Girish Karnad: A Personal Reminiscence

I  have this vivid childhood image etched in my memory of Girish Karnad riding a scooter (Bajaj I think), with some serious unknown intent, down the slope from Saraswatpur to Toll Naka in Dharwad, Karnataka.

My father was posted in Dharwad during the late 1970s. Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC), the organisation that he was working in, had three regional offices in Karnataka then, Dharwad being one of them. We were housed in a colony situated just besides the Toll Naka junction. One road at the junction – the main highway, went to Hubli and from then on to Bangalore. The other road, almost a large lane that was full of thick trees by its side during those days, climbed up to a serene colony dotted with old bungalows called Saraswatpur.

Girish was by then already a celebrity of some sorts. He was a playwright of repute. His name was firmly etched in the annals of the history of Kannada ‘New Wave’ films of the early years. He had already had a stint as the Director of the Film and TV Institute of India (FTII), Pune and had made a foray into the Hindi parallel cinema movement thanks to Shyam Benegal. He was also beginning to gather a foothold in Hindi mainstream cinema through Basu Chatterjee’s Swami, produced by Hema Malini’s mother, Jaya Chakravarthy.  But none of these mattered to me during the days that we lived in LIC colony at Toll Naka junction.  Nor was I aware of Girish’s enormous reputation then.

What we, the children of LIC colony, knew then was that Girish had a house in Swarsatpur, but that he lived in Mumbai most of the time working in the Hindi film industry. Cycle friends in the colony had seen him ride a scooter down the slope from Saraswatpur for two to three consecutive days at a particular time. The news that “Girish Karnad has come home for a break from Bombay” echoed in the colony. Some whispered that he was having an affair with Hema Malini. Some of the friends who ‘saw’ him riding the scooter mentioned that actress Leena Chandravarkar was besides him at the pillion seat, while others said it was actor Shankar Nag!

For two or three days, some of us who missed out on this exciting sight waited at the side gate of the colony at the designated time to get a glimpse of the man. Much to our disappointment, he did not turn up for the next two to three days. And since we did not see him, we also did not see Hema Malini, Leena Chandravarkar or Shankar Nag. We were disappointment personified. Not giving up hope we even cycled up the Saraswatpur hillock to check out Girish’s bungalow without much luck. Much later I learnt that Leena Chandravarka’s family, too, owned a house in Saraswatpur.

And then one evening just when we thought that Girlish might have gone back to Mumbai, while I was returning from my school after a two kilometre walk and entering the small gate of the LIC colony that was facing the Saraswatpur road, I saw him there in flesh and blood. Girish was speeding down the road towards Toll Naka junction and presumably further on his grey colour Bajaj scooter. Although no one sat behind him, it was my ‘fan boy’ moment. I followed looking at the scooter till it merged into the perspective beyond the toll naka junction. The next two days was all about describing this sight to friends at LIC colony, while some of them lamented that they missed something very important in life.

It was not until I was studying in college in Udupi that I realised the importance of Girish Karnad in the Indian cultural scene, when my teacher BR Nagesh explained to me the nuances of the play Tughlaq, penned by Girish. Nagesh who valued Girish as a creative artist, put me on to other works by Girish – plays like  Yayati, Hayavadana, Hittina Hunja etc. It was all eye-opening for me.

During the late 1980s, when I was studying Film Direction at FTII, we as students had heard a lot of stories about how Girish Karnad spent most of his time in the Main Theatre watching world cinema and learning from it. By and large, by then the Kannada New Wave films had failed to come out of the influence of Kannada literature, with Girish’s films like Vamsha Vruksha (Family Tree) and Kaadu (The Forest) being prime examples. But after his stint as the director of FTII, Girish made Ondanonu Kaaladalli (Once Upon a Time), which to me is by far his most cinematic work. Small wonder that it is inspired by Kurosawa’s films which he must have seen in the Main Theatre, no doubt.

His tenure as the director of FTII was marked by protests and strikes, actor Naseeruddin Shah leading one of them. We as students learnt through stories passed down in the FTII campus that despite Naseer being a troublemaker, Girish had nevertheless recommended his name to Shyam Benegal when the later was making Nishant, thereby introducing him as an actor par excellence. Another rumour doing the rounds those days was that it was Girish Karnad, who was instrumental in Girish Kasarvalli not getting his diploma certificate because the former had raised objections to the feature film script that the latter had to submit during his stay at FTII. That the script was later made into another well-known, masterful New Wave film in Kannada, Ghatashraddha by Kasaravalli later is a different matter altogether.

Years later, when I interviewed Karnad for a documentary I was making on BV Karanth during the early 2010s, I casually asked him, “Are you planning to direct any new film?” With an amused swagger, he laughed and replied, “No, not at all. Film making is now a young person’s game.” I had then wished that he be wrong. I still wish that he was wrong. Two or three years later,  I was travelling with my Hindi language film, Haal-E-Kangaal (The Bankrupts), showing it at alternative screening venues all over India. One of the people that I contacted was Abdul Khan of the Chitra Film Society in Dharwad.

The Chitra Film Society existed even when I was doing my high school at Dharwad. The main organiser, even then, was Abdul Khan. He, too, like my father, was then working in LIC. Abdul Khan revealed that Girish Karnad was the founding member of the film society and was actively involved in its running in its initial days, before moving on to be its guiding force. I had seen films like Dilip Kumar’s Sagina through the society – a film where he played a tea garden trade union person and which was directed by Tapan Sinha. Abdul Khan took me to my old LIC colony and also told me that Girish Karnad had sold off his house at Saraswatpur. Apparently, the younger generation was not too keen on the house and Girish wanted closure of that aspect of his life while he was still alive.

Girish Karnad, during his later years, acted in a host of regressive mainstream films, especially films like Ek Tha TigerTiger Zinda Hain, etc. At the same time, he believed in progressive politics. He actively participated in street protests on various issues he thought important to the Nation – issues like selective targeting of public intellectuals, dangers of imposing a singular cultural hegemony etc. Recently, when Sunil Shanbaug was awarded the Sangeet Natak Academy award, there were strong rumors that a certain section of right wing cultural activists wanted the award be withdrawn because of the political views that Sunil held. As the ex-chairman of Sangeet Natak Academy, Girish wrote a strongly worded letter batting otherwise.

When he died (today), a news portal’s newsfeed read, “Tiger Zinda Hai actor Girish Karnad dies at 81″. That is pathetic reductionism of the worst kind stemming out of ignorance and maybe even mischief – especially when the man himself was so highly versatile all through his life, creating subliminal works of art even when his health was fragile. Of all the avatars that he had donned, he needs to be acknowledged as a cultural and political influencer of people and events. I would like to know him though for one particular reason  –  as the man who learnt the craft of cinema while heading the FTII! That alone speaks volumes about his zeal.

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  1. I still remember him coming on stage to meet and congratulate me after my play ( Erendira) directed by Amal Allana. I held his hand in awe and said to him , that your play Hayavadan is my favourite, I played devdutta.
    I asked him for his autograph ,his wife was with him on stage and she said to him ” Why don’t you take his instead? “.
    I will forever remember him for his body of work , for his polite down to earth demeanour…and I will forever miss him.

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