Girish Karnad and the Saraswat Tradition 

The “greenhouse” ambience of the so-called “art film” may not in practice nurture anything very obviously recognizable as “art” (compared to any other films) but it frequently does engender good films and even some very good films. I have briefly discussed both B. V. Karanth’s Chomana Dudi and Girish Kasaravalli’s Ghattasshhradda in the precious article. It can also produce some rather feeble films and even some distinctly bad ones. Those who choose to define themselves in such terms (“cultural stalwarts” in M. G. Rhagavendra’s term) tend to enviage their artistry in terms uniquely of their own perceived “authorial” talent whereas it becomes very apparent in retrospect that “art film” movements rely very heavily on what might be called “the spirit of the times” (what the Germans call Zeitgeist) and what Karnad rightly identifies, in relation to his own early career, as “a grand new spirit that was being forged in films, literature and theatre”,  

As the times evolve, the proud auteurs find their unique talents, stripped of the broader creative ambience, count for very little. The various tenors of the French nouvelle vague, for instance, all had to reinvent themselves, with greater or less success, in subsequent decades or else hang on,  like Jean-Luc Godard, for another forty years as, creatively speaking, something of a dead man walking. There is nothing worse for such auteurs than to begin believing in their own myth, or in the myth created for them by their critical following; and become both trapped in, and limited by it. It is therefore of considerable importance for the development of any film-maker that they should at some point experience a more robust creative environment than that of the greenhouse.

Karnad was fortunate in having a broader canvas easily available to him, in part through his work for the theatre, in part as a result of his own multiple linguistic background (Konkani, Marathi, Kannada, English) and the various social and professional opportunities this opened up for him. What is more, the small community into which he was born, the Chitrapur Saraswats, might be said to have already had a cinema tradition that was the quintessence of cosmopolitanism. Guru Dutt (born Vasanth Kumar Shivashankar Padukone) grew up speaking Konkani and Kannada but adopted Bengali as his home-language, after a prolonged stay in the north, as a student of dance under Uday Shankar, and preferred to think (according to his son) in English.  He made his films of course in Hindi.

If Girish Karnad had grown up with little regard for the films of Guru Dutt (”we didn’t think Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor were really artistic filmmakers in our generation…. we used to sneer at them.”), the same was not true of another Saraswat whose family had settled in Andhra Pradesh, Shyam Benegal. Dutt’s mentor in his adolescence had been his cousin, Balakrishna Benegal, who worked for the cinema industry as a poster-designer and who had helped Dutt to his first job with V. Shantaram’s Prabhat studio in Poona. “Having Guru Dutt as a cousin”, says director Shyam Benegal, son of Balakrishna’s photographer brother, Sridhar, “was a great advantage…a kind of a goal. Because he was a film director, it meant I could also be a film director.” Dutt declined to take Benegal on as his assistant as the latter had wanted when he first went to Mumbai, arguing that he would be better to make his own independent career. After a period as an advertising copyrighter that opportunity came in 1974 with the film Ankur.

The Prabhat studio in Pune where Guru Dutt had started his career became in 1974 home to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) of which Karnad became director the same year. Even if his time as director was not entirely a happy one (he was confronted by a strike by student-actors in protest at the elitist and director-centred policy pursued by the Institute), it placed him in the centre of a remarkable cobweb of connections, between the recent graduates  and students of the FTII and the Saraswat connection, represented not only be Benegal but a new generation of “Konkani people” (to cite the title of a Wikipedia compilation) back in Karnataka (notably the two brothers, Shankar and Anant Nag) as well their various kissing cousins in Maharastra.

So great is the sense of guilt and embarrassment felt by many Indians with regard to the subject of caste, that it is sometimes forgotten that it often operates on one level quite straightforwardly as a social network not much different from those associated with the “old school tie” (particularly strong in Britain), University, club membership, military service (in France and Italy), fraternities, and “secret” societies (especially in the US) in Europe and the USA. Some use these connections rarely (which may be commendable); some use them excessively (which can be obnoxious). Some make constructive use of their connections; some merely freeload. Karnad, I would suggest, used his connections plentifully but with a good deal of discernment and to very constructive ends combines with an evidently genuine pleasure in the multiple and non-exclusive possibilities which his birth and chosen careers had presented him with.

As FTII director he became a kind of cultural broker. He was personally very responsible for promoting the career of Om Puri, whose gaunt and pockmarked look had not recommended itself to the rest of the FTII board.  If he had his differences with Naseeruddin Shah (a leader of the student strikers), he nevertheless recognized his worth as an actor and recommended him to Benegal. But if Benegal’s films are strongly associated with graduates from the FTII – Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Om Puri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda – one should not overlook the important leaven provided by Saraswats from both Karnataka (Karnad as both writer and/or actor in Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika and Komdura and Anant Nag in Ankur, Manthan, Bhumika and, perhaps mot memorably of all, the later Kalyug)  and Maharastra (Amol Palekar who appears in Bhumika and Mohan Agashe who appears in Nishant and Bhumika). The subsequent novel based on the film Manthan was co-written by Karnad with Marathi Saraswat Vijay Tendulkar who had also co-written the scenario for the film itself along with Kaifi Azmi (father of Shabana) while he wrote the scenario for Nishant with another of the key figures from Marathi theatre, Satyadev Dubey.

From outside this charmed circle came Govind Nihiani, the cinematographer who had worked with Karnad on Kaadu and who had, however, learned his trade from V. K. Murthy, cinematographer for the masterworks of Guru Dutt.  Amrish Puri, a theatre actor whom Karnad had also introduced to the cinema in Kaadu,  appears regularly in the films of Benegal (Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika, Mandi, Kondura and Kalyug) as, along with his namesake Om, in films later directed by Nihilani himself (Aakrosh and Ardh Satya). Both appear too in Nihilani’s impressive 1986 television version of the Bhisham Sahni novel, Tamas.

It would be foolish to lay too much stress on a “tradition” linking the work of Guru Dutt and Shyam Benegal, but the two do share a very general similarity of approach to the business of film-making. The films of Benegal are often regarded as part of “the Hindi new wave” and to this day there are people who insist on treating them as “art films”.  In practice the “wave” to which they belong was no more remarkable than that represented ten years before by Dutt and Kapoor and even the Anand brothers, which Karnad had grown up “sneering” at. Dutt and Kapoor notably had valued their independence and individuality as film-makers, had innovated constantly in both subject-matter and cinematography and had disliked and avoided certain aspects general to the commercial cinema of their time (the mindless “item number”) while nevertheless respecting the parameters of what is, after all, an entertainment industry as well as an art. “You succeed at the box-office,” Dutt once remarked “and then you can produce another film.”

Shyam Benegal’s films, even the first, Ankur, never required funding from the Film Finance Corporation as did many of the less accessible “new wave” films of the period and proved a surprise box-office success.  Karnad’s own association with Benegal begins with Nishant (1975) in which, for the first time since Samskara, he plays the leading role of the teacher whose wife (played by Shabana Azmi) becomes a sexual victim of the local zamindar (Amrish Puri) and his family. He plays the lead once more in Manthan (1976) and is the scenarist for one of the most successful of Benegal’s early films, Bhumika (1977). It is at this stage in his career that Karnad’s career that his work might to some extent be justly described as “Pan-Indian”. Nishant, like Ankur, is set in A.P.; Manthan is set in Gujurat; Bhumika is based on the autobiography of Marathi actress, Hansa Wadkar.

A good deal of nonsense is talked about the “Pan-Indian” with respect to cinema in a baneful tradition established by Bengali critic Chidananada Dasgupta. Using the term first as a synonym for the “Bombay cinema” (the word “Bollywood” had not yet been invented) which he despised, he eventually extended it to cover any kind of cinema he did not like (including all the “regional” traditions of South India) and which did not match up to his subjective and often contradictory criteria for “the art film” of which he was a self-appointed champion. There is in practice no real contradiction between a cinema intended for, and marketed to, the whole of India (and indeed beyond) and a cinema rooted in a local tradition. The two represent equally valid aspects of what it means to be Indian, and can co-exist, just as they do in other federations (the USA) and on other Continents (Europe) and even, without any superhuman effort, be comingled. Ankur and Nishant, set in A.P., were both to some extent local films, portraying a species of semi-feudalism more associated with that state than with, say, Karnataka. Local colour is provided in the former by the use (even if somewhat improbable for the Hindu families portrayed) of Dakhini Urdu.

Manthan, produced by the Gujarat Milk Co-Op Marketing Federation, was “local” in a different sense in that it was “crowdfunded”, with 500,000 local farmers each donating Rs. 2 towards the production costs. “In Gujarat,” according to Benegal, the film not only covered its costs but made a profit within the first two weeks”, adding that “the profit went back to the farmers.” At the same time there is no doubt as to the national agenda of the film, both in terms of its advertising content (Benegal had earlier in his career made commissioned films for Amul) and in terms of it political significance.  Following the “Green Revolution”, initiated in the late sixties and early seventies, the “White Revolution”, Operation Flood, launched in 1970, to make India self-sufficient (and more than self-sufficient) in milk-production, which is effectively the subject of the Benegal/Karnad film, was one of the crucial flagship reforms which Indira Gandhi used to defend and excuse her introduction of a highly centralized system of so-called “state socialism”.

Manthan was very unfortunate in its timing, appearing, as it did, very shortly after the institution of the state of emergency and appearing therefore to be supporting what many had come to see as an indefensible dictatorship. It was described at the time by one critic as “the sort of propaganda film, which a film maker in an Iron Curtain country would make.” Even aside from the ignorance this remark portrays of the fine Eastern European film tradition, the criticism was well answered by the film’s female star, Smita Patil, who retorted that, if it was propaganda, what did it matter if was “good propaganda”. Would anyone question such a judgement of, say, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin?

It is difficult to see anything in the least blameworthy about the film. We habitually use the word propaganda in two quite different senses (for rational if enthusiastic promotion of a project or idea and for a pack of lies to disguise unworthy motives or actions). This film is certainly propaganda but in the first sense of the word. It is propaganda not for Indira Gandhi and her controversial governance but for an agricultural reform that, while it may have met with some criticism over the years, is more or less universally regarded as an impressive and important achievement.

Bhumika (1977) also has a “local” resonance for Karnad, born and raised in Maharastra, as well as for others in the cast, Smita Patel, born in Pune, who stars, and Amol Palekar, who plays her husband. Palekar was already at this time a popular star of Hindi film, having made, in quick succession, three delightful comedies for the director Basu Chattrerjee (Rajnigandha, Chhoti si Baat and Chitchor), but he has throughout his life been a mainstay both of Marathi theatre (in his youth) and (in more recent years) of Marathi cinema. Smita Patil had appeared in the Marathi film Kamley just the year before, playing opposite Mohan Agashe, who also appears in a small role in Bhumika. She would appear, along with Girish Karnad, in the Marathi film Umbartha in 1982. They would appear together again, along with Amol Palekar, in the Kumar Shahani film Tarang in 1984, just two years before her tragic death, as well as in Sutradhar in 1987, another Marathi film, although also made in Hindi, and  one of many of her films to be released posthumously.

If I were to compare the films of Shyam Benegal with those of his renowned ancestor, I would have to say that I think more highly of the films of Dutt, which have a beauty and intensity that the films of Benegal lack.  Where Benegal scores highly is in the quality of ensemble playing in his films, something that the complex network of interconnections did a great deal to facilitate. Where Ankur had revolved around just four central characters, Bhumika is a picaresque sweep through the life of the actress, where the much-expanded repertory of players comes fully into its own and where each encounter has a distinctive flavor of its own. Patel plays the heroine as “guileless” (an epithet once used by Benegal to describe the actress herself), a character created by Karnad and herself which is only very loosely based on the far more troubled personality of Hansa Wadkar.

As for the vexatious question of the “Pan-Indian”, it seems to me very clear that the director, writers and actors bring a strong sense of the “local” even into the cosmopolitan world of Mumbai cinema. Far from being in opposition to the “regional”, the cosmopolitan mixture generated in these films served in almost kaleidoscopic fashion to enrich, and be enriched by, films made in several regions and in several languages. In 1977 Shabana Azmi, Anant Nag and Amol Palekar appeared together in the Kannada film Kanneshwara Rama directed by M. S. Satyu with music by B. V. Karanth. In the same year Karnad and Karanth made the film Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane/Godhuli in both Kannada and Hindi, based on a story by S. L. Bhyrappa, with Naseeruddin Shah in the lead (in both versions) and both Om Puri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda in support.  In 1978 Benegal’s film Kondura/Anugraham, co-written with Karnad, was based on a Marathi novel but made in both Hindo and Telugu with a cast that included Smita P, Anant Nag, Amrish Puri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda.. Smita Patil appeared that same year in the Marathi film Sarvasakshi alongside Shankar Nag. In 1983 Karnad, Anant Nag and Smita Patil would all appear together in another Kannada film, Avashane, directed by T. S. Naghabarana.

“A grand new spirit that was being forged in films, literature and theatre.” It is I think significant that “films” actually comes first in Karnad’s catalogue. As his  career in cinema developed, it contributed significantly to moulding that “new spirit” while Karnad himself, if he never entirely lost his ambiguous feelings about cinema (a limiting factor for him both as actor and director) had learned not to turn his nose up at “popular cinema” and to appreciate, as Benegal had done from the outset, that the important factor is not so much to invent the “art film” but more simply, yet at the same time more profoundly, to understand that cinema, in all its forms and in all its bewildering variety,  is what genuinely constitutes the art form.

The cosmopolitan side of the Konkani character (not exclusive to Saraswats) is in no way incompatible with a strong loyalty to local culture, whether that of Karnataka, AP or Maharastra. One of the brothers Nag, Anant, had joined Karnad in his foray into Hindi cinema, playing the lead in Ankur and also appearing in both Manthan and Bhumika. Karnad’s return (cinematically speaking) to Karnataka would see him cementing an even more important relationship with Shankar Nag and that will be the subject of the next article in this series.


  • David Bond