In this concluding part of a wide-ranging interview, Kannada auteur Girish Kasaravalli talks about Ghatashraddha, his promising debut, his early setbacks, motifs, curiosities and more

Set against the backdrop of a Vedic school in Karnataka, Ghatashraddha traces the journey of Yamuna and her plight in the clutches of a rigid religious structure. Yamuna is the daughter of Udupa, the person who runs the Vedic school, but unbeknownst to everyone, she has been made pregnant by the local school teacher. During this time, she forges a unique bond with the new and home-sick student Nani who, though much younger than Yamunakka, is wise enough to stay by her side. Ghatashraddha then centres itself on Yamuna’s situation and the consequences she must ensure for breaking the sexual code. In this part, he talks about his promising debut, early setbacks, motif, curiosities and more. Excerpts:

Would it be safe to say then that it was Samskara that inspired you to make Ghatashraddha?

Not really, because I was already a huge admirer of UR Ananthamurthy’s novella by the time Samskara was made. It must have been in 1965 or 1966 when I read it and it was then I realised the ‘purpose’ of a story for the first time. I must have been a high school student at that point and even though I was extremely impressed, I was only reacting to the emotional content of the story. It was only after I joined FTII that I began to understand the power of any story is not in finding the emotional plane or in the plot. Instead, we were taught how a film could transcend into a socio-political discourse and in that pursuit, how the structure of a film grows more complex and layered. More popular cinema did not really have a scope for all that.

And Ghatashraddha was the only idea you carried at the time? Or were there other options for your debut swirling around?

The irony is I joined FTII with a bunch of short stories in mind as probables to be converted into films. In fact, I would wonder why nobody had already done that. I had maybe 8-10 stories, including works of Shantinath Desai, Yashwant Vithoba Chittal and many others but somehow Ghatashradda fell into place.

Did you begin writing while still at the Film Institute?

Yes, we had to develop a screenplay in the final year and I took this idea to my professor. He gave a huge vote of confidence, saying it had a lot of promise. And I began writing.

But even though the debut happened quite easily, things weren’t exactly rosy for you after that, were they?

Yes. Things did not go as planned, perhaps. I was forced to make a film called Akramana and then the third project Muru Darigalu (based on a Chittal’s novel of the same name) faced serious problems in release. I did not make a proper film for nearly 10 years till Tabarana Kathe (1986). Simultaneously, a few other ideas I carried fell through. I wanted to direct a film on UR Ananthamurthy’s other novel titled Prashne, which was like a follow-up to Ghatashraddha.

What is Prashne about?

In essence, it is about Yamunakka’s next generation and how a similar character is brought to the fore. She could be Yamunakka herself or a version of her. It concerned the impact of this new character on her, the consequences and so on and it was a complex piece of work. You don’t know whether it’s happening in the present or in the mindscape, in the past or the future. Like how Tarkovsky’s Mirror plays around with time and space. But my cinematographer, S. Ramachandra, warned me that if I made that as my second film, my career was sure to end.

You would then go on to serve as the principal of a film institute until 1987.

Yes, and because of my commitment there, my next two films suffered. So, I decided that I won’t make a film until I have quit the job. It took me eight years to get there.

How did a filmmaker of your inclination sustain back in the day? How did one make money with the kind of films that you made?

Many of them had other jobs: BV Karanth was in theatre, P. Lankesh and Chandrashekhara Kambara were teachers themselves. And the youngsters who started out with me would shift to the mainstream after their first films. I didn’t want to do that.

Why not?

I don’t think I can point out why exactly. But I didn’t have the mental make-up to switch to more mainstream cinema. I can’t see logic or reasoning in the popular genre so, how do I visualize a film? You will find an inherent logic in a piece of literature but when you bring it to mainstream cinema, it doesn’t translate. There’s no logic or reason as to why you would need a song in a particular situation except that ‘it will work’. Why will it work? That cannot be explained.

Can you tell me about your stint with BV Karanth? I am assuming that he had a strong impression on you.

BV Karanth was looking for someone with knowledge of cinema to assist him on Chomana Dudi (1975). He approached K.V. Subbanna, my uncle, for that and that’s how I got the opportunity to work with him. He would leave the shot breakup to me during the shoot and would instead focus on extracting performances from actors. I had to design the shots and care for the ambience and other important aspects of the making, so it was a great experience. More importantly, I befriended S. Ramachandra there and also my future sound designer K.S. Krishnamurthy. There were a bunch of us from the FTII working on that film.

BV Karanth would go on to score music for Ghatashraddha? Did that take a lot of convincing?

Actually, I wasn’t very sure about what to do with the music and had even contemplated approaching Satyajit Ray for that. But Ramachandra suggested we reach out to Karanth sir instead and he gladly obliged. Initially, I was apprehensive about asking him to work for me but it was all very smooth.

A prominent theme of your cinema is ostracization or even isolation. Yamunakka in Ghatashraddha, Rangajji in Kraurya, Gulabi in Gulabi Talkies and many others are often isolated from a structure which is typically a religious one. Would that be a fair assessment?

I would replace ostracization with ‘othering’, which is an element present in all my films. Othering is a phenomenon that’s happening around us at all times and it is very painful for an individual to endure. Related to Kraurya, I have said in interviews in the past that I am not worried about physical violence as much as the psychological kind. Physical violence will heal in some time but the mental trauma inflicted may never heal. Othering could manifest in the name of religion like Ghatashraddha or development, as seen in Dweepa, or even urbanization like in Mane. It is one element that bothers me a lot about the contemporary world — the idea of ‘us v/s you’ to isolate someone.

But there’s also very interestingly an undercurrent of ‘unlikely friendships’ in most of your films. Yamunakka and the little boy Nani, Rangajji and the youngest kid Murthy, Gulabi and Nethru, etc. for instance. Where does that come from?

Even though we are othered in real life, we do get support from some unknown corner, don’t we? I always seek out these kinds of friendships or relationships. Also, they create another layer or an alternative narrative in your film — when Chandri, a person from the lowered caste, joins hands with Thaayi Saheba (in the film Thaayi Saheba), an aristocrat, it is a very important moment for me as a storyteller. Similarly, Gulabi might be from a different community altogether but her presence means a lot to Nethru’s life. Nethru’s hopes are fulfilled by Gulabi and how that happens takes a course of its own.

A still from Ghatashradha

In Ghatashraddha, especially, there’s an interesting coming-of-age angle to Nani’s story, isn’t it?

Yes, if you notice, the roles get reversed over time in that film. Initially, we see Yamuna taking care of him, almost protecting him, because he enters her life at a really fragile point. But gradually, it is Nani who starts to protect her from society and is forced to come of age. It isn’t a pleasant or natural mental growth for him.

But, you must note that I am not trying to draw a binary with my films or offer solutions through them. There’s no bottom line drawn either. I believe that every answer or solution gives rise to a new problem and it goes on this way — that is how we evolve.

Then would that be the reason why your films largely have bleak endings? Why doesn’t hope always prevail in your cinema?

Because when you convey that everything has a solution after all, you are building a false narrative. And that ‘happily ever after’ idea is untrue. Hope exists in that grey, unclear area at all times and it might be incorrect to even claim that ‘there’s hope’. But yes, there are possibilities of things turning around. This is entirely my perspective but a happy ending does very little to the viewer whereas a ‘problematic’ or abrupt ending — like in Tabarane Kathe or Dweepa — sets them thinking.

There’s a small scene in Ghatashraddha in which we see that one of the students suggested being homosexual. Did that bit exist in the UR Ananthamurthy’s story? And what was your reaction the first time you read it almost 60 years ago?

I didn’t have any unusual reaction, to be honest. I thought it was completely natural and later, I went ahead and used it in my film without making much of it. One of my unit members during the shoot was apprehensive but my DOP S. Ramachandra, again, stepped in and said go ahead.

You didn’t fear any backlash at the time?

No, because I didn’t worry about the public opinion about a lot of things I shot or referred to in my films. And since I was from my film school, these things didn’t matter much anyway; like when I watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963) for the first time, the nudity didn’t seem provocative at all. Only because it was shot so beautifully. Whereas the way some of the songs in Hindi or Indian films are picturized, all the suggestive dance movements, those I find vulgar.

A still from Kanasemba Kudureyaneri (Riding The Dreams)

I am also curious to know the idea of a Brahminical household. You have often returned to this setting, but without ever glorifying it. The essence of the backdrop — the small details, the customs, etc. are very valid and important to your storytelling, aren’t they?

There’s a clear difference between a Brahminical household and Brahminical values. A few of my films are indeed set in a Brahminical household but the ones to prominently use it are Ghatashraddha and Naayi Neralu. A few others like Kraurya have a Brahminical ambience, but that is employed only to create a character. The caste or the religious identity of a character is certainly not important to me, the storyteller, but it is important to specify certain attributes. Like in Mane, Ranganna’s (played by Naseeruddin Shah) problems have nothing to do with his caste or his community, but when he removes his shirt, you could be curious to know whether he wearing the janivara (the thread) or not. That’s why the ‘ambience’ is present but the values are not. I have also made films like Haseena and Gulabi Talkies about Muslims and many other works like Dweepa and Kanasemba Kudureyaneri are about marginalised communities.

Haseena is starkly different in treatment compared to, say, a Ghatashraddha. In the latter, the performances almost feel Bressonian, even the film feels like it is set in a different period altogether (when it is actually contemporary). Why the change in the template?

It’s just a shift in style, that’s all. I wanted to try melodrama with Haseena and you don’t normally see that style being used in Indian off-beat cinema. Barring Ritwik Ghatak, maybe. With melodrama, you construct characters in quotes, categorizing them either as ‘good’, ‘bad’, this and that. My other films don’t have those binaries but this film does because I wanted to try it out. For me, style is as important as content.

In a way Mane or Ek Ghar is your only urban film to date. Almost every other film utilizes a lesser-explored region as its backdrop — in fact, modernization/urbanization is one of your main themes. Is it a conscious effort to step away from the cities for your films?

My attempt is always to bring the areas, about which we know very little, to the fore. When Dweepa came out, many asked why I wouldn’t make a film about them that is set in the present era. I said the film is set in the present era and is even relevant in the future. So, the problem is not with me. Many just do not know that a world beyond Bengaluru exists. And in the popular genre, filmmakers often tend to step outside of the cities only to use the rusticity of a place as backdrops — coastal Karnataka has the sea, so it is picturesque. North Karnataka has drylands. I want to explore the deep-rooted problems of those regions rather than using them for aesthetics.

A still from Dweepa

Do you seek out such stories then?

I don’t go in search of these stories for sure. But if I encounter any piece of writing or material whose soul corresponds to my reality today, then I will be intrigued. It could be a minor, lesser-known work, but if it has resonance with my worldview, that’s all that matters. But what’s certain is that I respond to the image I see in my head. If a piece of text can help me conjure a defining image that I see as a film, I will be a lot more interested.

Mane is an interesting relationship drama that unfolds through a sociopolitical lens. But why haven’t you chosen to make a full-fledged film about a relationship?

I don’t think I can isolate like that. But when a film is based entirely on a personal story and that relationship has no reflections of the outside world, I cannot be interested in that. Antonioni is my favourite filmmaker when it comes to human relationships but he hardly talks about personal problems — La Notte is less about the husband and wife but more about the bourgeois culture infiltrating their lives. In Bergman’s films, the same relationships are studied under a psychological lens.

You remade Mane as Ek Ghar in Hindi. Why didn’t you make another Hindi film?

It was a bitter experience and I didn’t want to go through that anymore. Working with stars there is very difficult. In Kannada cinema, I never worked with male stars as such but mainly popular actresses. But one good thing about actresses, including the late Soundarya, is that they surrender to the task.

Would it be correct to say that we have fewer auteurs across the world today? Is that a diminishing breed?

I think people have misunderstood the idea of being an auteur. Many believe that if someone’s the writer, the editor, the cinematographer and also the director, they could be termed an auteur. It’s got to do with the vision — if someone’s got the original vision, then they are an auteur. Alain Resnais may not have written many of his scripts but you will find his ‘stamp’ on his all films. The origin of the theory came as a form of criticism of the Hollywood style of cinema, wherein the process is detached.

Are we missing auteurs in the present era?

No, I don’t think so. The genres are changing and we see gangster and crime films being in vogue. But there are auteurs in that space too.

Does any name crop up in your mind?

My personal choice is different, I like Aki Kaurismäki (Finnish director) a lot.

It’s incredibly evident that your cinematographer, S. Ramachandra (who passed away in 2011), was an instrumental force in your career.

He wasn’t one to prettify the image just for the sake of it. He would say that he won’t place the camera where the frame would look beautiful but where it would look real. He knew the difference. And more importantly, he was a thinker himself and very well understood the cinema we were trying to make.

Do you miss him?

Oh yes, a lot. It’s very hard to find cinematographers or artists like him.

Finally, with Ghatashraddha now getting a new lease of life, do you suppose your illustrious career has come full circle in a way?

(Smiles) I feel it is actually very sad because nobody talks about my later work. Not many talk about Mane or the more recent ones like Kanasemba Kudureyaneri and Koormavatara, which I believe are much more relevant and contemporary. These films should be discussed for different reasons.

Part 1 of this interview appeared on Mach 23 (Saturday).

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