Kannada cinema

An acting debut to die for: Girish Karnad in ‘Samskara’

Pattabhi Rama Reddy’s movie, based on UR Ananthamurthy’s novel, is a bold and blistering attack on the caste system.

A group of Brahmins is furiously debating Naranappa’s cremation. They hated Naranappa for his meat-eating, alcohol-drinking and non-Brahminical ways. He even caught fish in the temple pond and abandoned his Brahmin wife to live with a Dalit woman. Can Naranappa be considered a Brahmin at all – and should he be cremated as one?

Just then, Chandri, Naranappaa’s mistress, enters and hands over all the gold she possesses to pay for the funeral rites. The Brahmins stare at the gold. The discussion changes from who is a good Brahmin to who should get the gold.

UR Ananthamurthy’s 1965 novel Samskara and Pattabhi Rama Reddy’s 1970 film adaptation are both blisteringly bold attacks on the caste system and the moral superiority of Brahmins. Ananthamurthy’s novel provoked one man in particular to turn to filmmaking. When he read Samskara, he was so excited by it that he felt that “here was material that was crying out to be filmed”.

That man was Girish Karnad.

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Samskara (1970).

“I talked to a lot of people about the book, suggesting that they make a film of the novel,” Karnad said in an interview to India Today. “I was involved at the time with an amateur theatrical group called the Madras Players, and Pattabhi Rama Reddy, who was also with us, said, ‘OK, I’ll find the money, we’ll make the film…’ Looking back, I realize that I would probably have been drawn to film one way or another, it would have been impossible to ignore the medium altogether, but the accident of reading the book was the spark.”

The film was a team effort by a group of friends. Along with Reddy, there was his wife Snehalata Reddy (as plays Chandri), artist SG Vasudev, Australian filmmaker Tom Cowan and filmmaker and writer Rani Day Burra.

Karnad acted as the protagonist Praneshacharya “against his will”. Praneshacharya, revered Brahmin in the Brahmin quarter known as the agrahara and respected for his high moral standards and adherence to caste rules, has the dirty job of deciding the fate of Naranappa’s body. Praneshacharya’s wife is bed-ridden and we see the devout man dedicating his life in the service of his wife.

Karnad’s screenplay makes us believe that such a man will indeed find a suitable caste-bound solution to Naranappa’s cremation. Days pass and the body rots away. Unable to find an answer, Praneshacharya prays to the god Hanuman for help.

Shame and freedom

However, when Praneshacharya runs into Chandri, she fills him with a desire he has never known. The two have sex in the forest. Spontaneous and fiery, this scene remains startling especially because the film betrays no hint of such a turn of events. Reddy ensures that we see two bodies in contact instead of two flowers touching. A rebellion against film convention, if you will, mirroring the breaking of false ideas of caste purity.

The encounter triggers an enormous tumult within Praneshacharya, who flees the agrahara to run away from what he has just discovered about himself. He meets Putta, a non-Brahmin, who stuns him with his kindness. In Putta, Praneshacharya sees the value of living a life without judgment and in touch with one’s feelings in all honesty. It is a life outside of caste where humanity is all that matters. The film ends with Praneshacharya returning to the agrahara where a plague has caused the villagers to flee. A plague triggered by a rotting body – and the rottenness of the caste system.

Karnad captures the essence of Praneshacharya’s turmoil with remarkable ease and fealty. The transition from a self-assured man to a man cowering in shame at what he has discovered about himself is stark and accurate. The camera too begins to corner him as he runs away from himself, moving from wide angle shots to tight frames that trap Praneshacharya.

Samskara was part of the Indian New Wave that spread across various Indian states in the late 1960s and ’70s. Reddy’s film was banned initially for fear of a backlash from the Brahmin community, and was released shortly later. It went on to win the National Award for Best Film that year.

Ananthamurthy’s novel too had been both popular and controversial. It outraged members of the Brahmin community, but was equally hailed as a landmark in the Navya movement of modernism in Kannada literature.

As much as he loved Samskara in 1970, Karnad shared an uneasy relationship with Ananthamurthy’s other novels, even going to the extent of openly dismissing the late writer’s legacy. On the same occasion, Karnad even called Samskara “baseless” and “shallow”.

But in 1970, the book, the actor and the writer were all on the same page. And Indian cinema is thankful for that.

Girish Karnad in Samskara (1970).
Girish Karnad in Samskara (1970).
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.