EXCLUSIVE With Girish Kasaravalli: On His Films, Filmmaking Influences, Adapting Literature, The Parallel Cinema Movement & More

One of my former students was kind enough to tag me on this post he posted on Facebook. And I loved it because it is about Girish Kasaravalli, one of my favourite filmmakers. For the benefit of my readers, I share this post from Jamuura blog, with it URL so that you could explore the original source’s other content as well.

By Dipankar Sarkar. Posted on February 24, 2016

Girish Kasaravalli is a one of the pioneer filmmakers of Indian cinema who began his career as a director with the Kannada film Ghatashraddha in 1997. The film went on to win 3 awards at the 25th National Film Awards for Best Feature Film, Best Music Direction and Best Child Artist. Since then Kasaravalli has made 14 feature films. He is amongst the very few Indian filmmakers to have won the Swarna Kamal for Best Feature Films four times. In the year 2011, he was awarded with Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award by Government of India.

Though his films mirror the Indian society and its deep rooted culture, audiences across the globe have appreciated his work & its humanistic approach. Kasaravalli’s work is appreciated and studied by the cinema fraternity. Filmmaker Om Srivastava recently made a documentary, Life in Metaphors: A Portrait of Girish Kasaravalli,  which journeys through the life and the work of the master filmmaker.

Extremely soft-spoken & unassuming, Kasaravalli comes across as a professor. His patience in dealing with questions & the openness to hear out & help young filmmakers has to be seen to be believed. I met the veteran filmmaker when he was in Pune last month for PIFF & spoke with him about his films, filmmaking influences &

choices, parallel cinema and much more. Republished below are excerpts from the same.

You have been a trained filmmaker, you went to FTII. So according to you how important it is to have a formal training in cinema?

Well in my case it was very useful and I think that the academic training is important for a filmmaker to understand techniques, technology and traditions of filmmaking from a different perspective. Film schools teach one not just the technique of film making but the philosophy of cinema and its idioms. Now things are quite different but when I got into the line, watching international cinema apart from Hollywood was next to impossible. So FTII and NFAI provided us an opportunity to view and understand international cinema. Thus films schools widen our vision and deepen our perspective. So I would say even today, any film school will help you shape your cinematic interest.

Could  you share your experience on the learning process at FTII?

Actually I have said this earlier that during my time at FTII, we learned more from our seniors than the faculty. We learned through discussions, through quarrels, reading, because there were very few lecturers who could kindle our imagination.  There were Professors like Prof. Satish Bahadur, Prof. Bhaskar Chandavarkar, Prof. Thakkar, Prof. Kulkarni and few others. They were all good in their own fields of sound recording, lights, cinematography etc. But the vision of the cinema goes beyond the technique. Prof. Bahadur would constantly tell us to personalize the technique and to develop our own style.  See the advantage of having approachable and knowledgeable seniors was that you could interact with them at anytime on the campus. Whereas with the professors though they were welcoming they were not always available.

Did P.K. Nair influence you during your time at the institute ?

P.K Nair had great knowledge about films and archiving them. He had so much information and was always ready to share it. As the director of NFAI he had to check the prints regularly. Because of this we were exposed to various kinds of cinema, both classics as well as contemporary world cinema. He would make sure that the good films are screened for the FTII students. Those were the days when films were not available in digital formats, hence this was a god-sent opportunity for all of us. The NFAI library had a good collection of books at that time and he gave some of us the access to it.

All your film are adaptations. Why is that?

I’m from a small village in Sahyadri belt in Karnataka. My father was a book lover. So our house had a good collection of books in Kannada. He subscribed to all the major publications of Kannada. My maternal grandfather was a teacher so he helped me with the reading list. When I joined FTII my knowledge of Kannada literature was quite strong. I had read many good stories in Kannada and wondered why these stories have not been made into films. This was at the back of my mind when I joined FTII. The sound knowledge of Kannada literature has helped me in my filmmaking career.

What are the changes you make while adapting stories for the screen?

I often don’t remain faithful to the story. I intervene and reinterpret it. The only film that was very close to the original work was Ghatashraddha. But there also I did make some deviation and to my surprise Dr U.R. Ananthamurthy, the writer of the story, found them interesting and appreciated those deviations. In fact he said the deviation made the film more interesting. Kannada writers in that way are very accommodating.

There are two ways of adapting the story into the film. One method is where the director remains faithful to the story. He attempts to find visuals to substitute for the images in the written text. The other is to take the text as a base and reinterpret it to bring in his own narrative. I use the second method. The sensitive viewer can view these films from two different perspectives.  One is to look for the vision of the film maker, another is to look for the negotiation between the film and the original text.

ghatashraddhaStill from the movie Ghatashraddha (1977)

Most of your movies have strong women characters and you have crafted the characters with so much details. In Thaayi Saheba and Dweepa you show growth but within the boundaries of the particular system.

It’s not a conscious decision as I pick up stories where I feel I can provide a fresh, new perspective. It is a coincidence that few such stories happen to have strong women characters. But it helps me to understand the changes that are happening and the mentality of men in the patriarchal social system. Thaayi Saheba projected the era from Gandhi’s death to Nehru’s death. It was the first phase of independent India. The character of Thaayi Saheba is that of someone who thinks with the heart. She also symbolizes positivity through her actions and deeds. One also notices that the middle class Indian women were taking decisions on their own during the mid 20th century. So I wanted to highlight that. Through Dweepa I wanted to show how women negotiate with the changing times without losing their identity, something that always fascinated me. Nagi in Dweepa is just like water. Water never loses it identity, put it in any vessel.  We as a society must learn that from them. I have always had great admiration for women who can adjust without losing their identity.

Portrayal of men in your films is very different from that of women specially if we look at Kurmavatara  and  Tabarana Kathe.

In Tabarana, the protagonist never realizes that he has been a victim of the system which he has been an admirer of. There is an irony and in a way it also becomes a vehicle for furthering the tragedy. He is oppressed by the very system of which he is  the supporter. In Kurmavatara the protagonist does not realize that he has become the victim of his own image. He gets trapped in his own making. Unlike the women characters of my films, they fail to negotiate with the changing situations. There is a kind of pathos or tragic substance associated with their actions. They do not loose their identity, but they can’t rise up to the situation.

The children of your films as in Ghatashraddha and Krauya are shown in the company of women elder to them and the viewers observes the events of the film unfolding through their eyes?

In literature we can narrate a story through the eyes of a character, like the first person narrative, but in  cinema we can’t. All that we can do is to place a character at the center of the film and build a narrative around him. I use the children characters in my films to reflect upon certain idiosyncrasies of the society we live in. The innocence of the children is corrupted by the external pressures. In Kraurya, Murthy’s attachment to Rangamma is quite innocent till one point. But when threatened by the police he gets scared and abandons Rangamma and runs away. Here the motivation comes from the society at large. In Ghatashraddha, Nani, after a certain point  forces upon himself the responsibility of protecting Yamunakka. Here too, the loss of innocence is thrust upon him, which  is very tragic. It is cruel to force a child  to abandon his/her innocence.

Generally your films deal with social issues but do they also make certain political statements?

I think all my films have made political statements. Sometimes it could be quite obvious like in Thaayi Saheba and sometimes it can be an undertone. Ghatashraddha is critical of the Brahminical, feudalistic male-dominated society. Isn’t that a political statement? When I say “political”, I don’t mean it in the narrow sense – the politics that our netas resort to. It is an indictment on the social-political structure. In Kraurya in a subtle way I look at how the consumer society has changed the way we perceive relationships. Vasu, the elder brother is a salesman and anything that sells well or anything that brings profit, attracts him. So he uses the grandmother for a gain. The social structure of the society, the religious beliefs of the commune affects our perception of right and wrong. Anything that questions these power equations I consider it as political.

Most of your films have linear structure but not Thaayi Saheba and Kanasemba Kudureyaneri.

Thaayi Saheba is episodic in nature and Kanasemba Kudureyaneri is non-linear in structure. Thaayi Saheba is episodic because it covers a huge span of 2 decades from 1946-’63. In this film I try to understand how the socio-political changes of the outer world affects the life of Thaayi Saheba. Here the personal is political. Whereas in Kanasemba Kudureyaneri, we go back and forth for a different reason altogether. Here, in the Irya’s dream segment, I make the audience believe what is said by Mathadaiah, the care-taker of the Zamindar’s waada, who is clad in clean white clothes, with polished manners is true, and doubt the statements made by Irya, the drunkard  in torn clothes. Later we realize it’s the opposite.

So, many a times acceptance of truth depends on who says it. In Rudri’s dream segment, we again doubt Rudri’s version only to realize in the end that her dream had come true. I got the idea of building a narrative from two perspectives from  the tales of Vikram & Betaal  where we learn to see things from all the perspective.

You have collaborated with same team members in making your films. Is there a specific reason behind such decisions?

The concept in the film is visualized by the director and the technicians are the people through whom the director builds his vision. I have found some technicians who are not merely the executors of the techniques but who participate in the creation. So I’ve been working with them again and again. My editor M. N. Swamy respects my tempo, pace and that is very important. S. Ramchandra and I worked on 8 films together. He too understands me very well. His philosophy and politics of imaging suited my requirement.  So I repeated him as my cinematographer till his sad demise. My wife Vaishali worked on five films as a costume designer. She understood the details better than me.

What are the influences of Ray and Ghatak on you and on other filmmakers of your time?

It is very difficult to pick one particular film or the filmmaker and say here is the influence. I developed my cinematic taste by watching not just Ray, Ghatak or Kurosawa but by watching many other masters  who made good films and many contemporary filmmakers who are making good films now. At the same time what is happening in Karnataka, in India and at the global level also influences me and my vision and cinematic style reflects that.

1970’s saw people like you, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal and couple of others taking a different route, creating different kinds of films, popularly termed as parallel cinema.

It is true that a different kind of expressionism could be seen during the 70’s and each region had a specific reason for this. Kannada cinema then was influenced by the socialist movement that was really strong during that time. That explains why in many Kannada films of that time, caste along with class, became a dominant thematic concern. Whereas many Malayalam films had a leftist perspective as they were influenced by the communist movement that was dominant in Kerala. This way, films made in different regions differed considerably in their analysis of the social evils. Though their politics was different, their perspectives were different; they were clubbed under parallel films. True they were parallel to the main stream films. But they were also parallel from one another.

Do you think that the impact of that parallel cinema movement is lost on this generation?

I don’t understand why people are so eager to write an obituary for the so called parallel cinema? You open your eyes and see how many youngsters are doing interesting films. In fact I can say, today there are more people who are making quality cinema. Let us not overlook the fact that since a decade or so, it is these young filmmakers who are winning national and international attention and awards and bringing glory to Indian cinema. So why should we be unhappy about the scenario? Young filmmakers like Chaitanya Tamhane, Gurvinder Singh, Raam Reddy and so many others have shown promise in their first film itself. Sometimes looking for outstanding films itself is a hoax. What we should look at is how effectively our cinema is addressing the contemporary situation.

You had started making films in black & white, moved to color and then switched to digital. What is your experiences in adapting yourself in terms of technological domain?

For me switching over to digital wasn’t a problem. People do have apprehensions of using digital over celluloid. But if you look at the kind of freedom you get with digital, it’s amazing. From the early years of cinema, capturing surface reality was as big a preoccupation for the film makers as was the essence of reality. The early works of Raj Kapoor, Shantaram, Bimal Roy, which were shot in studio sets were accepted as real. But once the film makers started shooting on real locations, the synthetic  look of the films shot in studio sets became apparent. Even while shooting on locations, because of logistical problems certain scenes had to retain that synthetic look. But digital cinema, if used imaginatively has the capacity to do away with this limitation. It can definitely bring a candid look, a variety feel to the film easily.

You have made documentaries on two legendary figures of India. What was your motivation behind them?

These are the films that were offered to me by the Films Division. One on Adoor Gopalakrishnan and other one on U.R. Ananthamurthy. Initially I hesitated a little to accept the offer as I had never done a documentary before. But these two subjects were so compelling that I accepted the offer. Dr. U.R.Ananthamurthy is one person whom I admired as a social philosopher. I didn’t want to make a biographical film as he is not merely a writer; he is more of a thinker. He has widened our perceptions by bringing in new perspective to the world around us.

My style of film making and that of Adoor are quite different. I try to capture an experience with all its hues and colors where as Adoor is a minimalist. But minimalism was not merely a technique for him, for him it’s a philosophy. I wanted that to be highlighted. In Indian cinema we rarely discuss the philosophy of a filmmaker as expressed through his idiom. My film on Adoor is a small step in that direction. In this sense this film can be called an ‘Adoor reader’.

girish & Adoor

Girish Kasaravalli with Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Now that a documentary has been made on you, as well as a book written about your films. How do you feel ?

My friend O.P.Srivastava, wanted to make a documentary on me and so I agreed. He shot for almost two years. He interviewed me many times . But I’m happy that the film has come out so well. I am also happy that critics like Manu Chakravarthy, Pradip Biswas, Sakti Sengupta have written books on my works. There is this feeling that people working in regional cinema have been neglected, which is not totally untrue. Film directors like Aribam Syam Sharma or Aravindan haven’t got their due. Similarly films like Chomana Dudi or Samskara which are definitely outstanding films are not being discussed as much as they should have been in our film discourses. I was telling Jahnu (Jahnu  Barua) just a while ago that all our discussions about Indian cinema end with Ray, Ghatak and Sen. But unless we link the past to the present and see how these films reflect today’s perspective and how they in turn refract our perceptions, cinema discussions become a mere academic activity.

What are you planning to do next?

I have already committed to a producer to make a film in 2016. We haven’t finalized the script yet. So let’s see.


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