Samskara (1970)

RIP Girish Karnad.

Yes, this is a belated tribute, but since I was about to leave on a summer vacation when the veteran actor, playwright and director passed away, I decided I would wait. Because, though the bulk of Girish Karnad’s career was after the timeline of this blog—his first film was in 1970, which pretty much marks the outer extent of Dustedoff—I had to pay my respects.

I don’t remember where and when I first noticed Girish Karnad. I had almost certainly heard my parents refer to him (both my parents, but especially my mother, regard Karnad with immense admiration). Those were the days when Doordarshan used to air the occasional art house film, and Karnad was to be seen in several of them. I was too small then to watch those films (or appreciate them, even if I got around to watching them), but then one day Doordarshan started airing Malgudi Days—and Girish Karnad was in that, as Swami’s stern but actually affectionate father. A man who enforced discipline on a recalcitrant young imp, but loved him enough to do so. It could have been a melodramatic part, but Karnad brought to it a very real, very likeable dignity.

That dignity is something I have admired in Karnad’s acting ever since. Whether he was the older and unwanted husband in Swami, or the sceptical Guruji of Iqbal, Karnad brought a lot of dignity to his roles—and an accompanying amount of believability to them. It did not mean that he was restricted in his choice of roles, far from it: it was just that Girish Karnad never struck me as the sort of actor who would resort to buffoonery or mindless hamming.

In recent years Karnad gave me even more reason to admire him: his opposition to the radical right wing and his fearlessly outspoken advocacy of the marginalised won my admiration.

In tribute, therefore, a review of Karnad’s very first film, the Kannada film Samskara (Funeral Rites), which is interestingly enough a reflection, too, of Karnad’s socio-political views—and which featured P Lankesh, writer, actor and film maker, also father of Gauri Lankesh, who went on to be a close friend and associate of Karnad’s.

But, to get around to the film itself. Samskara begins with Praneshacharya, the Acharya, (Girish Karnad) bathing at the river. He carefully performs ritual ablutions, and after his bath is done, stops by to pluck fresh flowers from a creeper. As he makes his way home, an untouchable girl, seeing him coming, slips quietly behind a tree trunk and waits for the Acharya to cross before emerging and going her way.

At home, more rituals follow. In front of stacks of religious scriptures and a battalion of idols, the Acharya performs his pooja. He then takes some of the holy water to his invalid wife (?) who lies in bed in the adjoining room. There’s a brief but touching conversation: she tells him he should marry another, because she has proven an unworthy wife. Childless, and now bedridden as well. He counters it by telling her (in an affectionate, kind way) that this is not his age to get married. And anyway, looking after her is his duty; perhaps this is his reward for his deeds in a past life.

The Acharya then goes off to cook their lunch, and shortly after the meal, someone comes calling—literally. Chandri (Snehalata Reddy) comes wailing, an untouchable woman who stands outside their house and calls for the Acharya. He tries asking her what’s wrong, but Chandri is too distraught to answer.

The Acharya therefore goes running to Chandri’s house—the house she shared with Narayanappa (P Lankesh)—and finds that the man is dead. The Acharya closes the dead man’s eyes and swiftly goes out into the village, rushing from house to house, entering every home of the Agrahara, the community. Brahminical law dictates that until the dead man is cremated, no food can be consumed in the community: the Acharya’s announcement, coming just as everybody’s sitting down the lunch, comes as a blow. The children are allowed to eat, says the Acharya, but the rest of them cannot.

Following this, all the men of the Agrahara, some six of them in all, including the Acharya, congregate at the Acharya’s house to discuss the matter. Their women gather in the adjoining room, where the Acharya’s wife lies, all of them eavesdropping on the conversation.

Outside, within earshot, sits the bereft Chandri.

The matter is a complicated one. Because Narayanappa was not a good Brahmin. In fact, he pretty much did everything that a Brahmin was not supposed to do. He drank alcohol, he ate meat, and after his wife’s death, he took up with Chandri, an untouchable. A bad man, and one nobody—not even his own relatives—want to cremate.

The problem is, they can’t even hand Narayanappa’s corpse over to one of the other castes to cremate, because Narayanappa was never excommunicated. According to the scriptures, he is still a Brahmin and therefore a Brahmin—preferably one of his relatives, otherwise another—must perform the last rites. But who?

All of them say no. Narayanappa was awful; to have to perform his last rites would put their own souls in jeopardy, these men seem to think. Also, there is the question of who will pay for the funeral.

At this point Chandri, who has been listening to this entire conversation from her perch outside, throws a spanner in the works. She takes off all the heavy gold jewellery she’s wearing, and comes and deposits it in the verandah where the men are sitting. Suddenly, another and very dangerous element has been introduced: gold. Wealth. Those ornaments are worth at least Rs 2,000: whoever agrees to cremate Narayanappa will be able to keep at least some of that money for himself.

What’s more, they are all beginning to realize that this stalemate cannot continue. It’s hot; Narayanappa’s body is going to decompose very quickly. And how long can they all go without eating?

There must be a solution somewhere in the scriptures, the Acharya insists. He will sit through the night and go through them all, find out what can be done.

The rest of the men go back to their own homes, and to their own dilemmas. Gunda (?), for instance, has a son who—at Narayanappa’s urging—left the village and joined the Army, much to Gunda’s fury. But this son is the only one who will be able to perform Gunda’s funeral rites, whenever Gunda passes on: so, recalcitrant offspring though he is, he must be brought back. Getting him out of the Army is going to cost Rs 600… if Gunda agrees to cremate Narayanappa, he could use the money from Chandri’s jewellery to pay for his son’s release from military duty.

Another, Lakshmana (?), has also decided that his principles can be pushed aside for the time being; it’s more important to cremate Narayanappa (Lakshmana too has his eye on that wealth).

Later that evening, Gunda, Lakshmana and the others again come to the Acharya, each of them offering to be the one to perform Narayanappa’s last rites.

Praneshacharya, who has guessed their motivations, sends them away and says he will find a solution in the scriptures. And so, despite his wife’s pleas to go to bed and get some sleep, the Acharya sits up late into the night, going through the scriptures…

… and finds his mind wandering back to Narayanappa. Narayanappa, who had no qualms about interrupting Praneshacharya’s teaching of scripture to the local boys, by turning on modern popular music on his radio, good and loud.

Narayanappa, who tried repeatedly to nudge the Acharya into having a drink.

And who, shamelessly, flung into the Acharya’s face words from the scriptures that enticed a man towards a woman (and which, claims Narayanappa, were the main reason one of the impressionable young men of the village raped a low-caste girl). Narayanappa, it appears, had a deep-rooted scorn for Brahminism.

But, because Narayanappa was never excommunicated, his body rots inside his room while the Acharya thrashes about desperately, trying to find a solution. Everybody waits, from the other Brahmins of the Agrahara, who are hungry and weak by now…

… to the vultures in the sky, the rats dying in the lanes, and the crows sitting and waiting patiently on the roofs of the village.

But before Narayanappa is finally laid to rest, much more will happen. To the Brahmins, to the village, and most of all, to the Acharya himself.

Based on a novel by UR Ananthamurthy, and with screenplay and dialogue by Girish Karnad, Samskara was produced and directed by Pattabhirama Reddy (who also collaborated with Karnad on the screenplay). Later recalling the making of the film, Karnad explained that it had been made on a shoestring budget of Rs 95,000, with most of the actors being members of a small group of which Karnad was one. The Madras Censor Board initially banned the film (for its strong anti-casteist message, though this was not clearly stated), but the ban was revoked by the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Samskara went on to win several awards, including the National Film Award for Best Feature Film.

What I liked about this film:

The message, and the way it is conveyed. Instead of a direct and possibly preachy assault on casteism, Samskara uses an oblique form of attack. This eventually turns tragic, but there is a darkly humorous tone to it, too: in the way the Brahmins, intent on preserving their so-called Brahminism, pay no heed to what is surely approaching disaster. Or how their religion is easily set aside by more worldly concerns—the gold Chandri tosses in their midst so quickly becomes a bone of contention and helps Gunda, Lakshmana and the others decide that they can, after all, set aside their reservations about Narayanappa.

There is the fate of Praneshacharya himself, who, though he is the most humane, the kindest and the most genuinely ‘religious’ of them all—in that his religion is not just mindless ritual, but manifests itself in a certain level of humanity, as shown in his dealings with his bedridden wife, with the grieving Chandri sitting outside in the sun, and later, with others—even he, Praneshacharya, becomes an example of all that it rotten in the caste system.

There is the way some scenes are mirrored at different points of the narrative to drive home a point. In the beginning, an untouchable hiding so that a Brahmin may not inadvertently see her. Near the end, a Brahmin hiding so that a passing untouchable may not see him. Chandri, running through the deserted lanes of the village, shouting for the Acharya. The Acharya, running through the again deserted lanes of the village, shouting for Chandri.

And, Girish Karnad, who is superb as Praneshacharya, a quiet and ‘good’ man, who battles demons even he perhaps had forgotten he harboured. A man whose conscience torments him, leading him down strange and harrowing paths. The character has little to say, but Karnad manages to bring forth the Acharya’s character without even saying very much.

I must also admit that I liked the fact that this film was made in black and white rather than colour. I assume that’s because of budget constraints, but the starkness of grayscale makes Samskara perhaps more effective than it might have been in colour.

What I didn’t like:

The acting of a couple of the minor characters: it was obvious that these people were amateurs.

But that is a minor quibble, a very minor one. Other than that, this is an excellent film and one that I would gladly recommend. A version with English subtitles is available on YouTube, here.

Thank you, Mr Karnad, for your work and your beliefs. May your memory live on, and may you continue to inspire thousands.


19 thoughts on “Samskara (1970)

  1. Great review.
    I too like Girish Karnad in each one of his roles, especially as Swami’s father. As Swami is again available on YouTube I watch it once in a while.


  2. A great review, as usual! And urging to me to follow the YouTube link and watch it at once.
    But let me get time for that, but I’ll surely manage. It appears an interesting and thought provoking film. Something that makes us introvert and think.
    On a lighter note, you had been on a vacation, so how was it?
    And waiting desperately for the travelogue. It will follow soon, won’t it?


    • Do watch the film whenever you can, it’s a really good one, and does make you think about the rigidity of the caste system.

      We had a lovely vacation, thank you! This time, there will probably be two parts to the blog post, because we were away longer than usual and saw much more than we usually do. :-)


  3. For some reason known only to our teachers in school, Samskara was a film they chose to show us. I think I was about 12 or 13. Girish Karnad was there to introduce the film at Bal Bhavan in Bangalore. I remember being very disturbed by the film even if I didn’t understand many of nuances or even its underlying issues.

    What’s interesting (and sad) is how the film is still so relevant today. And yes, a whole lot of admiration for the man’s outspoken support for social issues.


    • Schools work in mysterious ways, don’t they? I remember, when I was in Class IV, I came first in class, and so was given a prize at the annual function. Was very excited because under the wrapping paper was obviously a book – I couldn’t wait to get home and unwrap it and start reading. I would never have imagined they would have given me former British cricketer Ray Illingworth’s Spin Bowling. Why?!

      I think, by comparison, showing Samskara to 12-13 year olds sounds positively logical. But yes, honestly, I think one needs the maturity of greater age and experience to actually understand it, especially the nuances…


      • Ha … yes schools work in mysterious ways. A similar episode to yours was that I won the first prize in some English related event at school and was duly awarded a book for it. And as expected, I rushed home to read it!! It was Franz Kafka’s Trial . I was 9 years old ! Have not revisited Kafka since :(


  4. Sneha Latha Reddy ( Chandri) was the wife of producer/ director Pattabhiram Reddy. A social activist,she was imprisoned during emergency in connection with the Baroda Dynamite case.
    Tortured in the Bengaluru jail,her health detiorated and she was released on parole, only to breathe her last after 5 days!
    SAMSKARA is considered one of the best Art movies of Kannada.

    Do watch KAADU,1973 .. Girish Karnad’s first solo directorial venture. A hard hitting movie based in the rural Karnataka, it had terrific performances by Amrish Puri, Lokesh, Nandini Bhakthavatsala and Master G M Nataraj. The last two won the Best actress and Best Child Artiste awards at the National Film awards. Karnad won the Filmfare Best director award.


  5. One of my favourite personalities in Indian Theatre and Cinema, Sh. Girish Karnad…His Tughlaq and Hayavadana are astounding ! Was fortunate to watch various interpretations of these in Mandi House. And I loved him in his cinematic roles too, some of them utterly mainstream :) Like Manpasand . And there was an obscure, but a Basu Chatterjee movie with Hema Malini, called Ratandeep. He was also fabulous in Swami (the movie ) and Apne Paraaye (what a cast that movie had !!) . Plus had a massive crush on Dr. Rao in Manthan :)
    Wanted to put a clipping of mharo gaanv katha pare from Manthan , but did not find the bit I was looking for, so seethed for Kabhi kabhi sapna lagta hai from Ratandeep. Music By RD and lyrics Gulzaar.


      • I have to admit that I’ve never got around to watching Utsav, though I have a copy of it. I’d been intending to watch it after reading Mrichhakatika, but haven’t got around to doing that yet… must.


    • I did like him a lot in Swami. I have very vague memories of Manthan, so I need to watch that again. As well as Ratandeep, which I’d never even heard of. Thanks for those two recommendations!


  6. Madhu,
    ‘Samskara’ was in my watchlist for various reasons, your review and the YT link with English subtitles gave me the urgency to do it. The first thing that impressed me was the quality of subtitles. The producers must have got it done by a literate person. I am mentioning this trivial thing because I am struck by awkward subtitles of many well-acclaimed foreign films, or clumsy Hindi subtitles of the current Hollywood blockbusters.

    As I watched the movie, inevitably a comparison was going on in my mind with ‘Deeksha’ (1991), directed by Arun Kaul, based on another novel, ‘Ghatashradha’ of UR Ananthmurthy, which had been earlier adapted into a Kannada film by the same name. It is interesting that the two versions of this film, too, got several National Awards. But the most impressive is that a writer could write two great novels on the same theme of contradictions within Brahminical orthodoxy, and how futile and wrong it is to seek answers to secular problems in the ancient scriptures.

    In ‘Deeksha’ the acting of minor actors is uniformly outstanding. There is more ‘story’ in this film, the conflict or the Brahminical dilemma comes later in the story, and there is a strong voice of dissent on the perversity and patent injustice in the Acharya’s final judgment. That should be a strong incentive for you to do a comparative review of this film. Perhaps not available on the YT, but NFDC have brought out a commercial DVD.

    ‘Samskara’ on the other hand starts with the ‘dilemma’ and it permeates the whole films. Is that the reason why it has not been yet adapted into Hindi? But it creates an authentic milieu, Girish Karnad’s acting is great. There are little touches of wry humour as you have mentioned. Talking of nuances, there was a very subtle one which someone very young, or not very attentive would miss. The women who are eavesdropping on the men’s assembly are also passing their own judgment on Narayanappa. He not only kept a low-caste woman, he also ate food cooked by her. Eating her food too?, how low one can fall!

    How I wish I could read the novels in Kannada. It is impossible for me to learn the language, the next best is a good Hindi translation if I can get one. Its English translation is available on Amazon, but I feel Hindi can capture the spirit of an Indian novel better.


    • Thank you, AK, for that well-thought-out and interesting comment. I’m glad you liked Samskara as much as you did. And yes, though I did not mention it, I agree completely about the excellence of the subtitles. I do watch a lot of subtitled work, and the quality differs widely. The classics – the sort that Criterion brings out – are superb, but most Indian films, barring perhaps films by extremely well-regarded directors like Ray or Ghatak – are often painful when it comes to subtitles. Samskara in that respect was excellent.

      I have to admit I haven’t seen Deeksha, and I’m not even sure I’d heard of it before you mentioned it. I did find a version of it on Youtube:

      … so am hoping to watch it sometime.

      Re: the women’s horror at Narayanappa’s even eating the food cooked by an untouchable: yes, I did notice that. Interestingly, just a few days before I watched this film, I had read Arundhati Roy’s The Doctor and the Saint, about the Ambedkar-Gandhi face-off over Dalits, and Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste. Roy had some very interesting things to say about the ‘convenience’ of the Brahminical view of casteism: so absolutely taboo to eat food cooked by an untouchable woman, but so absolutely acceptable to rape an untouchable. The irony of it.

      I echo what you say about being able to read Kannada (or, for that matter, several other Indian languages – in my case, Bengali in particular). Though there are translations into English (and far too many bad ones), I always feel Hindi would be able to capture the nuances of the original better.


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