Girish Karnad was probably one of the most brilliant playwrights that contemporary India has produced — along with people like Badal Sircar, Vijay Tendulkar. Whether it is Hayavadana (1972), or Tughlaq (1964), or Yayati (1961), which he wrote when he was in his early 20s, to me Girish represented a kind of sharp intelligence and a kind of breadth of mind I have rarely come across. Eventually, in terms of livelihood, he became a very successful actor in the cinema, Hindi as well as Kannada. He acted in my films Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976). But the fact is that he was essentially a playwright. His creative juices flowed with the theatre. And that’s where his real talent lay.

I first heard of Girish from my cousin, Krishna Basrur, who was studying along with him in college in Dharwar. He used to talk about Girish a lot, his brilliant, extra ordinary mind, his sharp as a razor intellect. Soon after as Krishna got his degree, I finished my education and moved to Mumbai to pursue filmmaking, and Girish had just got his Rhodes scholarship to study at the Oxford University, we would often meet at one of the Irani restaurants on Colaba causeway over sasta samosas and cups of tea. I was absolutely floored by his brilliance. Girish was a wonderful speaker; when he went to Oxford, he became the President of the Oxford Union (the debating society). So he clearly had everything one admired. Also, at that age you get envious of somebody like him, a handsome fellow, who is articulate and is doing so well for himself, already recognised for his intelligence — and he was younger than me.

The playwright Satyadev Dubey, a common friend, used to do a lot of theatre in Bombay in the seventies. Girish for some strange reason favoured Satyadev as a producer of his plays although they used to fight like cats and dogs all the time. About creative things. (Politically, Dubey was pro-Jan Sangh at the time, and we were all left-of-the-centre). Soon enough when I finally became a filmmaker, I was very keen on working with Girish… He was of course a very capable actor, and had acted in Samskara even before I had made my first film Ankur (1974); I also felt that he should also write for me. I wanted him to participate in some of my scripts. Normally, Satyadev and I would sit down and discuss it, but Girish would say that he just wants a bit of time for himself, and he would sit and write it all down, 35-40 pages, in one sitting. One of his abilities was to be able to create dramatic situations. If you look at my earlier films, you’ll see how each sequence develops. Girish’s mind was like that of a chess player, looking at a move and see how far he can take it, anticipating what the opponent is likely to be doing.

Girish Karnad and Shabana Azmi in Nishant

I challenged him to do a script for me based on “Sangtye Aika,” which then turned into Bhumika (1977). The timelines in the story would constantly move from present to past to future, and yet not confuse the audience in any way. Very few people are capable of doing that. In many ways, Girish had a mathematician’s mind, with none of that fuzzy, mystic nonsense.

He made a very good friend of course. There were times when he would stay overnight at our place at Peddar Road. We used to have addas, and Satyadev Dubey and two three others would be there. There were conversations which would turn into skirmishes. Once Girish and Satyadev had a terrible terrible argument that went on and on. My wife got very tired of it, and said Listen if you guys are going to fight just get out of my house, you can fight wherever you want. The two of them took the fight down stairs and then almost went to the roadside. They argued and fought with each other until the middle of the night when the bell rang, and I woke up and opened the door to two drunken guys walking into the house.

I think we — Satyadev Dubey, Girish Karnad, and with no false modesty even I — were at the height of our creativity and the output during that period… I have no hesitation in saying that Girish was the most talented amongst us, certainly more talented than me. And a wonderful human being on top of it. Everything was going for him — he was a good looking fellow, he worked with Oxford University Press. Talking to Girish was always wonderful. We would discuss creating characters, drama, story telling, ways to work out narratives; you don’t find too many people you can discuss these things with.

shyam benegal

His strength as a playwright was his ability to be able to create credible theatrical narratives without using mechanical device to take the story forward, without using Deus ex machina, through an organic process, where you don’t question the manner in which the story flows. The other person who also had that quality, and who I also worked with, was Vijay Tendulkar, but in different ways.

Girish later said that he had re-written the script of Manthan – although Tendulkar got the National award for Best Screenplay. I am not quite sure he was absolutely correct. Both Girish and Vijay were playwrights, and both were brilliant playwrights, and there was also a kind of professional competitiveness that was going on between them, so sniping at each other wasn’t a particularly difficult thing to do.

(As told to Sankhayan Ghosh)

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