Part I of a wide-ranging interview with Kannada auteur Girish Kasaravalli, one of the pioneers of Parallel Cinema, whose debut, ‘Ghatashraddha’, is all set to be restored

Over the last 47 years, Girish Kasaravalli has striven to remain a filmmaker of singular focus. His glowing repertoire, which has fetched him 14 National Awards, the Padma Shri honour and numerous other accolades globally, perhaps needs no introduction. And yet, the 73-year-old unassuming auteur remains as curious as ever. For many, including the most ardent cineastes across the country, Kasaravalli primarily evokes the idea of parallel cinema, of an ilk that has dedicated itself to the subtexts of Indian socio-politics. But viewing him, or any other master of the game, through that lens alone would be reductive. Yes, the films he makes do fit a well-defined ideological realm, but one must look at his work with a keener eye to realise that there’s a lot more to it.

There’s the distinctive, extremely real sense of the unexplored Karnataka upcountry that we get to see in films like Dweepa (2002), Gulabi Talkies (2008) and Kanasembo Kudureyaneri (2010). There’s the genuine empathy and compassion that he has for those isolated, especially those he believes to be victims of psychological violence — in Tabarana Kathe (1986), Kraurya (1995), etc. There’s also the exploration of unlikely, yet very endearing, friendships that stem from these crevices of social/political apathy. Ghatashraddha, Kasaravalli’s 1977 debut feature, was recently chosen to be restored to its finest glory. It’s almost as though his long, meditative effort has come one full circle with the honour. In this in-depth two-part interview, he talks about Ghatashraddha, his other films, his childhood, the FTII, and all things cinema and art. Excerpts:

Do you revisit Ghatashraddha from time to time? Or have you moved past it?

Not really. I have changed a lot, of course, since the film was made. In fact, I think my later films are more prominently into the socio-political issues, which still haunt us today. I try to ask the same philosophical questions I did in Ghatashraddha in my later work but through the social and political lens. Also, the structure I used in my debut film, I have not been using it. I have moved away from the linear narrative and today, I suppose my films are more layered and multidimensional. I personally think my later films are more complex compared to Ghatashraddha.

Any reason why Ghatashraddha was picked for restoration from your vast repertoire?

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur (founder and director of the Film Heritage Foundation) has been restoring films for some time now and he liked this film very much. He has already restored multiple Indian classics, including Kummatty, Ishanou and others. So, when he said that he wanted to work on my film (Ghatashraddha), I gave him a free hand to take up the project. It took him nearly two years to get started because the other two films were in the pipeline. I understand that G. Aravindan (one of the pioneers of parallel cinema in Malayalam) is no more and Ishanou is a colour film, which is fading, and needs to be digitized fast.

L’Immagine Ritrovata, the famed facility in Bologna, Italy, is set to be the restoration site of Ghatashraddha. Film Heritage Foundation will receive support from Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project and George Lucas’ Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.

So, how much is your involvement in this?

Absolutely none. Dungarpur asked for the rights and I had them with me, since the producer of Ghatashraddha (Sadanand Suvarna) had transferred them to me. I didn’t expect much out of the restoration project but one day he (Dungarpur) called to tell me that it had been accepted.

Are you excited to see the new version of the film?

(Laughs). See, I don’t own great prints of any of my films because these versions are copied from the actual prints. And that too from those which have toured festivals and had theatrical runs, meaning they have been exposed to a bit of wear and tear, mishandling etc. You know, the dust, the scratches and the tampering during projection, that sort. So, when I found out that Ghatashraddha would be restored, I was quite happy. The process is not only time-consuming but very expensive. We won’t be able to get it done easily.

On childhood impressions, FTII days and Samskara

Kasaravalli graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, in the year 1975, specialising in film direction. One gathers that the time spent at the film institute was a particularly liberating experience for him. He talks fondly about how he and many others like him were encouraged to be free thinkers and develop a strong sense of perspective while viewing a film. His graduation film, Avashesh, won the President’s Silver Lotus Award for Best Experimental Short Film of the Year.

Did you face any kind of a culture clash at the FTII, considering the institute has/had a more freeing atmosphere as opposed to your other previous alma maters?

There was no culture clash at all but since I came from a science background, having graduated in Pharmacy, I knew nothing about art or cinema. My FTII batchmates, on the other hand, had Master’s degrees in literature, journalism, philosophy, etc. or were from the National School of Drama. So, that was quite the problem for me initially.

At FTII, Kasaravalli’s graduation film, Avashesh, won the President’s Silver Lotus Award for Best Experimental Short Film of the Year.

But you were always exposed to a good amount of literature back home.

Yes, but I was mostly acquainted with Kannada literature while growing up. Also, everyone is exposed to literature to some extent in the Malenadu region (Karnataka) because there is no other major pastime for the people there. Especially 50-60 years ago. So, one ends up reading books and some kind of fiction consequently. In that sense, my grandfather (mother’s father), who was a high school teacher, always made it a point to keep an eye on what we were reading. He would ask us why we were reading what we were reading, and even recommend a few books himself. Over time, that kind of probing helped us develop a taste for good literature.

So, cinema wasn’t a part of your life during these years?

I mean, I come from a village (Kesalur in Thirthahalli taluk of Shivamogga district) where there were no cinema halls around because cinema did not really exist in the local culture. We would have touring talkies pitch films midsummer every year in a nearby town, which was about 5 km away from my house. But they would spend no more than 15 days at a time, showing maybe one film a day. Mostly dubbed mythological films — Sahasra Siracheda Apoorva Chinthamani (1960), Jagadeka Veerana Kathe (1961), etc. — but I was not particularly impressed by them because, in all honesty, they did not seem all that layered or complex to my mind. Whereas at home, I was forced to read Kuvempu, Shivaram Karanth and the likes in my childhood. The cinema that I watched did not challenge me to view them analytically. Kannada films were mostly tear-jerkers until N. Lakshminarayan and Puttanna Kanagal surfaced. More importantly, my father wouldn’t take us to watch any of these sword-fighting mythology films.

Kasaravalli: ‘Watching Samskara, especially, was a big revelation for me.’

Did your father initiate you into radical thinking? I mean, was that part of the atmosphere at home?

I wouldn’t say radical but he was Gandhian and mostly operated with those ideals. He was bent on spreading literacy, uplifting Dalits, etc. and never really cared about caste or religion. He built a school and later a colony for Harijans and was generally involved proactively in doing his bit for people around. He would employ them and pay them good salaries as well. Maybe that’s why he was quite unpopular in society but since he was a zamindar, maybe he wasn’t antagonized as much.

If we go back to your FTII time, would you be able to recall the first film that had a huge impression on you?

We were exposed quite a lot to European and Asian cinema of the time, and the 1970s protest cinema stemming from Latin America and Africa. I had probably watched not more than 15-20 films my entire life till then, and mostly Kannada. I still remember that we were shown a French film on the first day of our course and on the third day, we watched Bicycle Thieves (1948). That was a fantastic experience. Interestingly, I was already initiated into that kind of cinema because I had watched Samskara (Tikkavarapu Pattabhirama Reddy’s 1970 film, based on U. R. Ananthamurthy’s novel) and Prathidhwani (B. Dorairaj, 1971) so Bicycle Thieves had a greater impact. Watching Samskara, especially, was a big revelation for me.

Why is that?

It occurred to me that you could make a film of this kind. I hadn’t watched Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen or any of these masters up till then. But the first time I watched Samskara, the film didn’t appeal to me at all — the grammar, the aesthetics, the idiom and also the tone were entirely different from what I had seen in other films. When I told my brother this, he made me view the film differently and I went back to watch it again. It completely worked for me.

(Part II of this interview will be published on March 24, Sunday)

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