Girish Karnad and his democratic art: KM Chaitanya recounts experience of making a film on the playwright
Girish Karnad was filmed twice by director KM Chaitanya for his documentaries on the artiste in Kannada and English. Chaitanya remembers the actor-playwright as a genius with a nose for healthy debate and dissent.
Filmmaker KM Chaitanya had shot documentaries on Girish Karnad in English and Kannada, taking a closer look at his life and inspirations.
Chaitanya's father introduced him to the actor-playwright, who happened to be his friend.
Chaitanya talks about Karnad's popularity among youngsters, saying he was “ahead of his times”.
Girish Karnad donned multiple hats — as a playwright, actor, director, translator, screenwriter and public intellectual — in a career spanning over five decades. He passed away on 10 June in his Bengaluru residence due to a degenerative lung disorder, but left behind an exhaustive body of work comprising plays, films, and scripts for posterity. In conversation with Firstpost, Kannada filmmaker KM Chaitanya — who made a documentary, Nadedhu Banda Daari, on the actor-playwright — says that Karnad was his pragmatic self till his last breath, accepting what was happening to his health as a matter of fact.
Chaitanya’s association with him goes as far back as 1996. He visited the artiste in Bengaluru only a month ago, after he "won the Amar Ujala Award for Excellence in Literature, and couldn’t travel to Delhi to receive it," the filmmaker says. "So he had asked me if we could make a video of his speech and send it to them. While we were shooting it, he was very conscious about where we should cut because he was unable to make the entire speech in one go due to his health, and would be short of breath."
Karnad also specified that the camera should zoom in to a close-up every time there was a cut, so as to make the transition smooth. On completing the shoot, he mentioned how his days were numbered, but that he was satisfied with having led a good life. Karnad understood the condition of his lungs, and knew he couldn’t go on for much longer.
“He never saw it as something sad, or something you should feel sorry for,” Chaitanya says. He had assisted Karnad in various capacities on numerous films, television series, and plays. “With Girish, every day was a new learning,” he says.
Chaitanya began shooting the Kannada documentary on the Padma awardee in 2009. It was commissioned by the Information Department of Karnataka. Following this, the central Sahitya Akademi asked Chaitanya to make an English version of the same, which he began shooting in 2013-14.
He shot over a span of several years and ended up with a lot of material. “I shot with him in the places where he grew up, where he studied, where he went to college, and so on. Since he had told me a lot of things over the years, I thought it better to just ask leading questions and let his response become the narration of the documentary. If you watch the documentary, there is very little narration or voice-over. It is just Girish talking about himself. I just stitched the various interviews to make a cohesive whole.”
While shooting in Kannada, Chaitanya also filmed some portions of the English version, for which he asked renowned Kannada playwright, Vivek Shanbag, to have a free-wheeling chat with Karnad. In the documentary, he speaks about the early influences in his life: his family, particularly his mother, his hometown, securing a Rhodes scholarship to study in Oxford, his reason for studying Mathematics and how it influenced his playwriting.
Chaitanya's father, Kannada writer K Maralasiddhappa — who was friends with Karnad — introduced him to the man when the filmmaker decided to move to Mumbai in 1996. During the course of the conversation, Karnad (who'd already lived in Mumbai) asked Chaitanya to assist him on the sets of Antaraal, a TV serial he was directing at the time.
“The first time I met him, I was very nervous because he was a powerhouse, a genius. I had seen his plays. For me, the fact that I was even in his presence was very overwhelming. But as I started working with him, I felt so comfortable and so rejuvenated in his presence all the time. There was so much to learn,” Chaitanya recalls.
Following that, the two worked together on more series and films, such as Swarajnama, Kaanooru Heggadathi, Aa Dinagalu, among others. Chaitanya was also credited as co-director on Karnad’s play, Odakalu Bimba (Bikhre Bimb in Hindi, Broken Images in English), which was incidentally the first play he directed.
“Although he was nearly 35-40 years older than I was, it felt like I was talking to somebody who was completely young and who could understand my attitude and my thoughts on various things. This was because he was so updated and so fresh all the time,” the Kannada filmmaker says about his friend, philosopher, guide. “He was always ahead of his times, and that made him the darling of youngsters. He was always encouraging them, spotting talent and pushing them forward. A lot of people looked up to him because of that.”
Girish Karnad, despite his stature, was always accommodative of everyone’s views without imposing his opinions on others. Chaitanya describes an instance from a shoot where he was assisting Karnad, when he suddenly turned to him and asked if his approach was correct. He had just begun his career in films, and understandably, nodded yes. But Karnad countered him and said that his expression suggested otherwise, urging him for honest feedback. Chaitanya then expressed what he thought was wrong, and Karnad immediately changed the shot as per his suggestions.
“For him, it did not matter that I was just a newbie who didn’t know filmmaking. He would receive everybody’s opinion if it had some substance in it. That has greatly helped how I direct because he was so democratic,” he says. “Every cameraman could give him suggestions, the editors could cut off something that he had shot, the actors could improvise in his presence and say, ‘No, I’ll do it this way’. He would work with them. He would take in all their creative energies, and make it into one whole instead of just imposing his will on everybody else,” he adds. With Karnad, there was always space for healthy debate.
“He maturely handled disagreements. If you didn’t agree with Karnad about something, he didn’t take it as an affront to him. He would try to understand where your disagreement came from. If possible, he would try to convince you about his view point. Otherwise, he would let it be. It was okay to have a difference. That is what is missing in society today and people are becoming more and more polarised because if you disagree with somebody, they want to brand you, term you something or they hate you for disagreeing with them, whereas disagreements are such a fundamental thing for human growth and evolution,” the filmmaker says.
Girish Karnad was undoubtedly a brilliant wordsmith. His writing was driven by his learning in mathematics, and he approached his writing in a disciplined, systematic fashion. He often likened writing to constructing a house — one had to decide where the bedroom and living room would be, and one certainly knew that the kitchen would not sit next to the bathroom.
Chaitanya recalls an instance when the two were working on a film in Malnad Kannada, a dialect used in the region by the same name. “Though Girish wrote the dialogues, we got another person from Malnad to write it in the regional dialect. When the copy came, I took it to him. He took a look at it and began numbering the dialogues. He wrote 1, 4, 6, 2. He then asked me to rewrite the scene in this order and bring it back,” he recalls. Chaitanya didn’t change a single word, but rewrote the dialogues in the order specified by his mentor. “It became a fresh, completely different kind of scene. Since he was a mathematician, he looked at words like that,” he explains. According to him, the man had the rare quality of not only writing beautifully, but bringing stories to life visually with equal ease as well.
Girish Karnad was among the last of the great Indian playwrights from the golden age — extremely well read, with great clarity of thought and well-formed ideologies. He had read the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, the Puranas, and Sanskrit literature. His plays, such as Yayati, Taledanda (Rakt Kalyan in Hindi), Agni Mattu Male (Fire and Rain in English), and Hayavadana drew on mythology and folktales to talk about contemporary issues.
“When he was critiquing something, and people called him anti-Hindu, I felt like laughing because he had such deep knowledge and pride in his culture and education. If he was critiquing something, it came from a point of education, from a point of knowledge,” Chaitanya says, reminding one of the formidable legacy left behind by Karnad, a creative giant like no other.
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