Girish Karnad Claims his Own Space

In a healthy cinema tradition – and the same applies to any other art from – there is a continual process of cross-fertilization between what, in art criticism, is defined, according to subject matter and treatment, as “high” and “low” traditions without there being the least judgement of value between the two. This series of articles has two parallel themes, the life and career of Girish Karnad on the one hand and, on the other, the false dichotomy between “art film” (however described) and “popular film” (however described) which did so much to weaken Indian films by deterring the natural cross-currents of influence, a process which will inevitably tend to attenuate both of the pseudo-genres that it claims to identify.

The absurdity of the dichotomy is so easily demonstrated. Anyone surprised or shocked by my refusal to affix the accolade of “art film” to the work of Shyam Benegal might like to consider the fact that Benegal’s Mandi (1983) was a remake of a pretty trashy (and eminently commercial) US film of 1982 (based on a hit Broadway musical) called The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The Indian remake is, to my mind, a better film than the original but nothing can conceivably justify its reputation as an “art film”. The same kind of discrepancy between myth and reality characterises the critical reception of the work of Japanese film-maker Akira Kurosawa, who first came to “international” attention in 1950, and the discrepancy is so glaring that one needs to examine the events in cinema history thatbrought it about

In the 1950s, when the US cinema had been fragilised by the break-up of the old studio system under anti-trust legislation in the forties, it became painfully conscious of the rise in prominence of the Japanese and European (especially French and Italian) cinema. The US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences felt obliged, exceptionally, to make presentations of special honorary awards in 1948-1956, to two Italian films (Vittorio de Sica’s Sciuscià/Shoe Shine and Ladri di Bicicletti/Bicycle Thieves), two French films and three Japanese films (including Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomōn) after which they established the Best Foreign Language Film Award, not so much to encourage the rivalry from other countries, but, naturally enough, to  contain and control it. No Japanese film has ever won the award from that day to this.

The “art-house” cinemas developed as a separate distribution circuit in the US at around this same time, showing almost exclusively “foreign” films (not necessarily “foreign language” films because they also showed many British films) since there is in the US itself no concept whatsoever of an “art film”. Commercially this was a neat trick. In return for recognition as “art”, foreign films accepted relegation to a much more limited distribution circuit and perfectly mainstream foreign films that might potentially rival their US equivalents (particularly Japanese “samurai” films) were prevented from doing so by being limited to this same “art-house” ghetto.

The European and Japanese directors were flattered to be thought of as “art” directors, as auteurs of films; cinema critics liked the idea because it boosted their prestige and gave them an enhanced role as “interpreters” of supposedly “difficult” films. So between the foolish vanity of one group and the pretentious self-interest of the other, the idea of the “art film” took root. These early post-war Italian, French and Japanese films exerted nevertheless a worldwide influence for several decades. Virtually everybody associated in some way or another with what came to be called the “art film” in India, from Satyajit Ray to the actor Naseeruddin Shah, testifies to the same process of “discovery”, nearly always citing Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di bicicletti/Bicycle Thieves or Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomōn or both.

To understand a little better the real significance of Kurosawa’s work, one needs to look a little at the history of Japanese films. During the 1930s, the Japanese film industry decided very deliberately to abandon its dependence on stories from traditional kabuki theatre (broadly the equivalent of mythological and historical dramas in India) and to concentrate on the production of more naturalistic films. This decade, considered by the Japanese themselves to be something of a “golden age” of their cinema, was dominated by the genre known as shōshimin-eiga (or shimongeki), dramas of ordinary working-class or (more commonly) middle-class life, not so dissimilar to the later Italian neo-realismo style associated with the films of De Sica.

The most important directors of the period were Yashujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shmizu, Mikio Naruse and a young Kenji Mizoguchi, all of whose work was, and remained until comparatively recently, almost completely unknown outside Japan. Akira Kurosawa, who started making films in the early forties, also made shomingeki films, perhaps the finest being the film Ikiru in 1952. With Rashomōn, a film that, despite its reputation outside Japan, was not especially highly regarded by the Japanese themselves, Kurosawa took another direction. Belonging to a new generation of film-makers and strongly influenced by western film, he was reacting against the more austere realistic style of the thirties with a desire to return to the more popular style of jidaigeki films or historical dramas (typically featuring samurai warriors) of the kind that had also been the inspiration for traditional kabuki drama.

Kurosawa’s jidaigeki films were US-compatible in a way the shimongeki films of the thirties had not been; they had a strong popular appeal and invited parallels with the US western. Shichinin no samurai/The Seven Samurai (1954) was almost immediately remade in the US as the blockbuster “hit” western The Magnificent Seven (1960). Yojimbo (1961) was also remade as a popular western, not this time in the US but rather more cheekily in Italy.  A Fistful of Dollars (1964), directed by Serge Leone is virtually a frame-by-frame remake of the Kurosawa film and was one of the first most influential of the so-called “spaghetti westerns”, clever pastiches of the US western genre that did nevertheless a great deal to regenerate it and which influenced film-making worldwide. This was also the film that Girish Karnad chose to adapt – his film is not by any means a frame-by-frame remake like the Leone version – as Ondanondu Kaladalli in 1979. Meanwhile, however, Ramesh Sippy had directed one of the most popular Hindi films of all time, Sholay (1975), which combines both the influence of Kurosawa in its content (Sippy wanted to do a remake of Shichinin no samurai) and the “spaghetti western” in its style (the preference of writers Javed and Khan).

This has been a very long introductory discussion, but necessary in order to situate Karnad’s films intelligently between the devil of commercial cinema and the deep blue sea of the so-called art film. In a way, one might say that Karnad wanted to have things both ways (and why not?)  In choosing to adapt a film by Kurosawa, he was selecting a film-maker with a reputation (based on the western critical reception of Rashomōn) for art film – Karnad’s continuing concern with “respectability” – but who was actually the man chiefly responsible for the new international popularity of Japanese films and who was, at the same time, the inspiration for one of the most important developments in popular film-making in the post-war period.

Yojimbo is the story of a rōnin, a “masterless” samurai, who arrives in a region devastated by the senseless rivalry between two rival clans, whom he cleverly allows to believe have employed him so as to play each off against the other and ultimately destroy both and free the region of their destructive presence. Karnad changed the basic premise over little and famously encouraged the actor Shankar Nag to base his characterization of the mercenary Gandugali very closely on the performance-style of Toshiro Mifune (star of Rashomōn, Shichinin no samurai and Yojimbo). The film however has a clear place also in Karnad’s own oeuvre since the forest setting and the family feud allow him to some extent to recreate, in its cinematography and use of sound, the ambience of his earlier Kaadu (1973. The historical setting (a rather vaguely realized thirteenth century Karnataka) is very equivalent to the seventeenth-century setting used in all Kurosawa’s jidaigeki; but it also allows Karnad to play to the same strengths he had already demonstrated in his work for the theatre, a fact picked up in the film’s citation for a National Film Award for “delineating the code of warrior’s ethics in a medieval setting with a modern vision”.

Gandugali is somewhat less of a man of mystery than the Mifune character in Yojimbo (the origin of “the man with no name” of the western remake) and although in all three films the character is a justicier (a vector for justice) and a defender of the weak and oppressed, this is made both more explicit and more sentimental in Karnad’s film, something studiously avoided both by Kurosawa and Leone who both portray the central as a misanthropic cynic who appears to only do good grudgingly and by accident. Gandugali is a much more talkative character than the taciturn heroes of the Japanese and US films and his appetite for food, as opposed to the Mifune character’s taste for alcohol (sake), is another ‘indianization” that contributes to the softened image of the protagonist. Although there is relatively little in the outline plot of the film that is original – it borrows from Shichinin no samurai as well as from Yojimbo – Karnad introduces colourful elements of traditional “legend” (the rightful ruler in his cow-shed) that are absent from the Japanese film. Nor can any comparison of the stories do full justice to the innumerable small touches throughout the film by which Karnad provides his own distinctive style and colouring. The film is often praised for its epic scope but it is actually its general ambience and rich detail, and the careful attention the director pays to it, that distinguishes it.

At the same time, Karnad greatly increases the importance of martial arts in the film with excellently choreographed scenes of combat. Kalarippayattu, the South Indian martial art now primarily associated with Kerala, had only previously been seen in Malalyali films. This is also often an important aspect of samurai films (chambara or “sword fight”) but is actually little evident in the films of Kurosawa.  Despite its (typical) historical justification, it very evidently plugs in to another important element in popular film during the decade, the Hong Kong Fu films, earning Nag the (inaccurate) nickname of “Karate King” and something that was already becoming a regular feature of popular Indian films. Karnad’s film is thus at the nexus of no fewer three parallel movements in popular film – the samurai film, the spaghetti western and the martial arts film.

If the saraswat connection (via Shankar Nag) had brought Karnad back to Karnataka, it also provided him (via Shyam Benegal) with a highway to the power-centre of Hindi film. Shashi Kapoor had produced and acted in two Benegal films, Junoon (1978) and Kalyug (1981) and nw extended his patronage to Karnad.  Utsav (1984) was shot in Bangalore but lavishly produced by Kapoor who starred himself in a role originally intended for Amitabh Bachchan. Rekha (who had so memorably played opposite Anant Nag in Kalyug) co-stars and Shankar Nag also appears. Not merely a commercial flop but a complete financial disaster at that time, it is an attractive and mildly entertaining film that deserved better.  Like Ondanondu Kaladalli, it involves the same free and often playful approach to historical themes (what one might call “modernized history”) that one also finds in Karnad’s plays.

Utsav is not however a very good film. It fails in some ways precisely the areas where Ondanondu Kaladalli had succeeded. Both were written by Karnad himself in collaboration with Krishna Basaruru (Saraswat?) but, whereas the former had a solid cinematic construction based on the work of Kurosawa, the latter has a theatrical structure, with a basic story taken from the classic Sanskrit drama Mṛcchakaṭika and the fragment Charudatta, with a mise en scène (a series of tableaux) more suitable for a stage play. Karnad was perhaps misled here by the higher value he personally (and the cultural background he came from) gave to the theatre. There is no genuine qualitative difference between theatre and cinema; there is a difference in kind and writing for the cinema needs to be denser and more detailed, just as the script and mise en scène for Ondanondu Kaladalli had been. The scenario for Utsav appears by comparison rather thin and contrived and the humour a shade forced and clumsy.

In making both Ondanondu Kaladalli and Utsav, Karnad was, consciously or not, departing radically from the ethos of the “art film” movement and seeking, one might say, to create a hybrid form – an erudite and intelligent popular film, not at all the impossibility that Indian critics were inclined to believe. Ondanondu Kaladalli first launched the career of Shankar Nag as a popular icon, as evergreen a cultural memory.  In Utsav Karnad had hoped to have the participation of Amitah Bachchan and, even without it, had the “starry” presence of Shashi Kapoor and Rekha, both at the height of their careers, and playback songs by the Mangeshkar sisters, including a relatively rare instance of a Lata-Asha duet. To describe Ondanondu Kaladalli as an “art film” is, as I have tried to show perfectly ridiculous, but the film had exactly the right chemistry to succeed both with the usual self-appointed cultural guardians and as a popular favourite. Utsav fell heavily between two stools and did not really succeed in either respect. The attempt to give it “erotic” appeal (both in the main story and in the farcical subplot concerning Vātsyāyana, the author of the Kama Sutra) requires a certain sly wit that was rather beyond Karnad’s range as writer and director and falls rather flat as a result.  The attempt, however, remains commendable.

In this article I have departed from strict chronology in order to show how Karnad benefited, with variable success, in two directions, local and national, from the various networks he had established during the early seventies. In the next article, I shall reel back a little in time to consider Karnad and B. V. Karanth’s second adaptation of a novel by S. L. Bhyrappa, Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (1977) before going on to consider his later career.