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Revisiting Samskara…

The very mention of Samskara (Funeral Rites) invariably invokes the name of its late writer, the firebrand UR Ananthamurthy. So strong is the cultural influence of the novel, it is considered to be a pathbreaking work of modern literature in Kannada. A lot has been said and discussed about this 1965 novel, even when people refer to its cinematic adaptation of the same name that was made in 1970 and directed by Pattabhirama Reddy. But because of the distinct nature of the two mediums, I will limit myself to discuss only the film and not make a correlation between the two.

Samskara is a film that I was mesmerized with when I first saw it in Hegoddu village in the early 1980s in my late teens. Although its predecessors in Kannada cinema could be traced back to BR Panthulu’s School Master (1958) and N Lakshminarayan’s Naandi (1964), film historians generally mention Samskara as being the definitive catalyst for the Kannada New Wave Cinema movement of the 1970s and ’80s. Revisiting this ‘landmark’ film, the National Award winner for Best Film in its time, after a gap of quite a few years, I felt that while the film has, no doubt, retained some of  the cinematic brilliance it was applauded for, there are, however, some other aspects of the film that do not work for me anymore.

In the film, a learned ‘public intellectual’ belonging to the upper caste, ultra-traditional Brahmin community, Pranesh Acharya (Girish Karnad making his on-screen and off-screen debut), realizes that he is no different from the rest of his hypocritical brethren living in his agrahara (a Brahmin hamlet) when he is confronted by the death of the community rebel, Narayanappa (P Lankesh), who was once on the brink of being excommunicated. All the knowledge enshrined in the holy scriptures cannot help Pranesh Acharya find a solution as who should cremate the unclaimed body and how. A series of setbacks see him seek an existential escape from the mess that he is in. As he wanders aimlessly experiencing random events, a complete stranger makes him realise his inauthentic state of being, after which he returns back to cremate the body himself.

As the plot of Samskara unfolds, it lays bare in no uncertain terms the two-faced nature of the members of a particular community in Central Karnataka, who follow the way of life that Brahmanism supposedly envisions, the rigidity of which is stifling even for the brightest of them. The strength of this film lies in the skillful way in which it juxtaposes the decline of their strictly Brahminical way of life with the engulfing plague epidemic looming in the area. A plethora of dead bodies are seen right through the film, of rats and of people.

Narayanappa, the privileged Brahmin rebel does everything that the other Brahmins of the agrahra are not supposed to do – he has a relationship with a lady from the historically oppressed Dalit community, Chandri, he smokes, drinks, is involved in the arts, and is generally considered as a bad influence on youngsters. When he dies right at the beginning of the film, it comes across as a natural death. As Pranesh Acharya and the rest of the Brahmins of the village discuss among themselves as to what is to be done with his body, suddenly, we see a quick close-up of a rat dying to an accompanying musical effect provided by music director, Rajeev Taranath. A few sequences later, there is another similar shot and as the film progresses, more such rats die in spaced-out ,interwoven shots – in the Dalit households, outside the Brahmin houses and then right within them. For the uninitiated, it is still not yet clear as to why the rats are dying.

Simultaneously, after Pranesh Acharya fails to provide an effective solution to the problem in hand, the rest of the Brahmins head to the main monastery of the area to seek a solution from the head priest. By the time they complete the three day journey, back and forth, each one of them collapses at various stages of the journey. It is still not yet obviously clear as to why they are all falling ill. In between, Pranesh Acharya’s wife dies too. As the women folk are sent to their parents’ houses, the agrahara is empty except for the presence as Chandri, who is trying all within her means to get the body of Narayanappa cremated.

There is yet another layer thrown into the film – that of the hovering vultures. It starts off just before the death of Narayanappa, when a nervous Pranesh Acharya sees one of them flying around through his window. As the film progresses, many more vultures gather. So much so that at one point, the entire agrahara come outside their houses trying to ritualistically shoo them away. Are the vultures there to prey on the dead rats or is it because that they can smell the body of Narayanappa, which we can only imagine to be rapidly decaying as apart from the one time in the beginning, the body is never shown on screen?

It is only after about three quarters into the film that it is made clear that there is a plague epidemic engulfing the area. A government announcer plays his traditional drum to make an announcement asking people to be cautious at the fair where Pranesh Acharya and his newly befriended acquaintance visit. This is when the various deaths of men and rats, the presence of the vultures, etc. all fall in place. Apart from its controversial subject, the power of the film mainly arises through its cinematic pattern that is most creatively and effectively  weaved into it in the manner mentioned above.

The stability that Pranesh Acharya evokes in the early part of the film quickly changes to nervous shakiness when he is confronted with the cremation of Narayanappa. He becomes a man possessed to find a solution and when he can’t, he becomes more and twitchy moving all over the place – literally on the run – till the end of the film. As if to mimic this restlessness, Reddy and his Australian cinematographer, Tom Cowen, employ a fidgety style wherein the camera too constantly moves around and along with its characters – a track here, a hand held there, some tilts or calculated zooms.  In fact, flux is a prominent motif in the film – every living being in the film looks to be constantly on the move – till the time Pranesh Acharya’s mind is devoid of any existential wobbling. So much so, that in the end after his emancipation, he comes in front of Narayanappa’s door steps with the confidence that he had in the beginning of the film and stands there, absolutely still. The next shot, which is the last in the film, is that of the quiet agrahara at twilight. It would seem that the village itself and the entire surroundings have once again acquired a sense of stability.

What also stands out for me this time is the portrayal of the rebel Brahmin, Narayanappa.  Since the film is about the reform of the so called ‘pure’ Brahmin that Pranesh Acharya is, it is imperative that Narayanappa does not get the screen time that he probably deserves. And within the given little time that he has, he is portrayed as an argumentative and troublesome Enfant terrible of the agrahara, living in its fringes, so to say. With the privilege of his high-caste that is bestowed upon him by birth, his indulgences are in the arts, wine and women. He is also mentioned to be benevolent to Dalit families, non-Brahmin friends and other ‘rebel’ Brahmins like him. Adding to this stereotypical portrayal of such a rebel character, actor P Lankesh, too, interprets the role with a certain degree of ‘villainish’ type tropes.

Also stereotypical are the portrayal of the other Brahmins of the agrahara. In fact, they almost look like cardboard cutouts. The actors ,who have played  these parts, too, are by and large overt in their expressions as against the subdued quality that Girish Karnad brings to the character of Pranesh Acharya. Although the bundle of contradictions that the rest of the Brahmins epitomize are no different from the ones that Karnad’s character demonstrates, Pranesh Acharya is not caricaturized as has been done with the others, knowingly or otherwise. What differentiates his character, treated with kid gloves, from the rest is the enlightened quality that a ‘true’ Brahmin is traditionally supposed to have, although in reality it could be a matter of entitlement. The ‘knowledge’ and ‘wisdom’ that Pranesh Acharya is bestowed with, has earned him the respect not only of his fellow Brahmins, but also that of his opponents and  the screenplay writer, Girish Karnad, and director Reddy himself.

While Girish Karnad has been credited with script and dialogues of the film, a separate credit is given for ‘scenario’ that is shared by Pattabhirama Reddy, cameraman Tom Cowen and the associate director Singeetam Srinivasa Rao. There are portions in the script that betrays Karnad’s strong theatrical connections – like providing information about a character for the sake of providing information. Why would anyone provide information of his past to another person who is already in the know about that information – except of course if the intention on the part of the writer is to pass on that information to the audience? Otherwise, the well-structured script is enriched by the shot division and a probably pre-worked out mise-en-scène, which probably is acknowledged by the new credit title of ‘scenario’. It also looks that the Australian editor, Steven Carthew, and his Indian counterpart, Vasu, are also largely responsible for the cinematic idiom that is reflected in the film.

Samskara was initially denied a certificate apparently because the Certification Board had felt that it could hurt the sentiments of the Brahmins. On viewing the film again, I stand corrected on my long standing view of the film. Although it gives subtle hints, it is not, finally, a film on the unequal caste equations that besiege our society and the resulting world of repression therein. I now  look at the film as one that upholds the Brahminical  way of life, albeit after some ‘cleansing’. It is pertinent to note that Pranesh Acharya’s change of mind happens only after he washes his hands, which have been ‘sullied’ by the food that he ate at the temple. With a dead body of a fellow Brahmin still un-cremated, he was not supposed to have indulged in such feasts. By doing so, by his own admissions, he has also thrust his impurity onto the temple, the other Brahmins eating with him and the entire fair that he has visited. By washing his hands in the river, it would seem that he has also washed away the self-declared ‘sins’ he had committed since Narayanappa’s death, including indulging in extramarital sex with Chandri. Thus, he is now reformed, ready to re-enter the same world he had once ruled with pomp, the first atonement for which would  be the cremation of Narayanappa’s body, who, incidentally, is still a Brahmin by virtue of not being excommunicated.

It is not for me to suggest alternatives on the choices that have been made in any film, but the events in Samskara have not unfolded from the point of view of Narayanappa or for that matter, Chandri. So in the end, it focuses on Pranesh Acharya preferring to look at the world through his eyes. It is all about who a good Brahmin is and the restoration of his Brahminical values, albeit along with some reforms.

For those interested, the film with English subtitles can be watched here.

Header photo cleaned and restored by Jamal Akbar.

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