Udupa (Ramaswamy Iyengar) runs a run down Vedic school, operating from his house in a village. Apart from his uncontrollable and unruly students, he lives with his young daughter, Yamuna (Meena Kuttappa), already a widow. Naani (Ajit Kumar), the innocent boy from a distant village, is a new student. A bond develops between a homesick Naani and Yamuna. Yamuna has a lover, a school teacher, whom she meets clandestinely. She is also pregnant by him. As Udupa goes out of town to raise funds for his crumbling school, things go out of hand at the school. The students go out of contorl and soon the entire village knows about Yamuna’s pregnancy. The traditional village members excommunicate Yamuna. Her lover gets the baby aborted without anyone’s knowledge.Udupa returns and on finding out what has happened, performs the last rites of his living daughter. Amidst all these, Naani is the only person in the village determined to support her but not for long for his father comes back to take him away. Yamuna is shaved bald and is abandoned under a banyan tree…
The Kannada New Wave films of the 1970s were by and large a product of the home grown cultural discourses prevalent during those times. Yet, the contribution of talent outside of the state of Karnataka – mainly from Mumbai – cannot be overlooked. Govind Nihalani, AK Bir, Javed Siddiqui, Amrish Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Smita Patil, Bhaskar Chandravarkar, Jayu Nachiket etc have all contributed in these films in various capacities. Similarly, the likes of Shankar Nag, Anant Nag, MS Sathyu and Girish Karnad had their forays into the Mumbai film industry as well. Adding to this list is Sadanand Suvarna, who with financial support from Syndicate Bank, took upon himself to produce Ghatashraddha – considered by many as one of the finest films to have come from the Indian New Wave stable.
Ghatashraddha is based on a literary work of the same name written by UR Ananthamurthy. The story looked at the decline and collapse of the rigid way of living of the scholarly Brahmin community in Karnataka with the suppressed position of women within the community highlighted. Ghatashraddha, the film, faithfully follows this theme. But it is one of the few New Wave Kannada films of that era that went beyond the sensibilities of the literary text on which it was based. The film, was not just a replica of the novel on celluloid, it has its own cinematic attitude, a subtle one at that. The image size, the camera angles, the camera movements, the character movements, the sound effects, music, the lighting and other cinematic tools have a life of their own; they are as important as the story that was being told. With highly evocative cinematography by S Ramchandra, a pioneer of the Kannada New Wave movement, and highly effective music by BV Karanth, Girish Kasaravalli creates a cinematic masterpiece hard to replicate.
In the narration of a story, what is left out is as crucial as what is told. If the film needed to show that Udupa has gone out of town, to meet a seer, the most obvious thing to do is to show Udupa pack his bags and go out of his house. But Kasaravalli has a different take. At night, Udupa tells an uninterested Yamuna about his intention to visit the seer. He then has a sequence where we see some students having their Vedic class. The camera tracks to reveal that the teacher is not Udupa, but someone else. What follows is a sequence where Naani is plucking some holy leaves in the gossip mongrel Godakka’s house. Godakka complains to him about the worthlessness of the make shift teacher; the carelessness of Udupa in leaving for these trips every now and then, thus leaving the school in a lurch. In the narration, it is now clear that Udupa has already gone and in the process we get to know about Yamuna’s lack of interest in the school affairs, about Udupa getting a replacement teacher and about what the villagers think about Udupa’s frequent trips. What could have been done in one sequence is spread over in three. The pace is thus deliberately slowed down. But in the process we are richer with all the other details that pertain to Udupa’s trip and the various characters involved.
In the end of the film, the story goes that the last rite of a still living Yamuna is to be performed. In the timeline of the film, sequences related to this are spread over a long time. It starts by the prankster students informing a shocked Naani in the forests that the ritual is going to be conducted. Then, after a lot of screen time and a pre-climax that leads to Yamuna’s abortion, we see a possible reference when Naani is escorting Yamuna to her house. The prankster students forcefully take Naani away, leaving behind a sick Yamuna. The camera zooms into her rich black hair. Immediately, we see Udupa performing the rites. It is only after a few sequences that we see how Yamuna looks after excommunication. As Naani makes his way away from the village with his father, he encounters Yamuna sitting abandoned under a banyan tree with her meager belongings. She is now terrified and totally bald. The process of excommunication/ ghatashraddha is now complete. An off hand way of filming would be to have a montage of the excommunication process. But Kasaravalli’s method of slowing down the pace of the narration disturbs and gives one enough time to ponder about the situation.
Staying with the climax, the last shot of the film is a track back from a forlorn Yamuna, who is crying and sobbing, sitting under a banyan tree. The camera tracks back so far that we see the entire tree and Yamuna is just a dot in the frame. Normal perspective logic would have meant that the sound of Yamuna’s cry reduce according to the image size. But Kasaravalli increases it for it is the last shot of the film and the impact in doing so, is that much more. A couple of sequences before this, Udupa is performing the last rites of his living child. We hear ritualistic utterances in the background track. Suddenly, we hear the voice of someone crying and sobbing. It grows louder as the sequence progress. We are never shown the source of this sound. It is left as it is. It is only connected in the last shot where we see Yamuna crying, and the sound is similar to the crying that we had heard earlier. Baring a couple of occasions like these, where the sound from a different context is juxtaposed with visuals of the present context, most of the other sound effects are generally from within the immediate environment depicted. The sound symphony of doors and windows being banged by the villagers over the shot of a terrified Yamuna and Naani and the dialogues of an angry Godakka as she walks through the village and over the panoramic shot of the village are just some of the creative uses of sound that marks Ghatashraddha.
Like most of Kasaravalli’s films, the construction is done following various motifs. Crumbling old houses, humans framed through doors, windows and window meshes play an important part in the visual design of the film. In sequences that involves the teacher, all of them end with a shot of him going away into the horizon, either by walk or on a cycle. And the way he dusts off his towel gives us the impression that he is done with Yamuna. The motif of the snake is also well incorporated into the film. Naani and Shastri find some stone totems with the depiction of snakes on them in the forest. The superstition goes that anyone touching the stone would invite the wrath of the snake. Naani is terrified after touching it. Curiosity makes Naani and gang follow Yamuna who has gone into the forest to meet her lover. As they hide and see them, a cobra makes its way towards Yamuna. Naani can’t keep quite; he makes a noise and saves Yamuna. And finally, when Yamuna wants to end her life, she goes into the jungle and puts her hands into a snake abode. The fact that the snake does not bite her is a different matter altogether.
A lot of people consider this act of Yamuna as an act that is symbolic of her latent sexual desires. This is a bit difficult to swallow for I am not sure if such symbolism really works in cinema, however well it might work in with the realm of words. The act of putting her hand inside the snake abode is just that, the act of putting her hand into the snake abode. Later, we realize that she has done so because she wants to end her life. But Kasaravalli does not shy away from dealing with her sexuality, although in a different way. A home sick Naani is crying all alone in a room Yamuna’s motherly instincts makes her console and pacify him. She suddenly realizes that he has not worn his loin cloth. Naani is embarrassed. She offers to put it on him herself. Suddenly, the mood seems to change. Naani smiles naughtily. Yamuna too smiles. Is it motherly instincts or is there some thing hinted? The filmmaker, again, leaves it at that. When Naani as a new student first comes into the residential Vedic school, he is made to sleep with Yamuna, because in his house he slept with his mother. Later, he is put up with Shastri. But at night Shastri gropes him. A disgusted Naani goes back to sleeping with Yamuna. Naani would also have learnt a lot about sexuality when he sees Yamuna meet and hug her lover, when he sees a semi naked Yamuna get aborted, or when he sees blood on her sari. In fact, the film itself can be seen as a comment on the repressed sexuality of young widows in an ultra traditional society – widows whose physical and emotional needs are relegated into the dark corners of their houses.
From an innocent Vedic student Naani grows up enough to take a stand on Yamuna. He wants to help and save her, when the whole world is out to get her. He does so to the extent that is possible for him to do so but in the end, his father takes him away from Yamuna. He is the most positive character in the film. Ghatashraddha should be seen not just for this, but also because of the cinematic means through with this is achieved, just some of which are mentioned above. For the rest, get hold of a copy of the film and see it yourself. Don’t go by my word, I am biased – for long back, it was after seeing this film that I decided that I should be making films.
Kannada, Drama, Black & White