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).