In 1971, when the highly successful Kannada language movie starring Dr Rajkumar and directed by the team of B Dorai Raj and SK Bhagavan, Kasturi Nivasa, was released, the initial phase of the ‘Nation Building’ of the Nehruvian era that had pulled India into ‘modernity’ was firmly entrenched. Not that the film radiated anything constructive on this aspect, but it did manifest a deep sense of longing for certain aspects of feudalism that India was supposedly trying to leave behind in its tryst with modernity.
One of the basic features of feudalism is the existence of the privileged elite who control the ‘means of production and the appropriation of the surplus.’ Although historically, feudalism occurs in an agricultural background that is marked by the existence of landlords who make use of the laboring farmer, ‘Kasturi Nivasa’ is set against an urban/semi-urban backdrop where the privileged elite are transported into the Industrial world – a world that is seen to be as a characteristic feature of post-independence India.
As the board in front of his large palatial house named Kasturi Nivasa says, the protagonist, Ravi Varma (Dr Rajkumar), a widower, is the owner of an Industrial empire that dabbles in shipping, import-export and mines and minerals besides education and philanthropic activities. The film, though, largely concentrates on his matchbox manufacturing unit as though it alone was the entire wealth generator for his huge empire.
The first twenty-five minutes or so of the film are utilized by the filmmakers, better known as simply Dorai-Bhagavan, to establish the ‘prestige’ and ‘glory’ that is bestowed upon Varma by his forefathers. He comes out of his palatial bungalow with servants hovering around to serve him without being asked to. He then drives his swanky car to his office, where his staff suck up to him by overtly appreciating his obviously stale jokes. The honesty of an employee, Chandru (Raja Shankar), also a widower and father of a young child, who calls out Ravi’s bluff of the joke being an old one, is rewarded when Ravi gives promotes him, when everyone else in the office expects him to get the pink slip. Later on, back in his palatial house Ravi, in a sequence that reminds us of a king’s court in any historical film, generously gifts clothes, fistful of coins and other freebees to his workers. He then asks his office to announce a three months bonus to all his matchbox factory workers besides driving to the residence of his private secretary Neela (Jayanthi) to ‘chivalrously’ pick her up on their way to the office.
As it appears, Varma seems to be the benevolent capitalist not averse to throwing some crumbs to his employees, who seem to appreciate him and be loyal to him. This is exemplified by the two managerial wide-eyed employees, who privately can’t stop exalting their master’s generosity, or in the sequence where Varma arrives at Neela’s house while she is weaving flowers and singing paeans to an unknown adorable entity. By the end of the song, a flower falls mysteriously (and magically) on to the feet of Varma – as if they were offered to an idol of a great God. This is contrasted with another business tycoon, Bhojarajaiah (Balakrishna), who is averse to give any bonus to his workers and wants his daughter married to Ravi for the sake of his business – a proposal that Ravi outright rejects.
Quite often, while describing the old patriarchal feudal system, the believers of the system feel that ideally the landlord should treat the tenants as his own children. Varma, the industrial feudal elite, in the carefully crafted initial sequences of the film perfectly fits into this description, notwithstanding the question that remains – What about the surplus value generated by Ravi’s employees? Would the compassionate patriarch share that too with them, along with the scanty gifts and coins that be bestows on them?
As the narrative continues, Varma sends Chandru to the US for ‘business training’. However, upon his return, the two of them have a difference of opinion on how to handle the matchbox factory operations. Chandru is then allowed to break away from Varma to set up a rival matchbox factory unit. Not only that, Varma also sacrifices his one-sided love towards Neela and blesses her when she decides to marry Chandru. The market laps up Chandru’s matchboxes and when a series of business setbacks destroy Varma financially, he is forced to sell off everything that he has, including his palatial house, Kasturi Nivasa. Chandru buys the house in an auction at an exorbitant price with the intention of giving it back to Varma, its ‘rightful’ owner. He also makes a helping offer to his erstwhile ex-employer wherein the two factories would either be amalgamated together or his successful company would be gifted away to Varma. But a proud Varma refuses to accept any favors and dies a pauper.
On the obvious level, Kasturi Nivasa seems to be a battle between two sentimental capitalists – the market forces having decided the fate of the two friends-cum-rivals. But the plot of the film can also be described as thus – a proud benevolent business tycoon running his family inherited empire makes a series of personal and business-related mistakes, one of which is to cling on his false sense of feudal self-importance that ultimately causes his downfall and his death. Varma’s costly blunders begin when he carelessly falls asleep in a park, leaving his child to play all by herself by the side of a river. Of course, she falls in and drowns. I do have my doubts if the filmmakers see this has a blunder though as all the sympathies are on Varma’s side, especially as he has also just become a widower. He then refuses to have a marital-business tie up with Bhojarajaiah and his daughter Prabha (Vijayasree), an arrangement that other neo-feudal kings and chieftains indulge in habitually, even the Industrial ones. The makers probably see such an act as Ravi’s eternal love for the memories of his dead wife and child.
As Varma looks after Chandru’s child, while the latter is away in America, he uses Neela’s help as as a dutiful babysitter. This, too, proves costly to him on a personal level as she gets attached to the child and thus by default in the feudal set up, to its father, paving the way for her to marry Chandru. Probably, the makers of the film might have thought that transplanting Neela into Kasturi Nivasa would bring in the hitherto missing ‘feminine’ aspect within the all male patriarchal household.
But the business tycoon’s major mistake occurs when he lets Chandru forms a rival company – an employee whom he himself had trained and whose little daughter he had taken care of, while he was away. A stupid thing to do for a supposedly smart Business Moghul, as later, it is Chandru’s company that finally causes Varma’s downfall. The makers probably see this a pious, liberal act. And finally, when Chandru comes up with a business restructuring plan, an uninsightful Ravi blinded by false self pride, refuses. Again, the makers probably see this as Ravi’s firm commitment to stand by his inherent values. But what exactly are the values that Ravi and thus Kasturi Nivasa stand for?
Kasturi Nivasa can be seen as a film about the death of feudal values and the triumph of the free market. In this world, Varma is a misfit and therefore an utter failure. He fails because he can’t give up that one vice that feudalism encompasses within itself – the false sense of pride associated with benevolence and power. Benevolence assumes two set of people – the well-to-do giver and the malnourished receiver. But what happens when the roles are reversed? The giver has now nothing to offer and yet he (stupidly) still sees himself as the provider projecting himself in his past glory. The protagonist in Kasturi Nivasa lives with this belief and ultimately, dies for it. The makers of the film might have thought this aspect to be an extreme virtue and probably so did the audience judging by the success it had upon its release.
As seen by the inauguration of the bust of Ravi Varma in his memory in the last shot of the film, Kasturi Nivasacelebrates the nostalgia of the values that signify the dying feudal past, if not already dead during the time the film got made and released. I had begun by saying that by 1971, it was well entrenched into the average Indian psyche that with the materialization of Nehruvian modernity, it was inevitable that old values associated with feudalism would eventually disappear. But some cords are hard to disconnect. This is what Kasturi Nivasa looks like to me today, so many years after it was made. It is a cinema for the nostalgia for the lost old.
In this reminiscence for the decline and death of the feudal elite in Kasturi Nivasa, we have forgotten that there was also a birth – that of the capitalistic free market man, represented by Chandru. From an employee, he becomes the new tycoon who is different from Ravi Varma. He is modern, smart, practical and successful. But his birth and success get lost in the tyranny of the feudal protagonist and the nostalgia for him. But if we transport Chandru to today’s times, he too would be in the past, in the realm of nostalgia. Because the world today is no longer determined by market forces correcting themselves ‘on their own’ and finding the necessary balance, but is instead shaped up by the new lords of neo-feudalism – the heads of the Tech giant corporations or a few family owned Multinational empires whose turnovers are bigger than some countries budgets and who are almost sovereign by themselves.
We could well make a movie on Chandru today, as he stands now, and like in Kasturi Nivasa, continue to fulfill the manifesto of the cinema of nostalgia.
Kannada, Drama, Black & White