Girish Kasaravalli was born in Kesalur, a village in the Tirthahalli taluk in Shimoga district in 1950 to Ganesh Rao and Lakshmi Devi. He had his primary education in Kesalur and middle school education in Kammaradi. Hailing from a family of book lovers, he was initiated to reading good books from a young age by his father. His father was also a patron of Yakshagana, a folk system of dance, native to Karnataka. All this formed a basis for a life rich with creative aspirations. He was also attracted to the touring talkies which visited his village once in a while to screen popular Kannada films. This was his first exposure to the world of Cinema. Another relative who supported his love for creative arts was his maternal uncle K.V.Subbanna, a Magsaysay award winner who founded Neenasam, a critically acclaimed and popular drama company. After completing his high school and college education in Shimoga, he enrolled for the B.Pharma course in the College of Pharmacy, Manipal. The college was a commonplace for many cultural activities and kept Girish Kasaravalli’s creative interests alive. After completing his degree, he went to Hyderabad for training. But due to his pre occupations in Cinema and art, he found it difficult to manage his profession and interest together. He decided to quit the career in Pharmacy and join the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. A gold medalist from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Girish Kasaravalli started his career in films with Ghatashraddha (1977), over the next 30 years he directed eleven films and a tele serial.The Film he made to fulfill his Diploma “AVASHESH” was awarded the Best Student Film. Avashesh also won the President’s Silver Lotus award for the Best Short Film of that year [Bio Courtesy: Wikipedia, Image Courtesy: ProKerala]
Girish Kasaravalli’s films are full of rituals, ceremonies, legitimization games, legal procedures and codes of communication and social conduct. These narratives are all structured around notions of inclusion and exclusion, of inclusiveness and exclusivity. They are all about who is in a particular game and who is not. Even though Kasaravalli’s films are about rituals, the films, themselves, are never rituals. Part of what makes Kasaravalli’s cinema so rich is the fact that, unlike many of his contemporaries, the director hasn’t allowed his world view to stagnate, his concerns to become characteristic or his explorations to become answers. Even though they have been present in one form or another throughout his filmography, the key question that Kasaravalli’s films have put emphasis on has moved from that of socio-religious institutions and their laws, through that of authorization of those laws by those whom it applies to, to that of justice and its many conflicting definitions that seek to pin down its meaning, all the while having at their focal points the effects that these questions have on the social standing of women. Let’s make no mistake; his films – like many works of ‘Parallel Cinema’ – have always been about with the status of women in a conservative setup. What sets these films apart is, however, the fact that they choose to venture beyond the miserablism that the scenario offers (and which many filmmakers wallow in) and probe what makes a setup conservative in the first place. For every mention of Kasaravalli the humanist, there is Kasaravalli the analyst beneath, for every instance of Kasaravalli the metaphysician, there is Kasaravalli the sociologist operating alongside and for every cry of Kasaravalli the universal, there’s Kasaravalli the native working on historicized junctures.
Despite sharing a woman-behind-bars aesthetic highly typical of Parallel Cinema – locale shooting with an affinity for the horizon and landscapes at dawn and dusk, low-light static compositions (often through doorways) and continuity editing that indicate a respect towards the written word, pans and tilts that unveil details gradually, an inclination towards restrained low-key classical score (by his regular, the highly talented Isaac Thomas Kottukapally) and naturalist sound design complementing re-recorded speech – there are a few directorial choices – the scroll-like horizontal tracking shots that are present right from his experimental, Tarkovsky-esque diploma film Avasesh (1975), the temporalizing intertitles and the major ellipses that bypass drama – which have revealed themselves as stark deviations from the movement’s aesthetic. There are as many shots of freewheeling corporeality in Kasaravalli’s films as there are modernist shots carrying the burden of meaning, as many moments that rebel against the narrative as there are moments that are at its service. And that is indeed a rare sight to see in Parallel Cinema.
[The usual caveat: Lots of films missing here. Notes will be added once I see them]
Ghatashraddha (The Ritual, 1979)
The director’s debut feature, The Ritual, couldn’t have more aptly titled given that every subsequent Kasaravalli film could be named the same. Set in a Brahmin (priest class) settlement where sacred hymns are taught by male teachers and learnt by rote by male children, Ghatashraddha delves into a system of social legitimation that is built on suppressing differences, deviances and dissent. (Having a homosexual teenager in the school is provocative even today). Kasaravalli portrays these rituals – religious and social – in high detail that they seem to almost possess a power beyond the people who perform them. The act of teaching and reciting these very hymns (some of which are specifically written for men) proves to be an authorization procedure for the perpetuation of patriarchy and of maintaining a closed circle of legislative and judicial power. Both the young kid Nani (Ajith Kumar), who isn’t able to learn these chants, and the young woman Yamuna (the beautiful Meena Kuttappa), who gets pregnant out of wedlock, are deemed outcasts. Ghatashraddha pays out like a tragedy in which every attempt to break out of a rigid system of rules is put down and all discursive entities that could undermine the integrity of the system are absorbed into the mainstream. Kasaravalli uses his actors remarkably – almost in a Bressonian manner – pruning down superfluous elements of performance and expression and reducing the tragic presence of Yamuna to an aggregate of glances and stares, and his command on his images is equally noteworthy, with sharp, beautiful monochrome photography.
Mane (House, 1991)
Possibly the most unusual Kasaravalli picture and certainly my favorite by the director, Mane (also dubbed in Hindi as Ek Ghar) is a Kafkaesque tale about a young couple (Naseeruddin Shah and Deepti Naval) that moves to the city from a village with the hope of finding privacy and freedom, which are unavailable in the joint family system. For all its narrative excursions, in a sense, Mane is merely about the breakup of a marriage in which the Rossellinian couple, unable to confront each other directly amidst the loneliness of the city, externalizes their troubles – his powerlessness, her desire for freedom and their childlessness – and shifts blame on situations beyond their control in order to act victims. Kasaravalli works wonder with film and sound here, using them to denote the impending break down. (One stunning shot uses the neon lights of the neighbourhood to literally break apart the frame). A critique on urban spaces that suffocate more than they promise privacy, Mane unfolds like a sociological update on Rear Window (1954), in which personal anxieties and fears are displaced onto the surroundings and, specifically, onto a lower social class. In that sense, Mane connects all the way to the director’s latest work in the manner in which it raises questions about the visibility of the class structure and the seeming imperceptibility of the consequences of acts of one class on the other. Mane is full of such encroachments of freedom by other competing notions of freedom – between classes, between houses and between spouses.
Thai Saheba (1997)
Thai Saheba, I think, is best understood as a transitional film because it is in this film that Kasaravalli tries to streamline most of the diverging concerns of his previous features into a sustained reflection on justice – a topic that he would keep refining in his subsequent three works. Shot mostly indoors with the production design dominated by deep red and brown colours, the film is reminiscent of similarly-themed films of the same decade by Hou and Zhang, especially in the way the women orbit the largely unseen patriarch of the house and how the personal becomes inseperably entagled with the political. Kasaravalli, interestingly, sets his story in pre-independence India in an attempt, however unsure, to make a positive intervention into history and open it up for analysis. More precisely, the period is the 1940s when the independence struggle against the British Empire was at its peak. The leader of the house is a Gandhian fighting earnestly for independence while he keeps ignoring his wife (one among three!), who finds companionship in her adopted son, who, in turn, falls in love with his step sister. The film is rife with such complex familial relationships and forbidding codes of conduct, through which questions regarding inheritance and birth right are broached. (There’s a narrative thread regarding perfumes that Kasaravalli uses as shorthand for feudal legacy). Like the previous picture, Thai Saheba keeps pitting one idea of freedom and justice with other. However, there’s also the feeling that the film might be treating history as a closed book, suggesting that we are living at more liberal times. The corrective would arrive three films later.
Dweepa (The Island, 2003)
Dweepa is a quantum leap of sorts for Kasaravalli. For one, the scenario takes a gigantic jump from pre-independence India to post-globalization India (the jump is highly ironic since the politico-historic situation doesn’t differ as much as one expects it to): to a time when huge construction projects are undertaken at the cost of the livelihood of thousands of indigenous people. Possibly the most keenly observed of all the director’s films, Dweepa finds Kasaravalli shifting his focus from institutions and their laws towards the legitimization of those very laws, to the many internal contradictions a statement of justice has to suppress to create a stable meaning. The film almost plays out reverse-dialectically – like a chain of nuclear fissions – breaking down one stable narrative of justice into smaller narratives each counterpointing the other. The island of the title, then, not only refers to the geography of the story or to the situation that the priest family – father, son and daughter-in-law and the young outsider – finds itself in, but also to this impossibility of consensus and to the narratives of minorities being abandoned in favour of those of existing technocratic and paternal institutions. (The story’s development, in a way, parallels the trajectory of critical discourses in the past few decades, in the undermining of totalizing theories by identity groups). Kasaravalli can’t propose a solution (is there one?), but the response he suggests – of perpetual resistance – is borne out of a deep respect for his subjects.
Haseena begins with a bruised, middle-aged woman (Tara) sitting determinedly in front of a mosque before cutting – painfully – to an older, beautiful version of her. Haseena has all the trappings of a “woman’s picture” – a poor lower-class woman, with many kids and a abusive, drunkard husband who beats her up, struggling to make a living in a man’s world – and, to an extent, it is. But instead of converting the scenario into a woe-of-the-week saga and wallowing in self-pity and condescension that almost seems to be the natural reaction from many filmmakers, Kasaravalli, respecting the dignity of himself and his subject, moves beyond superficial humanism to embark on an examination of the law, justice and the crossroads between them. That the story is set in an Islamic community, where laws and rules are more localized and, hence, the idea of justice could be more accommodative, helps illustrate the dynamics of legislation and legitimization with higher transparency. Absorbing a number of uncharacteristic directorial choices, strangely enough, from contemporary Iranian cinema, where too characters retain their self-esteem, specifically in its use of colour and music (Kottukapally’s high-scale stringed compositions, well, strike a chord for those familiar with Majidi’s cinema, for instance) and it’s magic realist finale, Kasaravalli experiments with his new found freedom of form and the confidence of approach that the previous, seminal feature seems to have fortified.
Naayi Neralu (In The Shadow Of The Dog, 2006)
Naayi Neralu is the exact kind of movie that Kasaravalli’s filmography was working towards all along. Like Thayi Saheba, this one is also set in a pre-independence era, but instead of treating issues from at a distance and institutions monolithically, Kasaravalli treats them like how a present-day sociologist would talk about present-day problems. Kasaravalli’s intervention into history exemplifies postmodernism as a responsible critical approach (and not as “anything goes” complacency that the term has become a mnemonic for) in the way it keeps revealing the individual not as a rational, integral consciousness trapped inside institutions and their oppressive rules but as a de-centered subject sitting at the intersection of multiple Symbolic orders with much more authority than a modernist illustration would allow for. The complex script (many share writing credits) first establishes, like Ghatashraddha, a widow Venku (Pavitra Lokesh) in a fixed, conservative milieu before introducing a disturbance into the system in the form of a young man who claims to be her husband, reincarnated. The society in question authorizes the intrusion and this, ironically, promises escape for Venku, who crosses over into the new legal contour. After certain unforeseen incidents, the society realizes the radicalism of its own decision and revokes back the patent, leaving Venku outside all social circles. An incisive portrait of law as a sum of countersigning gestures and justice as something more individualized, like a signature, Naayi Neralu presents Kasaravalli’s social study at its most refined.
Gulabi Talkies (2008)
Set in a coastal town in Karnataka where fishing is the major source of livelihood and at a time when the country was engaged in the Kargil war, Gulabi Talkies, along with the next film, marks another major transitional period – if not a minor fall from the precision of Naayi Neralu, which I think is the case – for Kasaravalli. If, in the previous pictures, the director and the writers attempted to look at the bigger picture – at the narrative that confronts and governs other narratives –they suggest here that one might not be able to get a bigger picture at all. There are a hundred things that are going on in Gulabi Talkies that attempt to tear the film’s focus apart. The first of two major threads involves a movie-loving middle-aged Muslim midwife (Umashree) who is gifted a television set with satellite connection and the second one deals with a group of Visconti-like fishermen who are enraged by the government’s decision to grant permission to a local Muslim bigwig to fish in the same zone as them. Gulabi Talkies investigates how international events and decisions trickle down – step by step – into every day life and acquire a completely different flavour that conceals knowledge of the actuating force. The war against Pakistan (itself a consequence) translates to communal violence within the country, which translates to gang wars among fishermen and which, in turn, bear upon Gulabi’s status as the cynosure of the local housewives. Perhaps, this is why the film’s most telling image is that of a satellite dish on the beach facing the sea: Images from a world beyond having catastrophic effects elsewhere.
Kanasembo Kudureyaneri (Riding The Stallion Of A Dream, 2010)
Kanasembo Kudureyaneri begins quite flashily, as though advertising its own script, with the quip by Godard that a film needn’t have a beginning, middle and an end in the same order. But then, instead of using the hyperlink structure of the script to pull off one emotional coup after another, Kasaravalli and co. use it to emphasize the invisibility of one part of the script to another. The two branches of the narrative – each of which deals with one particular socioeconomic class – are interconnected by a specific event: the death of the village patriarch, which also fulfils its symbolic purpose, but none of the characters that constitute these classes recognizes this. All of them work towards their own individual dreams and aspirations without realizing that this quest of theirs’ shapes and is shaped by the others’ as well. The setting of the story is contemporary no doubt, but there is scarcely anything contemporary about it. It might be true that the remains of feudalism still plague the country’s rural regions, but given that the economic system that drives this problem even today has flourished upon the idea of death of feudalism and even promotes itself at the cost of feudalism, Kanasembo Kudureyaneri comes across as a slightly anachronistic (and assimilable-into-mainstream) film. Having said that, I must also add that the film brings Kasaravalli’s filmography to a very interesting point where, with the support of the finesse of perspective and approach that previous few films have worked towards, he can plunge into more globalized, potentially uncomfortable issues with a more refined and rigorous control over his craft. I think the next one will be mighty interesting.
(Image Courtesy: Various)