Interview: Girish Kasaravalli

‘Ray’s vision is universal’: Girish Kasaravalli on Satyajit Ray

Print edition : November 05, 2021

Girish Kasaravalli Photo: SUDHAKARA JAIN

Interview with Girish Kasaravalli, eminent Kannada film director.

Girish Kasaravalli, Kannada film director, is one of the pioneers of ‘parallel cinema’ in India. Kasaravalli has won 14 national film awards, including four for Best Feature Film: Ghatashraddha (1977), Tabarana Kathe (1986), Thaayi Saheba (1997) and Dweepa (2002). In 2011, he was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India. Excerpts from his interview to C.S. Venkiteswaran:

The history of Indian cinema can be divided into pre-Ray and post-Ray. His contributions had a huge impact on future generations of film-makers in India. In the birth centenary year of Satyajit Ray, how do you look at his impact on Indian cinema?

I do not think that the films of Ray had such a huge impact on India’s mainstream cinema, for the simple reason that his films, which were in Bengali, were not accessible to film practitioners of other languages, especially those from the south. They had no access to them until the film society movement gained momentum, and later these films became available in DVD format.

In 1976, when I started my career in Kannada films, the majority of the film-makers here didn’t have first-hand experience of his contributions by watching the films. But those who were trying their hand at making films then bracketed as “parallel cinema” were familiar with and greatly influenced by his style of film-making. Many of them were impressed by the surface of his cinematic style, that is, the realism, the attention to detail, emotional impact, etc. But very few understood his craft, his managing of the rhythm, mise en scene, polyphonic structure, the subtlety that avoids value judgments, or the full metaphorical dimensions of both visual and aural constructions. In the birth centenary year, highlighting these cinematic essentials by analysing his major works would be a rich tribute to him; aspiring film-makers and practitioners would be greatly benefited by it.

Ray has been compared—often unjustly and randomly—with Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. Ray has also had intense arguments with Mrinal Sen about film aesthetics and politics. Ray’s aesthetics have been seen as a sort of counterpoint to that of Ghatak, who drew from totally different sources of tradition, acting styles and narrative modes. How do you look at these differences in styles now?

For me, Ray, Ghatak and Mrinal Sen belong to different genres or different gharanas of film-making. Trying to evaluate and compare them would be doing injustice not just to those film-makers but also to cinematic traditions. Ray comes from a Bengali culture that valued classical narrative traditions. These writers and artists viewed life from a stoical (samachitta) and equanimous (sarvasakshitva) perspective. His politics is subterranean. In contrast, Ghatak’s characters had a traumatic past, and he uses a melodramatic style to convey their anguish. His use of cinematic technique—be it musical, visual compositional, or acting style—echoes these feelings. Mrinal Sen, on the contrary, uses agitprop style to bring out the tensions of the time. He uses unconventional, deliberately jarring cinematic constructions to highlight this. He very often forebodes his political philosophy.

Also read: A Century of Ray

So each of these film-makers has garnered his own distinctive idiom to express himself. Comparing the oeuvre of one with the other without taking into consideration their overarching preoccupations would be incorrect. See how Ray changes from his composed classical style to arbitrary style while making the Calcutta trilogy [Pratidwandi, Seemabaddha and Jana Aranya]. On the contrary, Mrinal Sen, who all along used arbitrary style in his activist films, shifts to the omniscient witness style while narrating the stories about middle-class families in the city of Calcutta [Ek Din Pratidin, Kharij].

Can you describe your personal encounters with Ray? How did he react to your films?

Unfortunately, I never got an opportunity to meet or interact with him. There were two occasions when I could have met him, but I missed both. In 1979, at the Madras Filmotsav, my film Ghatashraddha was screened. But I couldn’t make it. Ray had come to the screening and after watching it praised the film a lot, and the next day’s newspaper carried it. The second occasion came in 1991. My film Mane [1990] was screened at FTII, and one of the professors who liked the film very much asked me to show it to Ray. When that film was screened at the Calcutta International Film Festival, I wanted to invite him, only to be told that he was unwell. Soon after, he passed away. How I wish that he was around to give me feedback about my later films like Thaayi Saheba and Gulabi Talkies.

Ray, while writing about the “Indian New Wave”, was severely critical of some of the avant-garde film-makers of your generation like Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. How did you look at those criticisms then? What are their resonances now?

I presume circumstances prompted him to write them. Yet these articles have widened my perceptions. For instance, while commenting about some of the trends of the time, he pinpoints self-indulgence and lack of discipline as some of the issues. In some films, he observes that there is a plain lack of interest in human beings. Another issue was impatience with conventional narrative methods, leading some young film-makers to a visual style replete with clichés. He even commented that in some other cases the fragile aestheticism had led the film-maker to the sick bed, apart from pointing out that most films had poor psychology and poorer stylisation. If one can read beyond the obvious bitterness, one can see a very perceptive analysis here. Through these observations, he also brings to the fore the limitations of these films.

Ray’s cosmopolitan vision draws inspiration from both Tagore and Nehru; his cinematic idiom and aesthetics draw from neorealist masters as well as Renoir and Hollywood films. Imbibing all these diverse influences, he remained a critical insider as well as a cosmopolitan, someone who remains rooted in Indian culture and tradition even while being open to the world and its influences. How do you look at this aspect—the rooted cosmopolitanism—of Ray?

Ray’s vision is unique. While his stories are deeply rooted in Indian society and ethos, his vision is universal. That is also the reason why his films are admired all over. While the Apu Trilogy is essentially the story of India opening up to industrialisation and urbanisation, the emotional tone and tenor of the film make it universal. It is a story of how urbanisation also dehumanises the individual.

Also read: How Satyajit Ray foregrounded modernity and enlightenment throughout his career

In Charulata, there is a scene which is tangential to the main dramatic construct but which makes the main plot universal. Charu’s husband Bhupati throws a party in his mansion to celebrate the victory of the Liberals in elections in England. By incorporating this scene, Ray highlights how deeply the minds and aspirations of the Bengali bhadralok are colonised. Many films like Ashani Sanket, the Calcutta trilogy and Mahanagar deal with some of the major issues that concerned India. All his major films have a certain ambivalence that makes them open to multiple interpretations.

Ray in his article “What is wrong with Indian films?” says: “In India it would seem that the fundamental concept of a coherent dramatic pattern existing in time was generally misunderstood. Often by a queer process of reasoning, movement was equated with action and action with melodrama. The analogy with music failed in our case because Indian music is largely improvisational. This elementary confusion, plus the influence of American cinema are the two main factors responsible for the present state of Indian films.” Was this true in the Kannada context? Does it still hold true in the Indian film context?

In Europe and America, film practitioners believed that cinema is the extension of photography and other visual arts. But in India, Parsi theatre was believed to be the root of cinema.

Hence theatricality forms an essential ingredient for Indian cinema. Hence melodramatic rendition and heavily convoluted plot lines formed its basis. The movement, rhythm and the structuring of time and space were either ignored or didn’t get their due. It hasn’t changed markedly. Ray’s statement holds water even today. Kannada cinema is no exception.

If one looks at Ray’s last three films, one can see certain dark despair about our society, polity and culture pervading them. Three decades after his last film, ‘Agantuk’, how do you look at Ray’s apprehensions about our society?

As I stated earlier, his political comments were subterranean in the earlier films. But post the 1970s, India witnessed an explosion of radical political agitations and movements. Ray must have felt the need to be more overtly political. Hence the subtle political resonances that one finds in Mahanagar and Devi gave way to more explicit statements. These were visible not just in the last three films but in a few earlier films as well. He deals with moral and emotional corruption in Jana Aranya, Seemabaddha, Ashani Sanket, the inhumanity of religious practices in Sadgati, and the erosion of the scientific temper in Ganashatru. One can see the despair in him, but that doesn’t give way to nihilism. He attempts to see some light even in these darker situations, though sometimes such optimism looks a little forced as in Ganashatru.

Also read: Vision of a land: Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay's Bengal in Satyajit Ray's cinema

Which is your favourite Ray movie? Why?

There are quite a few. I consider Pather Panchali not only as the best in his oeuvre but in world cinema too. It makes us look at life beyond the boundaries of the drama. He makes us realise and love the beauty in the day-to-day, quotidian activities. In that sense it is a film that has no parallel in world cinema. And then Charulata, for its ensemble beauty. I like Ghare Baire for the ideas that Ray (and Tagore) foregrounds, issues like freedom, nationhood and patriotism, which prompt me introspect and contemplate upon some of the recent developments in the country.