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Girish Kasaravalli is one of the pioneers of the New Wave Movement in Kannada cinema and arguably one of Kannada filmdom’s best directors. Four of his films have won the National Award for Best Film – Ghatashraddha (1977), Tabarana Kathe (1986), Thai Saheba (1997) and Dweepa (2001).
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Born on December 3rd, 1950, Kasaravalli’s early interest in cinema and the arts was due to his uncle , Magsaysay Awardee KV Subbana. Kasaravalli graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune in 1975 with specialization in film direction. He won awards at the National level then itself when his diploma film at the FTII, Avashesh, won a National Award for Best Experimental Film and was screened as part of the Indian Panorama at Filmotsav ’78 held at Madras, now Chennai. The film looked at two neglected inmates of a house, Hari, a little boy and Granny, the oldest member of the family.
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Kasaravalli made a solid impact with his first feature film itself, Ghatashraddha, made in 1977. The film, in black and white, takes place in an orthodox Brahmin village of Karnataka in the 1920s. The powerful film, based on a story by UR Ananthamurthy, tells of the story of a young widow through the eyes of a young boy. The widowed Yamuna (Meena Kuttappa) lives with her father Udupa (Ramaswamy Iyenger), who runs a traditional school for young brahmins. Yamuna protects a young student, Naani (Ajit Kumar) who is bullied by his colleagues. Yamuna, feeling the same desires of other girls of her age, has an affair with the local teacher and becomes pregnant. She decides to abort and then commit suicide. She manages the abortion with the help of un untouchable but as the truth is known, her father performs the ‘ghatshraddha’ or the ritual of ex-communication, that leaves her, clad in a white sari and shaved head, humiliated and banned from the village. Ghatashraddha has some uforgettable scenes like Yamuna trying to kill herself by sticking her hand into a nest of snakes. The film, acknowledging the influence of Samskara (1970), went on to win the National Award for Best Film. The film also won awards at the State Level as well as Internationally and was the only Indian Film selected by the National Archives of Paris as part of highlighting the centenary of cinema.
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Mooru Darigalu (1981), is perhaps Kasaravalli’s most pessimistic film. The story of an innocent young girl, who confronted by the cowardice of men, finally commits suicide. It is according to Kasaravalli, a film that unfortunately did not work. Quoting him in an interview,“The structure of the novel on which the film was based was so complex, so fascinating, a kind of flash-back within a flash-back within a flash-back. Unfortunately it so happened that lot of material got destroyed in the processing lab due to some technical problem. Unlike today’s digital technology, manual editing has to be done very carefully. We literally lost several shots. What emerged at the end of it all was a linear narrative, the kind that the audience could understand but one that did no justice to that magnificent novel.”
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There were no such problems with his next film. Tabarana Kathe, made in 1986, and based on a short story by Poornachandra Tejasvi, sees a stunning performance by Charu Haasan, Kamal Haasan’s elder brother, as Tabarana Shetty, a government employee and his struggle to get his pension after retirement. Matters worsen when his wife and only companion in the world, falls sick with diabetes. She has a sore foot which turns to gangrene. Tabara tries all means to get his pension to treat his wife. After a few months, his wife dies. The pension money arrives after that…The film not only won the National Award for Best Film but Charu Haasan also deservedly won the National Award for Best Actor. The film also won 8 Karnataka State Awards and was screened to great acclaim at various International film festivals.
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Mane (Kannada)/Ek Ghar (Hindi) (1989) is an explicitly urban film starring Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval and Rohini Hattangadi. The film is an adaptation of a story by the same name by TG Raghava. Though Kasaravalli has taken the plot outline and characters from the novel and enriched them while paring them to essential types and while the film has its moments, the film ultimately fails to work as Kasaravalli himself acknowledged that though Naseer, Deepti and Rohini were fine artists in their own right, casting Kannada actors would have served the film better.
Kraurya (1996) saw Kasaravalli returning to feature filmmaking after a long gap and sees him treating the poignant subject of loneliness with humor. The film is the story of a widowed grandmother, who adored by the children of the village for the stories she tells them and despite the affection of her little grandson, lets herself die of grief as she despairs of the ultra-individualistic and utilitarian relationships that have come about in her family and in the changing world around her.
Kasaravalli’s films have by and large always had very strong roles for women and this is more than apparent in his subsequent three films following Kraurya – Thai Saheba, Dweepa and Hasina (2004). The actresses in each of the films were popular stars who produced the films for Kasaravalli and responded with easily their career’s finest performance be it Jayamala in Thai Saheba, the late Soundarya in Dweepa or Thara in Hasina, the last named winning the National Award for Best Actress.
With Thai Saheba, Kasaravalli worked with a popular star (Jayamala) for the first time. Jayamala had been after him since 1983 to make a film for her, which she could produce and star in and only after he felt that she was actually serious did Kasaravalli go ahead. In Thai Saheba, Kasaravalli vividly portrays not just the political struggle before and after Indian independence but also the struggle within the family. His characters, although belonging to the historical past of the Indian society, reflect dilemmas of the present too, especially regarding family matters and marital problems. It was Kasaravalli’s third film to win the National Award for Best Film. The film also won actress Jayamala a special jury mention. Thai Saheba is also a film much admired by no less a filmmaker than Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Quoting Adoor, “Girish Kasaravalli is a very important filmmaker. What I liked about this Kannada film was the way it talked about the transition in Indian society. It’s very well made. “
The fourth National Award for Best Film came with immediately his next film, Dweepa. Based on the novel with the same title by Norbert D’Souza, it deals with the raging issue of building dams and the displacement of locals. Kasaravalli’s great fascination for rain and the metaphor of water symbolizing life, has been used beautifully in the film to portray the emotional and physical repercussions behind the process of displacement. Since rain was an integral part of the film, Kasaravalli actually shot the film in real rain.
Hasina, based on a story by Bhanu Mustak, looks at Hasina (Thara) who marries auto driver Yakub against his mother’s wishes. The couple have three daughters – the visually impaired Munni, Shubby and Habeeb. Pregnant with their fourth child, the couple break social codes and do a pregnancy scan to ascertain the baby’s gender. When Yakub realises it is yet another girl, he becomes at turns abusive and neglectful, eventually leaving Hasina to fend for herself. The film is held together by Thara’s award winning performance even as Kasaravalli handles the film with poetic restraint and profound empathy.
Kasaravalli’s next film was the re-incarnation drama Naayi Neralu (2006), based on a SL Bhyrappa story. The film has won Karnataka State Awards for Best Film, Direction and Actress and has won awards at the Osian Asian Film festival, 2006, Karachi Film Festival and MAMI, International Film Festival of Mumbai. The film was also among other festivals, screened at Rotterdam in 2007 in the Maestros’ category. The awards and accolades at the highest level have continued with every subsequent film made by Kasaravalli be it Gulabi Talkies (2008), which won the National Award for Best Film in Kannada, Kanasembo Kudureyaneri (2009), which was awarded the National Award for Best Screenplay and Best Film in Kannada, and Koormavatara (2011), which bagged the National Award for Best Film in Kannada.
Apart from films, Kasaravalli has made Bannada Vesha (1988) – a telefilm and in between Thai Saheba and Dweepa, he also directed the mega serial Grihabhanga, based on the highly regarded novel by SL Bhyrappa and a feature length documentary film on the imagery of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Images/Reflections (2015). Kasaravalli has also had a retrospective of his films held at Rotterdam in 2003. He was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 2011.
His daughter, Ananya, today is a filmmaker in her own right.