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.

Play
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).
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Children's Day is not for children alone

It’s also a time for adults to revisit their childhood.

Most adults look at childhood wistfully, as a time when the biggest worry was a scraped knee, every adult was a source of chocolate and every fight lasted only till the next playtime. Since time immemorial, children seem to have nailed the art of being joyful, and adults can learn a thing or two about stress-free living from them. Now it’s that time of the year again when children are celebrated for...simply being children, and let it serve as a timely reminder for adults to board that imaginary time machine and revisit their childhood. If you’re unable to unbuckle yourself from your adult seat, here is some inspiration.

Start small, by doodling at the back page of your to-do diary as a throwback to that ancient school tradition. If you’re more confident, you could even start your own comic strip featuring people in your lives. You can caricaturise them or attribute them animal personalities for the sake of humour. Stuck in a boring meeting? Draw your boss with mouse ears or your coffee with radioactive powers. Just make sure you give your colleagues aliases.

Pull a prank, those not resulting in revenue losses of course. Prank calls, creeping up behind someone…pull them out from your memory and watch as everyone has a good laugh. Dress up a little quirky for work. It’s time you tried those colourful ties, or tastefully mismatched socks. Dress as your favourite cartoon characters someday – it’s as easy as choosing a ponytail-style, drawing a scar on your forehead or converting a bath towel into a cape. Even dinner can be full of childish fun. No, you don’t have to eat spinach if you don’t like it. Use the available cutlery and bust out your favourite tunes. Spoons and forks are good enough for any beat and for the rest, count on your voice to belt out any pitch. Better yet, stream the classic cartoons of your childhood instead of binge watching drama or news; they seem even funnier as an adult. If you prefer reading before bedtime, do a reread of your favourite childhood book(s). You’ll be surprised by their timeless wisdom.

A regular day has scope for childhood indulgences in every nook and cranny. While walking down a lane, challenge your friend to a non-stop game of hopscotch till the end of the tiled footpath. If you’re of a petite frame, insist on a ride in the trolley as you about picking items in the supermarket. Challenge your fellow gym goers and trainers to a hula hoop routine, and beat ‘em to it!

Children have an incredible ability to be completely immersed in the moment during play, and acting like one benefits adults too. Just count the moments of precious laughter you will have added to your day in the process. So, take time to indulge yourself and celebrate life with child-like abandon, as the video below shows.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of SBI Life and not by the Scroll editorial team.