Remembering Girish Karnad The Director, The Actor

From ‘Kaadu’ and ‘Ondanondu Kaladalli’ to ‘Nishant’ and ‘Swami’, one of India’s greatest playwrights made a huge contribution to Indian cinema
Remembering Girish Karnad The Director, The Actor

If Girish Karnad's passing weren't sad enough, the headlines about the "Tiger Zinda Hai actor passing away" were sadder. I suppose the logic was that few people, today, would have clicked a link that said: "Ondanondu Kaladalli director passes away". We are a society where RD Burman is the furthest back RJs will go on a "retro classics" show. (And that too, only the composer's post-1970s work.) So maybe it's worth pointing out that Ondanondu Kaladalli (1978), which won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Kannada, is one of the finest Kurosawa homages made anywhere in the world. If we call Sholay a "curry Western", this film would be a "curry Chanbara". (The latter term refers to the samurai cinema that existed long before Akira Kurosawa brought the genre to worldwide attention with Seven Samurai.) These films aren't just about action. They're also about the drama being played out in a (usually lawless) period setting.

Karnad, the auteur

Ondanondu Kaladalli hints at this setting in the very title, which translates to "Once Upon a Time". The 13th-century story revolves around a mercenary (he'd be the equivalent of a rōnin in a Chanbara movie) and the battles between two brothers deadlocked over a kingdom, but let's look at the aesthetics of the film, which is how you separate the auteur-like filmmaker, who leaves his fingerprints on every aspect of movie-making, from the anonymous ones. Right from the opening credits, there is a strong sensibility: the names are written out in a font that evokes the inscriptions you'd find in, say, a brass urn excavated from a site where the Hoysala or Vijayanagara empire prevailed. The costumes are earthy, tribal, Indian. (You almost think there's a medieval-era Fab India store somewhere.) Even the swords used during the fights look like careful thought has gone into their design. Their ends are broad and flat, like a ninja blade. But most of all, it's the making.

The opening shot gazes at a sunrise amidst mountains (the cinematographer is the legendary AK Bir). Nine times out of ten, the next shot would cut away to something else – the sunrise would simply be a marker of time. But in Ondanondu Kaladalli, the camera zooms back from the sunrise and begins to pan past the forests below. Then, we get a tracking shot that takes us through one forest. (We still glimpse the sun through the trees). We hear shouts in the distance. There's a cut – not to a face, but to a path in the forest. (We still glimpse the trees, and the sun through the trees). Two men appear as specks in the distance. They run towards us. A chase ensues. The story begins. Look how organically each shot develops from the previous one, keeping the basic elements but adding a new one each time: Sun / Sun + trees / Sun + trees + path / Sun + trees + path + men.

Karnad, the director

In the seventies, this kind of filmmaking wasn't common in India. (It still isn't.) The New York Times , in a review published after the film's US release in 1982, called Karnad "an Indian director of real intelligence and discipline." Like in his plays, the narratives of his films spilled over with ideas. Vamsha Vriksha (1973) – Karnad's first outing behind the camera was as co-director with BV Karanth – is about a man coming to terms with his son's widow, after her remarriage. Six years later, the duo co-directed another film, Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane, with an ash-streaked, tuft-sporting Naseeruddin Shah as a Brahmin priest named Venkataramana Shastri. (Dwell on that image for a moment. The Hindi version was called Godhuli.) The story revolves around a man who returns to his village with an American wife, and it features a scene where angry villagers nearly lynch the latter for ordering a cow to be slaughtered. It hasn't dated a bit.

Unsurprisingly, many of these films were rooted in literature. Vamsha Vriksha was based on SL Bhyrappa's novel. Kaadu (1973), magnificently shot in black-and-white by Govind Nihalani, came from a novel by Srikrishna Alanahalli. Ondanondu Kaladalli and Cheluvi (1992) are based on the folk tales and myths Karnad mined so marvellously for the theatre. Kanooru Heggadithi (1999) came from a Kuvempu novel published in 1936. And Utsav (1984) went back even further, to two classical Sanskrit plays, Charudatta by Bhasa (300AD) and Mcchakaṭika by Sudraka (400 AD). Utsav was the closest Karnad came to a "comedy track", with Vatsyayana (Amjad Khan) peeking into the bedrooms of courtesans while researching his monumental epic on lust. One of his lines from his running commentaries (diligently scribbled down by an assistant) goes thus: "Stree rajhans ki tarah chehchehati hai… Apni pair ki angoothi se purush ke netra ko dabaa rahi hai." (The woman twitters like the royal swan. With her toe, she squashes the man's eye!) At the end, he beams and announces that he has a name for this position: Stambhaasan.

Karnad, the actor

Pattabhirama Reddy's Samskara (1970) was the first "parallel film" from the South. (Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Swayamvaram came two years later.) This was Karnad's screenwriting debut. He co-wrote the screenplay with the director, based on a story by UR Ananthamurthy. (Later, Karnad co-wrote a few Shyam Benegal films: Bhumika and Kalyug with Satyadev Dubey, and Kondura with Arudra and Benegal). Samskara also marked Karnad's debut as an actor: he played a devout Brahmin. On screen, Karnad was a minimalist. There are actors who seize the role, make it their own. Karnad vanished into it. A lot of the time, Karnad was… Karnad: staunch, dignified, decent. Note the scene in Samskara where a companion beats a cobra to death with a stick. Karnad is rooted to the spot and he looks sick to the stomach, but beyond that, there's no "acting". We project the rest.

There are too many Karnad films, Karnad performances to talk about, but Swami (1977) is a personal favourite. It's based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's book, whose template – bright woman (Shabana Azmi) with a fun boyfriend struggles in a marriage with an enormously patient and understanding husband (Karnad) – has been perennially popular with Indian filmmakers. Two years earlier, Karnad had played a character with a similar temperament, the schoolmaster in Nishant (1975). Only there, his wife (Shabana again) was literally absent, having been abducted by the zamindar's brothers. With the smallest of effects (a permanent half-smile in Swami; and in Nishant, slightly squinted eyes, as though looking at the sun) Karnad makes the two characters look very different. 

His gentleness on screen – even while wailing in Nishant, there's more helplessness than rage – landed him a series of gentle characters. He played an advocate in the beloved TV series Malgudi Days (1987); Kamal Haasan's psychiatrist in Gunaa (1991); a Kuchipudi guru in Ananda Bhairavi (1983); Kajol's doting and desperate father in Minsaara Kanavu (1997); a superhero's inventor-grandfather in Mugamoodi (2012); India's answer to the phonetics expert Colonel Pickering in the My Fair Lady remake Man Pasand (1980). So it was always interesting to see Karnad playing harder, less-sympathetic characters, like the weak husband in Umbartha/Subah (1982), the ambitious nephew of an aging industrialist in Tarang (1984), the cricket coach drugged with power in Iqbal (2005), or even an outright villain, like the Governor in Kadhalan (1994), a man who unleashes panic by triggering a series of bomb blasts.

So yes, like many individualistic creators who used the mainstream industry to further their more personal art, Karnad saw his share of dreck. My favourite film of this kind is the Kumar Gaurav-starrer Teri Kasam (1982), where Karnad played a businessman named Rakesh, the older brother of the heroine Dolly (Poonam Dhillon). Rakesh's introduction scene is some kind of classic in the annals of so-bad-it's-good cinema. Because she's rich and she can do anything, Dolly picks up a water pipe beside the swimming pool at Hotel Paradise and begins to hose down a waiter. The alarmed manager calls Rakesh, who laughs indulgently and says, "To kya hua! Dolly abhi bachchi hai. Khel khel mein galti hui hogi!" (She's just a child. It's an innocent mistake.) You have to wonder what Karnad thought when he read the script (if there was one). Yayati. Tughlaq. Hayavadana. And then… a water pipe-wielding Dolly in Teri Kasam. Tiger Zinda Hai is just another variant of this kind of cinema. It will be forgotten in a couple of decades. If anything, we must be grateful to these films. In a way, they allowed Karnad to make the work that really mattered.

If you haven't seen much of Girish Karnad, as actor or filmmaker, these films are a good place to start:

Kaadu (1973)

Nishant (1975) / Swami (1977)

Ondanondu Kaladalli (1978)

Ratnadeep (1979)

Umbartha / Subah (1982)

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