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.