Discovering Indian Independent Cinema: The Films of Girish Kasaravalli

By Shorna Pal

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By Sakti Sengupta

Amazon, 2015.

Reviewed by Shorna Pal

Girish Kasaravalli, the acclaimed auteur of Kannada language films in India says, “I do not accept the art and commercial divide in cinema. I maintain that you either have a good film or a bad film”(1). Sakti Sengupta, in his reading of eight of Kasaravalli’s films, presents their relevance in a national socio-political context rather than the frequent practice of assigning non-Hindi language films as ‘regional’ cinema aligning readings only to the local context. The connotations of categorising an Indian film as ‘regional’ include ensuring its invisibility in national and international distribution chains. This has the ricochet effect of making any non-Hindi language film a less viable proposition, effectively removing it from the commercial ‘Bollywood’ film bracket and pushing it into comparative ignominy in the Indian ‘art’ film circuits.

The Films of Girish Kasaravalli provides a detailed summary of each of the films that Sengupta has chosen to highlight, clearly supporting his case for presenting the Kasaravalli films not just as interesting narratives woven around core social issues much like the ‘commercial’ Hindi language films exhibited at multiplexes not only in India, but subtitled and released at multiplexes across the world to the Indian diaspora and beyond. Sengupta further comments on the gentleness of stylistic devices used to help the films raise questions about the position of women in Indian society and about issues arising from caste related malpractices, two subjects that come up repeatedly in Kasaravalli’s body of work. He points out that unlike many other directors of ‘art’ cinema, such as the legendary Mrinal Sen, who take an active political stand on social concerns that their films deal with, Kasaravalli’s filmmaking makes a quieter statement by presenting them within a broader narrative of the socio-cultural fabric of the times they are positioned in. This again places Kasaravalli’s films such as Dweepa (2002) (not reviewed in the book), with its poignant story telling and beautiful artistic cinematography, in a more ambivalent position, oscillating between the hard hitting traditional ‘art’ cinema of India and the more apolitical, commercially packaged ‘art’ cinema selling tickets at multiplexes today as Hindi commercial cinema.

The book opens with a telling of Kasaravalli’s familial history and upbringing, positioning him in a particular social milieu and touches on his cultural and political exposure which is reflected repeatedly in the characterisation of the key elements in his films. Sengupta writes of Kasaravalli’s love for literature, ignited by his father’s passion for books which is seen in the varied acclaimed novels that he bases his films on; the mountains and forests of the state of Karnataka that were a part of his childhood, whose memories he translates in the mise-en-scène of his films; and the harsh realities of literary and political movements fighting against the caste system, untouchability, misogyny and the exploitation of the poor, that formed a backdrop to his youth in the 1970s, shaping his beliefs and perceptions in locating themes for his films.

Sengupta traverses the path of Kasaravalli’s filmic journey in his choice of eight landmark films Ghatashradda (1977, The Ritual), Tabarana Kathe (1987, Tabarana’s Story), Mane (1990, The House), Thaayi Sahiba (1997), Nayi Neralu (2006, In the Shadow of the Dog), Gulabi Talkies (2008), Kanasembo Kudureyaneri (2010, Riding the Stallion of a Dream) and Kurmavatara (2011, The Tortoise, An Incarnation). Kasaravalli, in his deep relationship with literature, is known to base films on acclaimed Kannada novels, but often practising creative freedom to the extent of veering noticeably away from the original book narrative. This has caused ripples in intellectual circles in Karnataka and in regions of India where Kannada literature is followed, and Sengupta refers to this trait in the films he discusses, highlighting how films such as Nayi Neralu are interpretations rather than adaptations of the source literature (176). In tracking Kasaravalli’s tryst with cinema, Sengupta shows how the auteur has moved with the times, his themes addressing contemporary social issues such as the attempted commercialisation of objects, persons, rituals and traditions in the current era of globalisation. These themes are brought out evocatively in films such as Kurmavatara through the ‘inner’ story of the commoditisation of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi within the ‘outer’ story of a reliving of the idealism of the past through a person reinventing himself as an avatar of the Mahatma.

Sengupta in his conversational style writes of the notion of Indian cinema as a single cinema, as being “silly”, emphasising that “no country has a single cinema, least of all India, an astonishingly diverse country”(2). Sengupta’s book has indeed brought to the forefront a much needed awareness of another cinema of India beyond the brand of ‘Bollywood’ and another underestimated auteur whose work deserves the attention of global scholarship on the cinemas of India.