Girish Karnad's filmography in Kannada cinema demonstrates his penchant for layered social commentary
Even a hundred years later, Girish Karnad's plays and films will teach many important lessons to viewers on the things that went wrong in the 20th century.
When I was in middle school, I had to memorise the names of all the seven Jnanpith Awardees who had contributed to Kannada literature (Chandrashekhara Kambara won the award in 2010. His works were not discussed in classes until I joined college). Along with that, I had to remember the names of the poems, plays, and novels they wrote, for several questions related to them would be asked in exams. As a student back then, I was interested in cinema more than literature, so I had no clue about Girish Karnad having carved a niche for himself as a playwright before he turned an actor. Naturally, I gasped when I learned that he had won the Jnanpith in 1998.
“How could a snooty villain from a Tamil film called Kadhalan win a prestigious award for writing Kannada plays?,” I thought. I had seen him in other Tamil films, like Ratchagan, Minsaara Kanavu, and Kadhal Mannan too, but the image of him getting electrocuted in the climax of Kadhalan was fresh in my mind. Every other Jnanpith Awardee (for Kannada), from Kuvempu to UR Ananthamurthy, had shaken the literary world with their words. They were figures who could not be reached by mere mortals. It seemed as though they were born on a different planet. But Karnad, however, seemed approachable since he was an actor.
I searched for newspaper articles on him, and asked my parents and school teachers about his shape-shifting personality, as Google had not yet become the go-to library in the early noughties. Karnad, I later discovered, was one of the tallest towers of the Navya (modern / new-wave) movement. He mixed the personal and the political, for he did not live as a mere spectator to the goings-on around him. He questioned Brahminical patriarchy through his films (most of which were adapted from novels) and raised his voice on the streets whenever he thought it was necessary.
Karnad made his screenwriting and acting debut with Samskara (1970), a stinging portrayal of the ills of casteism. In the film, Praneshacharya (Karnad), a 'pure' Brahmin who looks for answers in religious texts, realises that he is no better than Narayanappa (P Lankesh). Throughout Samskara, Narayanappa is presented as a black sheep amongst the Brahmins as he drinks cheap liquor, eats meat, sleeps with women from the lower castes, and befriends Muslims. When Praneshacharya commits adultery, he asks himself if he is worthy of acting as a self-appointed guru in his small town.
Many film theorists believe that Samskara changed the course of Kannada cinema for until then, the audiences in Karnataka were mostly treated to devotional films, family dramas, and adventure thrillers, inspired from Hollywood Westerns. At a time when Rajkumar, Kalyan Kumar and Udaykumar were ruling the local box office, Karnad sent his sociopolitical dramas to national and international film festivals. His movies, like other art fairs, were only later devoured by the larger public.
Having brushed shoulders with literary heavyweights like DR Bendre, VK Gokak and AK Ramanujan during his college days, he centered his movies on themes related to the highly skewed relationship between husbands and wives. The men, in his films, were more often than not adulterers. And their voiceless wives were sufferers who accepted their fates from the sidelines. However, they did take radical decisions whenever they spotted an opportunity (and paid a heavy price for it). Take Vamsha Vriksha (1971) for example, where Karnad worked as a co-writer, co-director, and actor. A young widow argues with her father-in-law on how it is okay for men to marry as they wish, but the 'law of nature' does not allow women to do so.
In the same film, the father-in-law, who strictly follows the Bhagavad Gita, finds out that his biological father is not the one to whom his mother was married to. In fact, his mom was forced by her husband to beget a male child by throwing her into the arms of a traveling priest. This was done so that the husband could safeguard his ill-gotten wealth and ancestral property. Without a male child in those days, everything would have rerouted back to the husband’s brother.
Now, who do you think could have possibly thought of such a compelling and daring story to be told in the first place? Of course, Vamsha Vriksha was based on SL Bhyrappa’s novel of the same name. Nevertheless, full credit must go to Karnad and BV Karanth (co-writer and co-director) for bringing this tale to the screen.
Kamal Haasan, in a column for Hindustan Times in 2017, mentioned Kaadu (directed by Karnad) as one of his 70 most favorite Indian films he has watched. He goes on to add that his celebrated movie, Thevar Magan, was inspired by Kaadu (1973). Even in this Kannada movie, the recurring theme of adultery raises its head. The patriarch (played by Amrish Puri) regularly spends his nights with his mistress, which upsets his wife. When he asks her to roll out a sleeping mat one day in the dead of night, subtly hinting that he would not be going to his mistress’s house, her joy knows no bounds.
Kanooru Heggadithi, which was made two and a half decades later in 1999, also ran in the same circles as his earlier directorial ventures. The patriarch (this time played by Karnad himself) treats his young wife (played by Tara) with suspicion and resentment. He thinks she is eyeing his son and nephew as they are closer to her age. So, in a bid to teach her a lesson and to show he has the upper hand in the marital relationship, he brings his mistress home.
In all these movies, the women meet with tragic ends, for society expects them to not cross the boundaries drawn by men. The young widow of Vamsha Vriksha remarries and regrets leaving her only child in the hands of her former father-in-law. Her guilty conscious prevents her from taking care of herself or enjoying the fruits of her youth. Likewise, the American woman (played by Paula Lindsay) in Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (1977), who marries an Indian villager (played by Manu), cannot breastfeed her baby. That would have been seen as a curse since she had ordered a cow to be butchered in an earlier scene.
When a temple priest (played by Naseeruddin Shah) compares cows to mothers in the beginning of the movie, the American woman wonders about the absence of the supreme status accorded to animals like dogs and pigs. Karnad, with his frequent collaborator, Karanth, set out to point the stupidity in the traditions and customs followed by the upper caste men, which prevented the others from expressing their desires and needs.
Along with Karnad’s plays and onscreen roles in mainstream films, his work as a writer and director of art films is quite important too, for they stand the test of time. Even a hundred years later, they will teach many important lessons to viewers on the things that went wrong in the 20th century.
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