Srikanth Srinivasan: Your films are rife with rituals, ceremonies and legitimization games. This is perhaps most apparent in Ghatashraddha (1979), your debut feature. What interested you in dealing with such conservative constructs?
Girish Kasaravalli: Although they are present in the later films as well, rituals and ceremonies are central only to Ghatashraddha. I wouldn’t say I am interested in rituals or castes as such. I liked the scenario of Ghatashraddha, which is about this pair of people Yamunakka and Nani who are marginalized and outcast by this religious institution. She is a young woman who naturally feels the need for male companionship. Nani, otherwise rather sharp, finds it difficult to learn these scriptures. Both of them are ridiculed and outcast by the establishment.
SS: Your direction of Meena Kuttappa in the film is highly stylized. It is not exaggerated, but it is not natural either. It is almost Bressonian. This kind of acting is not found elsewhere in your filmography.
GK: Yes, we were familiar with Bresson’s cinema that time and Meena’s performance is similarly very stylized. It was a de-dramatization gesture. Much of our acting assumes that emotions are to be expressed. I wanted the emotions to be expressed not through the acting but the events of the story. Throughout the film, Yamunakka stays in a single register of suffering. Nani, on the other hand, undergoes a marked change. He realizes that he has to help Yamunakka. While he cannot do a whole lot, he does what his strength and age allows him to. That is why, his performance, along with other characters, is more naturalistic. Even the lead performance in Thayi Saheba (1997) is stylized the same way.
SS: One of the students studying with Nani might be homosexual. Was there any backlash against this? I’m guessing it would have been scandalous locating such a character within such milieu.
GK: No, there wasn’t because it was not overdone, it was subtle. Outrage occurs when a portrayal is sensational or too provocative. There were some who questioned me about Haseena (2004), but there really has been only one such provocative instance in all my films taken together: when Tabara curses the pension officials in Tabarana Kathe (1986)
SS: You mention Haseena, whose story is set in a Muslim community which has its own laws pertaining to marriage and divorce. Post 9/11, it does seem like a rather risky move. What was the reason to set the film is such an enclosed social setup?
GK: Haseena is not as much related to 9/11 as it is to our response to that event. Haseena is rallying for justice at the mosque. She tries to achieve what she wants within the structure of the Islamic law. She does not attempt to come out of it and appeal to secular establishments. What I was trying to say is that there is a space in every religion in which one can address issues. Only when they are institutionalized that cover-ups happen. The character of the rich lady in the film points out just that.
SS: I think your point is very central to Naayi Neralu (2006). Even though Venku is within a rigid establishment, the intrusion of the man, who claims to be her reincarnated husband, comes across as a form of liberation. She is not completely averse to it.
GK: She is initially averse to the idea. She does not believe in reincarnation. But she realizes that one way out of this suffocating atmosphere is to pretend that as if she believes in it. That, in my opinion, is a form of protest. When we usually talk about protest, we only think of large-scale demonstrations, but in the world around us, we see a number of such small gestures which make life meaningful.
SS: In films of, say, John Abraham, social change is achieved through radical political change, whereas you take a bottom-up approach in your films. Do you believe that without large scale political change, a social overhaul could be achieved?
GK: In John’s films, the characters are already politicized and aware of their situations. My films are about other people who aren’t. Yamunakka, Haseena, Venku are not the kind of people who can take up placards and fight the order. Marx calls it “village idiocy”. They are not. They have an innate instinct on how to respond meaningfully to their situation.
SS: In Mane (1991), which is unlike anything you’ve done and unlike other films dealing with marital relationships, there is so much happening around the couple, while the cracks are all within. It’s very unreal. Why did you take a tale as personal as this and trying to view it through a sociological lens?
GK: Mane and Kraurya (1996) were two films that deal with changes that affect personal relationships. Rajanna keeps talking proudly about working in an MNC. India had just opened up their markets. I thought that agrarian society would be left behind in Rajiv Gandhi’s “Leap into the 21st century”. Mane, then, became a metaphor, with the rocking house, the walls, and the shed and so on. I don’t show the people working in the shed. Rajanna thinks these people are a threat. He doesn’t realize that the company he is working for is the real threat. He comes from a rural background. Initially, he doesn’t want his wife to be with his aunt, who he thinks is morally questionable. But slowly, he starts pestering her to go to his aunt’s house, knowing well that the inspector – who represents the state – will be there. There’s a shift in his perspective. Such social changes also bring about changes in values. I wanted to register that. An extension of this is seen in Kraurya.
SS: You establish the dichotomy between rural and urban life, which you talk about, early on. Rajanna’s rural life is just alluded to, and you shoot the suffocating urban spaces, the decor in a completely unconventional manner. The sounds and the images, too, seem completely synthetic and shaped to precision. How did all this come up?
GK: In every film, one does that. But in Mane, you probably notice it because it’s a little more stylized. For instance, the colour scheme in Mane and Naayi Neralu are the same. In the latter, it is more conspicuous while here I play with the colours. I felt that in Tabarana Kathe people got carried away by the narrative that they saw bureaucracy as the source of the tragedy .Where as what I wanted to say was Tabara is both the exploiter and perpetuator. So I thought that I should have a narrative that is more symbolic and one which doesn’t exist in real life. I started working on a minimalist narrative, where you are forced to look at things. But the next film Kraurya, like Tabarana Kathe, is abundant with details. Naayi Neralu has the same red, green and white colour scheme of Mane. But I use it in a more realistic way there and in a more unreal fashion in Mane, which is why it became noticed.
SS: Even in Thayi Saheba, there is an abundance of red and deep brown in the indoor scenes. What was the motivation of have these scenes in such intense colours?
GK: One thing is that it was simply a detail. These are oil-lamps and would produce yellow/amber atmosphere. It was a period detail. And not all colors are red; there is just a dominance of red. Appa Saheb is always in white. Among all my films, Thayi Saheba wears the maximum number of colours, because it brings out the irony her character - An exterior full of colours but lonely within.
SS: You use perfume as a metaphor for the aristocratic legacy that the son carries. He tries to break out of it continuously. You are deeply empathetic towards him, but at the same time, you sympathize with Thayi Saheba. Is Thayi Saheba a revolutionary, a reactionary or a victim?
GK: When I was working on the script, I asked my wife, who hails from that area, one detail that characterizes the aristocracy. She said Attar. I thought it was a good detail and I could use it in many ways. It is not a visual cue, but it has a strong conceptual presence throughout. What is Thayi Saheba? I wouldn’t say she is a revolutionary, but she is not a reactionary either. We have this wrong notion of revolutionaries. Appa Saheb has a ideological clarity, while Thayi Saheba finds it impossible to understand these political terminologies. But in the realm of personal relationships she achieves everything that Appa Saheb doesn’t. She’s neither a reactionary nor revolutionary, but she’s one with a very progressive attitude. The ideologue Appa Saheb takes to religion once he loses his legs. I gave another facet of it to other Zamindars, who want to retain their land after independence. Their notion of freedom is restricted to a political freedom from imperialists. So the freedom movement is not a part of women or the farmer class. It is restricted to a particular group. To highlight this historical reality, I wanted to take to get a period ambience. The film was made in 1997, 50 years of independence. I wanted to understand if we’ve really got freedom for everyone. The film is set in a period between Gandhi’s and Nehru’s death and I wanted to raise to all those sociopolitical changes that took place and how it affected his legacy.
SS: With Dweepa, you jump right into a post-globalized India. The effect is established right in the first scene; indigenous people are being relocated, as in other third world countries. There is so much happening structurally in the film as well, with differences and splits manifest on many levels. Why the sudden shift from the minimalist, metaphorical modes of previous films to a confrontational one?
The film is not as much about relocation, which does happen in the background, as it is about submersion. We always talk about displacement, but we submerge more than just the geography: cultures, life-styles and, most importantly, self-esteem of the people. Ganapaiah’s greatest shock is when he learns that his past does not count at all. Even his biggest supporter calls him a madman. Krishna hails from the city and represents the future in a way. He keeps talking about the world outside the island. Nagi, on the other hand, has neither the burden of the past nor the enamored by the future. She is a person of the present. She thinks only about solving the current crisis the family faces. She tells her husband that she came to live with him in the island and can survive under any circumstance. I wanted to explore what makes this woman so resilient. That innate quality which Indian women have: managing with the little resource they have, negotiation with the time and situation. There are five characters in the film – I consider nature to be an important character because it is so directly involved in the family’s lifestyle. Nagi is like the river, you can try to hold her with the dam, but she will overflow. Her essence remains the same. I wanted to construct the film like an inverted pyramid: first the village is submerged, then the island, then the family and finally it tries to submerge the couple. I’d say, even here, I work on a metaphorical level. I haven’t gone after issues. It would have become another Tabarana Kathe. I didn’t want to do that.
SS: When dealing with such a topic, filmmakers often run the risk of exploiting their subjects. How did you negotiate this problem and decide on your limits and your approach towards the characters?
GK: Sometimes, we try to take a very easy approach. We don’t look for grey shades. One of the problems with agitprop cinema is that they don’t look for grey shades. The strength of films that are humanitarian in their concerns is that they always have grey shades. Sarbojaya in Pather Panchali (1955) steals, Antonio in Bicycle Thieves (1948) steals. Yet we sympathize with them, because the directors succeed in diverting your attention from the acts of stealing towards the sociopolitical reasons of stealing. In agitprop cinema, you concentrate more on the action and don’t go beyond that. Ray and De Sica make you understand the situation through this act. I, as a spectator, don’t want Antonio to get caught because I have sympathized with him and understood the problem in all its dimensions. In other kinds of cinema, zamindars are evil. The real challenge for a filmmaker is to capture the characters in grey shades, not pure white, not pure black. In Dweepa, when Nagi’s husband dismisses her efforts, we don’t become angry, we move to a higher space where we understand reality with much clarity. You realize that the male ego does not want to accept her sacrifice. You realize the gender politics between them. It’s not husband beating the wife. He does not hit his wife, does not scold her, but there is gender politics going on,
SS: We can see this kind of grey portrayal in Kanasembo Kudureyaneri (2010), where some of the landlords try to help Irya out of the situation. In Kanasembo, you use an unconventional narrative structure which isolates the two classes, as if a person from one side can’t see what’s happening on the other side. Did you decide on the structure before developing the material or did you find a technique that suited the subject?
GK: I had wanted to make a fragmented narrative for some time. But are we going to use it for the heck of it? It shouldn’t be the case. I was actually looking for a subject that demands such a narration. When I found the story, it hit me because an event looks completely different when seen from two different places. I wanted to retain that structure because as a spectator, when I watch Irya’s first dream, I think he is mad and that Mathadaya is a rational man. That is the attitude most of us have. We always think that the stories, dreams and myths of marginalized people are rubbish. When a man in coat and with a tie talks about “vision of India”, we listen attentively. Today everyone is writing a book on a vision for India. In their vision, a large section of India doesn’t exist. As a viewer, the first section is very convenient for me to criticize. When we see the same event in the second section, we learn a different truth. So, in a way, it makes me introspect about my attitude towards other cultures and myths. Rudri’s dream is spoiled by not Mathadaya, but Basavanappa, who is more rationalistic. He has this wrong notion that if he destroys their myths, Irya and Rudri will progress. This is the biggest danger.
SS: In Gulabi Talkies(2008), you cover a lot of grounds, the film contains almost an excess of detail: fishermen’s conflicts, communal riots, the Kargil war, the effect of Gulabi’s TV on the neighbours etc. Do you think all these events could be tracked to a single top-level problem?
GK: Gulabi is a unique film in my oeuvre. Gulabi is tied to the community, she is not the centre. She is as much important as the fishing community. It’s a film about a community, not an individual. When you are talking about a community, you cannot just touch one point. I wanted to bring in all those elements, which has made our life complex, many of which cannot easily be solved. People very simplistically say that so and so is the reason for communal tension. Behind that there is globalization, behind that there is changed economic motivations. Hindus were bosses, Muslims were workers once. Then the situation changed. Then there’s the exploitation of sentiments by the media. The original short story is set in 1930s. I shifted it to the 90s, which is a very turbulent period in recent Indian history. That’s the period when economy was opened up, the Babri Mosque was destroyed, and private TV channels bloomed, which were blaring Vande Mataram in warlike tunes. I wanted to have the inner world of Gulabi and the outer world of the fishermen, each contributing to the other.
SS: There’s been much talk about death of cinema. Do you think cinema is mortal?
GK: The media only looks at the dominant industries. When Antonioni came out with L’Avventura(1960), people criticized him because it was completely radical for its time. They were used to filmmakers like De Sica and Fellini. Even now we have directors from small countries like Taiwan making good films. These filmmakers are trying to find a unique idiom of expression that is only possible in cinema. I would say cinema is, in fact, becoming more cinematic. So I wouldn’t be so quick to write the obituary of cinema.
SS: Your thoughts on digital filmmaking?
GK: In the olden days, directors needed to get the approval of the studio before they could acquire the equipment and start making their films. Then, in the sixties, the situation improved, with the waning of studio’s power. That’s how we could make films. Even then, we needed to get the various equipments before we could begin shooting. But, today, there is no need for even that. You can make a film with a limited crew. I think it’s a good thing; it gives everyone an opportunity to express themselves. But just because the resource is easily available, you should not misuse it.
SS: The 70s saw a boom in film societies, but they have gradually decreased in numbers since then. What do you think is the reason for this decline?
GK: You should look at it in terms of access to films. At that time, only film societies had access to world cinema. They used to file requests and get the prints. If a thousand people were registered in a film society and six hundred of those frequented it, only those six hundred had any knowledge about international cinema. Young people today have much more exposure to world cinema than those days. Nowadays, you can find any film sitting at the computer or walking over to your nearest DVD store. The need for film societies gradually went down. But at the same time, cinema-watching has ceased to become a communal activity. We watch it alone in front of our computers, instead of sitting with 800 people in a hall. The experience is totally different.
SS: So should film societies concentrate less on procuring films and more on making films a communal activity, generating discussion and debate along the way?
GK: Film societies should play a bigger role in culturing a viewer into a cinemate. Some film societies have not been able to do this, at least some of the societies I know of in Karnataka. They are familiar with world cinema but when it comes to a film from Kannada or Marathi they are not that enthusiastic. Discussions should be more inclusive and participatory. They should understand the cinematic and cultural norms of specific geographies. There is such discussion online. You watch a film and visit the web. You have forums where people discuss such matters.
SS: One perfunctory interview question - filmmakers who have had the greatest influence on you? You’ve mentioned Ozu elsewhere.
GK: I’m not influenced by filmmakers; I’m influenced by individual films. Some of my friends go after filmmakers and make sure they catch up with all their films. I don’t do that. I like Pather Panchali, but don’t like some of Ray’s other films. I mentioned Ozu because I admire his filmmaking. But that does mean I’m influenced by him. You can’t see his influence in my films. Ozu is very minimalistic and his form is highly codified You know that if three people are talking, he’s going to go for a triangular composition.. If one character gets up, there will be a cut to a long shot instead of a dolly back or a moving camera. If there’s a red, there will be a yellow somewhere in the image to balance it. If there are walls, they will be almost empty, without decorations. No character will break down dramatically. I can’t do that. I need a little more drama in my films.