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Celebrating an auteur

Print edition : Jul 19, 2019 T+T-
A still from “Dweepa”.

A still from “Dweepa”.

A still from “Tabarana Kathe”.

A still from “Tabarana Kathe”.

A still from “Ghatashraddha”.

A still from “Ghatashraddha”.

An early  photograph of Girish Kasaravalli.

An early photograph of Girish Kasaravalli.

The book vividly portrays Girish Kasaravalli as a consummate artist and deals with his body of work in all its thematic diversity and aesthetic vigour.

V ery rarely are film-makers from the parallel stream remembered, let alone revered and studied. With film studies being taken over by cultural studies that focus entirely on popular cinema and, in the process, idolise and canonise it, the immense contributions of serious film-makers, especially in languages other than Hindi, are never recognised. This book, in that sense, is not only a celebration of the works of a living auteur but also a poignant reminder of a whole generation of forgotten heroes.

As the author himself testifies in the preface, this compilation is a personal dedication to the film-maker who is “his inspiration, a mentor and an outstanding film-maker”. It contains 24 portraits of the film-maker by his friends, family members, colleagues, associates, fellow film-makers and film critics. What you have are sketches of different kinds, such as personal memories, experiences, anecdotes and observations about Girish Kasaravalli as an artist and human being, along with some thematic overviews, narrative analyses and critical readings of his films.

It is not an easy task to speak about an auteur who has been active for the last four decades and has created a significant body of work in the form of 14 acclaimed feature films during the period. In a collection like this, where everyone reflects upon the same person and interprets the same body of work, repetitions and generalisations are unavoidable. But despite such limitations, the book succeeds in vividly portraying the film-maker as a consummate artist and fine human being, while dealing with his body of work in all its thematic diversity and aesthetic vigour.

These essays are by different people who were associated (and are still associating) with the film-maker in different capacities: as actors, cinematographers, editors, producers, critics, associates, and so on. Although written from diverse perspectives and capacities, there emerge certain persisting commonalities as well as striking themes relating to the aesthetics and challenges of art cinema practice in India, especially in a “regional” language like Kannada.

The book ends with a long and touching portrait on the life and work of B.V. Karanth by Girish Kasaravalli, where he movingly sketches the turbulent and tragic life of an artist and friend he admired and worked with. Apart from working stills, posters and personal photographs, the book also provides the reader with sample pages from the pre-production notes prepared by Girish Kasaravalli for the film Dweepa , which contains detailed notes about the type of shot, camera movement, lensing, lighting, blocking, cut points, and so on, for each and every shot, showing the meticulous planning and detailing that goes into the work of the master.

The volume starts with a note on the book by O.P. Srivastava and a personal memoir of Girish Kasaravalli by his contemporary, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, followed by two essays by Girish Kasaravalli’s children, Ananya and Apurva, who are both film-makers, who dwell upon the life and work of their father peppered with tender and loving anecdotes about his likes and dislikes, foibles and strengths. Starting from the intimately personal, these recollections go into the vital links between the man and his work, between the personal, familial life and the professional, cinematic oeuvre. Apurva describes him as “a smorgasbord of cinematic idioms, or of cinema itself”. This is how Ananya recounts her father: “At every step, every little thing that he does, there is deep introspection, deep questioning of self, questioning of things around him, of the state and everything else.”

The rest of the essays dwell upon Girish Kasaravalli’s life and work through personal encounters and professional engagements with him. For many of the authors, he was not merely a great auteur but also a crusader for the new wave cinema movement in Karnataka. For many he is a living legend, and for many others, a dear friend, guide or philosopher.

As many young film-makers and technicians testify, he remains an inspiration for them to dedicate their lives to what they passionately believe in. As for his associates, Girish Kasaravalli has been a source of inspiration and the very embodiment of the yearning for perfection.

In the words of G.S. Bhaskar, a cinematographer who has worked with him: “Girish is probably one of the very few in the country who dwells on the cinematic form to tell his stories. He utilises all the visual elements and thereby comes across as more of a visual storyteller than most other film-makers. He chooses to implant the subtext subtly into his camera movement and graphic design, thereby bringing in a great deal of symbolism that lends a cryptic writing style to his narrative. I think that is the take-away for most technicians who work with him as well.”

What directorial assistant Srinivas Bhashyam admires in Girish Kasaravalli is his thoroughness “with the minutest of details, scheduling charts, properties, locations, the supporting cast, colour schemes and a whole lot of essentials”.

Universal themes

Film-makers like Shyam Benegal, curators like Rada Sesic and critics like Vidyarthi Chatterjee, Manu Chakravarthy and John Hood emphasise Girish Kasaravalli’s commitment to his own cultural milieu and his deep concern for humanity as distinguishing features of his work. They also point to the ways in which he has grappled with the changes in the sociopolitical atmosphere of post-Independence India in each of his films.

A major theme that emerges from the musings on Girish Kasaravalli’s narratives and aesthetics is the way in which he is deeply rooted in the local while at the same time being universal. As U.R. Ananthamurthy, on whose story Girish Kasaravalli’s debut film Ghatashraddha (The Ritual) was based, puts it: “The amazing thing about Girish is that, like Satyajit Ray, he chooses a village, he chooses his own environment. He is here. He is profoundly rooted in the local. He is global in his message, but in his choice of subject and the details, he is very local.”

And this is how Arun Khopkar, film-maker and fellow student at the Film & Television Institute of India, Pune, ruminates on his friend’s work: “I think that if you want to understand a film-maker, it is essential to understand how he loves and elevates the position of his surroundings and people as human and as an artiste. Here is somebody who is intensely rooted, though that root is not limited to the surface, but draws from the sap of life that is universal. So he is intensely native, but at the same time very universal. That is the strength of Girish Kasaravalli.”

Parallel cinema in India

Another theme that writers in the book return to frequently is the state of parallel cinema in India, for Girish Kasaravalli embodies the spirit of the new wave in Indian cinema in many ways.

The film critic Vidyarthi Chatterjee puts it succinctly: “Right from his institute diploma film Avashesh to his most recent film Kurmavatara (Tortoise, an Incarnation, 2011), what we witness is an artist at work who has religiously refused to compromise with the original manifesto of New Indian Cinema.”

For the auteur’s cinematographer H.M. Ramachandra, the “Kasaravalli kind of cinema” stays with the viewer for ages and call for viewing again and again. “If you watch Ghatashraddha now, you will interpret it differently. If you view Dweepa now, after so many years, you will get a different reading. The film evolves as your perspectives evolve,” he says.

Avinash Yelandur, who acted in Dweepa , describes the heyday of parallel cinema thus: “In those days, parallel cinema was quite popular. Then unfortunately, everyone except Girish moved away. So the movement slowly tapered off. I think they walked away from it when it was about to hit a peak, and the whole movement died. To once again bring the audience back to this kind of cinema is very difficult. The only person who pursued these kinds of movies was Girish Kasaravalli.”

While reminiscing about Girish Kasaravalli, the veteran film-maker Shyam Benegal emphasises the role the state: “I feel that cinema needs to be taken more seriously as an art form by the state. When I use the word ‘state’ I mean both the State governments and the Central government.”

The actor Deepti Naval stresses the same point: “NFDC [National Film Development Corporation of India] initially started to provide small funds, but somehow it stopped after the initial dose. I guess if the number of people who were doing such experimental work within that limited amount of money had expanded and grown, this kind of cinema would have survived. However, there should be funds for making interesting, meaningful films, provided to an extent by the state.”

Girish Kasaravalli belongs to a generation of artists who critically engaged with and interrogated both tradition and modernity.

The critical insider

The film critic Maithili Rao says: “Ananthamurthy once called himself ‘the critical insider’. He is a Brahmin himself, so he knows the culture’s hollowness as well as its traditions, the decay that has set into it, and the rigidity that has calcified into a system where there is no place for people who question and rebel. I think Ananthamurthy has been a kind of mentor for creative people in Karnataka—Girish is certainly one of them.”

Deepti Naval, who acted in Girish Kasaravalli’s Mane (The House), describes the master auteur thus:

“You could see the intense passion that he felt for his work, his film, the characters and the social message that he communicates through this medium…. All his movies have socially relevant themes. This is what makes him such a serious and significant Indian film-maker, and that’s why we really look up to his work.”

Coming as it does during a time when there is a dire need for critical insiders, this book on Girish Kasaravalli will hopefully prompt young cineastes and scholars to engage with his films so as to ponder and elaborate upon the aesthetic, political and ethical questions they grapple with.