In 1970, a Kannada film named Samskara came out after a long struggle with the censors. Its stance against age-old Brahmin preserves and deep-seated conservatism was so bold and radical for the time that it became iconic almost as soon as it released. When you look back at the best of Indian cinema which bravely waded in where no one had dared venture before, Samskara comes up at the top, still, after almost half a century.
The film was directed by Pattabhirama Reddy, and Reddy shared the writing credits with a young man who had been making a name for himself in the realm of theatre, shaking it from its fusty moorings and infusing it with fresh energy through his writing and translations. His name was Girish Karnad.
Karnad also acted in Samskara and that role was one of the markers of a long, illustrious career of a gifted polymath: he wrote and directed theatre and film, he acted, he mentored and taught. And his work was always invested with a keen, empathetic knowledge and understanding of society.
Girish Karnad understood that the way forward was to keep examining the past, which is why some of his best-realised plays, including Tughlaq and Hayavadana, as well as movies, were based on mythological and historical figures. The deeply political and still relevant Tughlaq, which the great Ebrahim Alkazi directed and set against the backdrop of Delhi’s Purana Qila, was magnificent: those who saw it will never forget it.
His affinity for theatre, which he had been exposed to as a child, remained a life-long passion. His cinematic ventures (as a writer, director, actor) were significant too. A series of Kannada films, including Vamsa Vrikhsha (BV Karanth co-directed it with Karnad; both received a national award for it), and Godhuli are memorable for what they said, and how they said it.
Girish Karnad was a familiar figure in some of the most memorable Hindi movies of the 70s and 80s. His fruitful collaboration with Shyam Benegal, one of the architects of meaningful ‘parallel’ cinema, resulted in Nishant (1975), which took a step further in the direction of dismantling feudalism, at least in the movies, after Ankur (1974). Nishant, as searing as Ankur, is remembered for it being Naseeruddin Shah’s debut, and Smita Patil’s affecting part, but Karnad stands out too.
Manthan (1976) was based on how the famous milk co-operative in Anand (AMUL) came to be formed, in which Karnad plays a fictionalised version of Verghese Kurien, the man behind the ‘milk revolution’. Manthan turned into an instant classic in the way it was funded (the milk farmers involved each contributed Rs 2, and made sure they earned it back by coming to watch in large numbers). Watching it today, you can see the lack of polish, and yet that very same thing makes it such a realistic, effective document of a movement which changed the way India produced and distributed milk.
He directed Utsav (1984), produced by Shashi Kapoor and based on the Sanskrit play Mrichchakatika, but that was not successful. The film was clunky and miles away from Karnad’s comfort zone: a scene has a scrawny Shekhar Suman in rapt adoration of a barely-clad Rekha, and it is more unintentionally hilarious than ‘erotic’, the tagline of the film. Utsav was a one-off, though, as well his appearance as a leading man in Swami, a winsome Basu Chatterjee film, in which he plays an understanding, loving partner to Shabana Azmi’s troubled wife.
It is Girish Karnad’s masterful hard-hitting dramas with a strong social core that we will remember him for. As well as his off-screen persona, in which he, as a respected public figure, wore his education and erudition lightly. His string of accomplishments, as a Rhodes scholar (he was elected President of the Oxford Union in 63, and there are those who remember him as a fiery orator), a visiting Fulbright professor at the University of Chicago in the late 80s, and many more as a globally-recognised performer, did not prevent Karnad from being a true liberal, rooted and universal at the same time, an artist who stepped up and spoke up, and who belonged to us all.