Girish Kasaravalli interview: ‘We are trying to kill democracy with a one-nation message’

The acclaimed director on growing intolerance, political cinema, and adapting literature for the screen.

Over a 40-year career, filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli has made 14 Kannada movies, including the National Film Award-winning Ghatashraddha (1977), Tabarana Kathe (1987), Thaayi Saheba (1997) and Dweepa (2002). Yet, he describes his movies as “imperfect”. The filmmaker told during a recent retrospective of his films in Panaji, which was organised by Entertainment Society of Goa, “It is not the dictionary meaning or your notion of perfect. This imperfect is my perfect.” Excerpts from an interview about Kasarvalli’s journey, his literary sensibility and the dwindling creativity in our lives.

In your long career of 40 years, you have made just 14 films. If this a conscious decision?
I make films only when I am compelled to. For me, the subject of the film should resonate with the current problems of the country. So getting the right kind of theme which has some reflection on contemporary society takes time.

I could have made more films. But my style is different. When I am making a film, even though I have assistants, I will sit with the costume designer, the art director, the casting. And I write my own screenplay and dialogue.

Thirteen of your 14 films are based on short stories or novels. You once said that it is because you can’t write a story.
Cinema is images for me. My narrative base is not words, but visuals. I am not good with writing skills. But I know to construct a story through images.

Also, when I pick up a story I make lot of changes in the narrative structure. For example Gulabi Talkies and Thaayi Saheba do not resemble the original stories at all.

When I am writing a script, I send it to the original writers at various stages and take them in confidence. Luckily, no one objected to my narrative. But, sometimes they dislike it, such as in the case of Dweepa. In the novel, the couple gets killed by a tiger in the end. In the movie, there is no tiger at all. The writer [Norbert D’Souza] kept saying that the novel’s ending would have been better. But I didn’t want a conclusive ending. I made a small change in the end that changed the vision of the film. I wanted to make a comment about the dweepa [island] – is it a geographical space or the man himself?

Dweepa (2002).

In most of your movies, women play crucial roles even when the plots are not women-centric.
The women in our society are always treated as second class citizens. I want to talk about women who cannot voice their opinions, who are made to suffer. Another reason is that women can negotiate any situation compared to men. It is adjustability without a confrontational position, which Mahatma Gandhi advocated.

Also in Kannada literature, such strong characters are there mainly in the works of Shivaram Karanth and Kuvempu, and I grew up watching such women.

Is enough value being given to literature in our country?
It is not just cinema, but the role of art itself is being reduced. The kind of importance art played in the 1960s is not the same now. In my home state of Karnataka, if an intellectual made a statement, people listened to him. Today people will make fun of it and will not take it in right spirit.

This is because we are moving towards a materialistic society. We are not harping on idealism but marketability. You read a writer not because of his writing but his popularity. The book is measured not by what the writer is saying, but how much royalty he gets. It is similar with cinema – we watch movies only when they receive awards at the Cannes Film Festival or the Oscars.

Kanasemba Kudureyaneri (2010).

During the screening of ‘Ghatashraddha’, which speaks about the caste system, you mentioned that it would have been difficult to make such a movie today. You also gave the example of ‘Samskara’ (1970), which was banned for a year and yet won the national award for the best film. Is this possible today?
In the 1970s and ’80s, one could oppose and hold on to one’s beliefs. In my movie Tabarana Kathe (1987), the protagonist makes a statement, you idiots, you don’t know how to run a country in these 25 years. That time, there was a Congress government, but they passed the film. The then President, R Venkataraman, was unhappy with that dialogue and told me that I should not have used it. So they expressed their displeasure but yet they gave creative freedom.

That is something that is curbed these days. And it is not by a particular political party as all are the same – rigid and intolerant to the criticism.

Is it because we are losing creativity in life?
It is not about creativity, but about honouring the basic values of democracy. One of democracy’s major values is allowing differences of opinion, plurality. We are trying to kill it with one nation, one language, one community, one dress code, one eating habit. It is alarming.

You have always said any work of fiction is political.
Anything that’s a reaction to the system is political. Even advocating a status quo is a political statement. Films made for entertainment are either ideology-driven or market-driven, which is another kind of politics. If I show a weak person as a Dalit, that itself is a political statement. The moment you place a camera or write a line, you are making a political statement. The idiom of the film is its politics.

Gulabi Talkies (2008).

These days much is being spoken about the role of the Central Board of Film Certification.
It is a certification board, not a censor. The previous chairperson Leela Samson had categorically said that her job was to certify, and that she had no right to cut the film. That’s the correct position.

But the previous chief [Pahlaj Nihalani] was on the wrong side. Also, why censor only films and not television? Some serials are more dangerous than explicit sex. The ideas and ideologies they propagate corrupt the mind.

You were critical of ‘Baahubali’ winning a national award. The sequel ‘Baahubali 2: The Conclusion’ affected the screening of regional films in some places. How you look at the tussle between commercial and regional cinema? Should there be reservation for regional cinema in theatres?
The problem lies with infrastructure here. In Europe and America, there is a separate network for serious cinema where movies from all over the world are shown. We need to have an art cinema circuit, which should be the responsibility of the government. Since this facility is not available, the demand for reservation is valid.

You are the second Indian filmmaker after Satyajit Ray to receive four Golden Lotus Awards at the national awards. How you look at your achievement?
I am happy with my work, but the movies are not of same standard. One thing I can say without hesitation is that I didn’t make any compromises for the sake of market expectations. All the compromises were made after the start of the film, in terms of finance. With my films, I would do whatever I wanted to do.

Life in Metaphors, a documentary by OP Srivastava.
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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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.