It was 1991. I was still a student of Film Direction at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, when I got a totally unexpected phone call asking me to play the lead in a Kannada film. The film, to be directed by reputed director TS Nagabharana, was called Mysoora Mallige (Jasmine of Mysore) and was based on the legendary poet KS Narasimhaswamy’s work of the same name that he had written in 1942. Nagabharana was attempting to create a story from the poems of Narasimhaswamy centred around some of the characters inhabiting his poems. Being a student, though it was difficult to take off from the course for a couple of months from academics, I was not one to lose such an opportunity playing a poet cum patriot in the days of the freedom struggle. Somehow, I managed to complete both, the film and my course at the FTII!
So, I landed in Bangalore and there was palatable excitement when I was told of who my co-actors were in the film. Sudha Rani, a leading Kannada film star at the time, was to play my wife and the great playwright, actor and filmmaker, Girish Karnad, was cast as my father-in-law. Here, I must admit here that I went through a heady mix of feelings. First, the fear of the unknown and then, the excitement of working with Girish Karnad.
The location where we were shooting was a little town called Tirthahalli, which is situated on the banks of the Tungabhadra River in the Malnad region of Karnataka. In fact, almost the entire movie was filmed there and the schedule entailed my shooting with Girish for about 25 days. Girish joined our unit after about 20 days of filming. Sudha, Girish and I were put up at a private guesthouse in the area. With few rooms available there, Girish and I had to share a room. He didn’t mind though I felt uneasy.
Girish settled down quickly and what’s more, made me feel comfortable too. I think one of the reasons he might have agreed to sharing the room with me was because I was a student at FTII, where he had been the Director. It was straightaway a teacher-student like situation for me and the only thing that ran through my head was that this was a golden opportunity to get to know him and learn something along the way.
During the day, Girish would be very business-like while on the sets. He had an acting job to do and he was entirely focused on that. The evenings, however, were more relaxed as we would unwind after the shoot. He would pull out his drink and sip on it in the garden outside. I would sit beside him with a beer. His first instruction to me was to call him Girish and never Sir! Many long conversations would take place through these evenings. He would keenly enquire about the state of the Institute and the teachers. He too had many stories of the Institute from his time to share and he would fondly remember many of the actors, who were his students at the time.
During the shoot, there were two things that I took upon myself to do for him. One was to get the hot water ready for his bath in the morning as the water was heated in a traditional boiler using firewood. The other was to make sure that my Walkman batteries were always charged for him to listen to my collection of Carnatic music. The very first evening, he asked me what I was listening to and requested me for the Walkman. Once he began using it, it was his and we would often exchange notes on the ragas and compositions. He thoroughly enjoyed it and was like a keen student trying to learn some of the intricacies of Carnatic music from me. And yes, I did manage to make him a Yesudas fan along the way!
There were days I would return late after shooting at night and would try to quietly sneak into the room to get to sleep as he was already asleep by then. He would unfailingly wake up and ask me if the scenes went well. He would laugh and then tell me the Walkman batteries had died! There was that inspirational quality in him without him ever forsaking his simplicity. To those who did not know him well, he was this quiet dignified man with few words, who was often misunderstood as being haughty. And to those who knew him well, he was extremely warm, easy and caring.
I was in the middle of a shot when he was ready to leave, his work in the schedule having got over. He sent word for me to see him. His only piece of advice for me was that I should rigorously follow my passion and that I should keep in touch with him. I have met him several times over the years and he would always have a kind word or two. I think the FTII-connect between us never really left.
Indeed, I will always cherish my memories of that time spent with him in Tirthahalli. And here’s a little clip from Mysoora Mallige to revisit the days gone by…