annada art cinema began as a movement in 1970 with Pattabhirama Reddy’s Samskara, based on the novel by UR Ananthamurthy. The pan-Indian art film had also emerged around this time through state intervention under Mrs Gandhi (FFC Policy) when Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969) and Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash (1969) enjoyed unprecedented success. The fillip given to art cinema by the state was essentially to hold up cinema as national culture to the rest of the world, as against the popular film, considered too vulgar. The Kannada art film had another source as well, the Navya (modernist) movement in literature that had arisen in the 1950s (perhaps gaining ground after the linguistic reorganization of the states in 1956) with figures like Gopalakrishna Adiga and Ananthamurthy leading the way.
With the combining of the two streams many Kannada literary/ cultural figures entered cinema, taking advantage of the subsidy announced by the state government. Among the art films to come out in the 1970s were Girish Karnad and BV Karanth’s Vamshavriksha (1972), Karnad’s Kaadu (1973), Karanth’s Chomana Dudi (1975), P Lankesh’s Pallavi (1976) and TS Ranga’s Geejagana Goodu (1977). Girish Kasaravalli was different from these cultural figures-turned-filmmakers in that he was trained to be a director in FTII and his first feature film Ghattashraddha (1977) – also based on a story by Ananthamurthy – shows little of the awkwardness of the other films, although he has followed the others in that most of his films are based on literary works. Kasaravalli had already won notice in FTII with Avshesh, which fetched him the ‘Best Student film award.
Ghattashraddha is even today a powerful film dealing with the happenings in an orthodox Brahmin family in which the widowed daughter-in-law discovered to be in an illicit relationship with a schoolteacher is cast out after her pregnancy is discovered, and she has an abortion. Kasaravalli uses the viewpoint of a young boy studying to be a priest in the village school who has befriended the young widow. The film is shot in stark black and white and catches the cruelty of the boys in the school. The last frame showing the young widow waiting under a banyan tree after her excommunication is shocking in its raw power. Kasaravalli’s next two films
– Akhramana (1980) and Mooru Daarigalu (1981) – did not make much of a mark and Kasaravalli is himself dismissive of the first one. Akhramana is certainly not well-acted but it remains an intriguing work, perhaps even prefiguring Adoor’s Anantaram (1987) in its attempt to deal with sexual obsession. In the film a student gets into a relationship with an older woman who lives next door, estranged from her husband, until one night the husband apparently takes her away. Some years later, when the young man is a lecturer is a college elsewhere he finds himself teaching a girl he suspects (without enough reason) to be his former lover’s younger sister, and becomes infatuated with her; it is almost like he has become obsessed with someone endowed with qualities out of his own imagination
Both these films mark a time when Indian cinema might have taken a more adventurous route because they do not come under the rubric of social realism that much of it has fallen under after the 1980s. Neither of the films received any significant acclaim but it is the familiar that people tend to applaud in India and these films may have suffered because they were difficult to characterize as ‘social documents’. After these two films Kasaravalli made one of the most successful films in his career with Tabarana Kathe (1987) about a retired government employee who is destroyed by bureaucratic red tape. The film got him the Swarna Kamal and also fetched Charuhasan the National Award for best actor. The film has some excellent moments – like a clerk visually obliterated by musty files – but it plays relatively safe by drawing our sympathies unerringly towards victims of apathy, and thus becomes formulaic in some sense. This conjecture is supported by the fact that a film with virtually the same theme also won the Swarna Kamal in 1988 – Jahnu barua’s Halodhia Choraye Baodhan Khai.
After a smaller – but delicate – effort Bannada Vesha (1988) about a Yakshagana actor which won him the Best Kannada film award at the national level, Kasaravalli made a string of highly successful films out of which Mane (1990) and Thayi Saheba (1997) and Kanasemba Kudureyaneri (2010) stand out. An elusive aspect he has gradually gained supreme control over is the use of landscape even when it is not lush as in Nayi Neralu (2006) and Dweepa (2002). The 2010 film, for instance, is shot in a very dry area but still manages to look bewitching. My own sense of Kasaravalli’s weakness has less to do with his capabilities as a director than with Kannada cinema itself – in which actors tend to be highly theatrical in their dialogue delivery. He partly overcame this problem in Mane where he cast Hindi stars – Naseeruddin shah and Deepti Naval – but it persists in his later films with stars like Tara and Umashree. The deliberately deadpan acting with non-actors in Ghattashraddha were put aside thereafter.
Alongside Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Assam’s Jahnu Barua, Girish Kasaravalli has represented the very top level of art cinema in India in the past few decades and he has been appropriately rewarded by being the only person to have received the Swarna Kamal as many as four times for Best Feature Film. Still, he remains an essentially modest person who makes light of his achievements. His last film was a documentary about Adoor Gopalakrishnan (Images/Reflections, 2015) and a film-maker publicly acknowledging a peer is not a happening one comes across in a fiercely competitive milieu. Being 68 years old he has become less active as a director but his daughter Ananya’s maiden feature Harikatha Prasanga (2016) – which dealt with a Yakshagana actor trapped psychologically in feminine roles and was scripted by Girish Kasaravalli – showed that there is still much more to come from him.