people all over the world started thinking differently. We had Bhuvan Shome, which I think was a search for a new film idiom and mode of expression, with its documentary [verite] modes, hand-held camera and all that. Its cinematic grammar was totally different: one, it was inspired by new wave films like that of [Jean-Luc] Godard, and then, it was a direct reaction to [Satyajit] Ray, who represented another stream. In the south, the new wave was a reaction to popular cinema. For instance, Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Swayamvaram was a reaction to the popular cinema of the times. So, it was not just the influence of the French new wave alone but a combination of factors such as reaction to popular cinema and the influence of modernist literature in the respective languages.

In Kannada, all movements had some bearing on literature. Masti [Venkatesha Iyengar], Kuvempu [K.V. Puttappa] and Shivaram Karanth were the tallest figures in Kannada literature, but by the 1950s and 1960s people like Gopalakrishna Adiga brought in a new sensibility, and they were reacting to the giants of the earlier era. Their imageries were different. Writers like U.R. Ananthamurthy and P. Lankesh were direct descendants of Adiga. Such search for new idioms was evident in theatre also with the entry of people like B.V. Karanth. In painting, the works of Vasudev and his friends were totally different from those of their predecessors. Cinema too followed this trend. I think the Lohia movement took the initiative in a way. I think it was Lohia or Gopal Gowda who asked Pattabhirama Reddy to make a film out of Ananthamurthy’s Samskara. So, it brought several people like Ananthamurthy, Lankesh, Rajiv Taranath and Girish Karnad. The initial new wave films of Kannada were more of a rejection of what existed as part of the commercial mainstream, by doing away with studios, stars, songs, etc. More than “what to do” it was more about “what not to do”. That is how it started, but probably it didn’t thrive because it didn’t have a clear vision of what to do. But until then, the predicament of the individual or the protagonist in the film had never been historicised; the tragedy of A was the personal tragedy of A or his family. They never went into the social and historical aspects of that tragedy with regard to the caste, community, class, social structure, etc, that the protagonist belonged to. Every individual problem is social in some sense, and they didn’t look into these multiple dimensions. But the new Kannada cinema had that basically because most of the people behind it were writers who were sensitive to the complexity of things. People who wrote for cinema until then had a very one-dimensional view of life and they didn’t understand the whole notion of protest. For the first time, caste was brought into the Kananda film narrative by Samskara. Basically, because most of them were Lohiites, and for Lohia, caste was as important as class.

The state of art or experimental films in Kannada today is pathetic. Unfortunately, we don’t have a market, and so we are forced to make films with small budgets. In Karnataka, support for Kannada movies is diminishing. People watch Tamil and Telugu films. Karnataka is one of the major markets for these films, and so the industry is controlled by them. Many [distributors] would prefer to distribute the big hits from other languages first, and if there is any space left, they will distribute popular Kananda films. And serious films seldom get any space after that, and even if they get, it is only in Bangalore. Kannada cinema has even lost its local look and feel, as it either imitates or remakes films from other languages. The films look “rich” as the budget is big, and Kannada audiences are forced to be happy with that. More than the merit of the film, what matters nowadays is how you market it. And the media, too, play up to it.

As told to C.S. Venkiteswaran