A Student Film That Taught The World A Lesson In Filmmaking

CULTURE DIARIES By Vidyarthy Chatterjee

Girish Kasaravalli (born 1950) is one of the pioneers of what goes by the name of New Kannada Cinema which questioned, among other things, Karnataka’s feudal past resting on religious orthodoxy and the exploitation of the so-called lower castes by the largely Brahmin landed gentry.

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Kasaravalli was brought up in the village of Kasaravalli in the rain-abundant, areca nut-growing Malnad area of Karnataka. Many of the elders in his family were Sanskrit scholars and conversant with high literature, which explained for their disdainful attitude to cinema which, they thought to be a pariah art, if at all an art form.

Girish Kasaravalli as a young man

Although armed with a gold medal and a degree in pharmacology, Kasaravalli chose to study cinema at the Film & Television Institute of India in Pune, much to the disappointment of some of his closest relatives. However, in course of time, things looked up when Kasaravalli went on to win the Swarna Kamal for best feature by an Indian director no less than four times, a fact which has unfortunately eclipsed the importance of his diploma short film at the Institute.

That diploma film, called Avsesh (The Remnant, black-and-white, 35 mm, 20 minutes, Hindi, 1975) was declared the Best Student Film of the year and also went on to win the National Award for Best Experimental Short Film.

A small boy, bright and intelligent, does not know what to do with all his curiosity and energy. He roams at will through the rooms and corridors of an old building with ornamental arches and a spacious quadrangular courtyard lit up by the sun’s rays.

Click here to watch the film

The boy, who is the protagonist of our story, looks at the inner dark spaces of the haveli with wondering eyes. He tries to make sense of what the elders – his parents, his grandmother, a visiting uncle and other family members – are doing or what they are talking among themselves. He does not go to school, instead he does far more interesting things, such as straying from home at times to run through the village or examining the village well. Through his eyes, we see a world of mysteries, of shades and shadows. When he is in the open, he soars and soars…

Kasaravalli attempts an exploration of both the inner and outer worlds of this rare child through his interactions with his mother, his aged, shriveled, weak-limbed grandmother, or a boy of his age he comes across at the well. Though a child, the protagonist is drawn enough to his helpless grandmother to put her in the courtyard where she can enjoy the sun. 

Even as the boy’s bubbling personality is put together by the director with little strokes of sympathy and understanding, the character of a once well-to-do rural family is sketched out at some detail for the viewer to savour. The apparent decline in the family’s fortune goes hand-in-hand with a strong attachment to traditional practices like chanting of shlokas and ceremonial feeding of birds.

In a sense, Avsesh is as much about the impending disappearance of an ageless past, as about the birth of a more shining future in the shape of the small boy who it can be assumed will soon leave the   restricted life of the village for the open spaces of the world. Where many of the elders are caught in varying states of repose, the boy is never still and points to the more hopeful days to come.

A still from Avsesh

The grandmother’s shrivelled skin and failing eyesight or her inability to move about on her own provide a moving contrast to the never-ending mobility and occasional naughtiness of her grandson. This representation of the family connecting its oldest and youngest members underlines once again the inevitability of change; the remorseless passage of time; and the old order giving place to the new. This is both a saddening film and one seeped in hope.     

Kasaravalli had originally wanted to make Avsesh in Kannada, his mother-tongue. But, in those days, the FTII had a strange rule that said all diploma films had to be made either in Hindi or in English. Kasaravalli made a fervent appeal to the authorities to be allowed to direct his film in Kannada, but to no avail

So, in the end, he was compelled to make his diploma film in Hindi which, in a sense, was a happy development in that more people across the land were able to follow the drama that arose from the spoken word. But to this day, the director, a man of few words and deep insights into the human condition, especially as it comes across in family relationships, holds the view that Avsesh would have made a deeper impact had the authorities allowed it to be made in his native Kannada. 

A still from Avsesh

Be that as it may, Avsesh is counted by the cognoscenti among the foremost diploma films made by FTII graduates. On hindsight, it seems correct to say that, just as morning shows the day, Avsesh pointed to a promising future when Kasaravalli came to be counted among the most distinguished filmmakers of the country. 

In ways more than one, hidden in Avsesh are seeds that were to germinate in the course of time into even bigger things, such as Kasaravalli’s first full-length film, the black-&-white Kannada masterpiece called Ghatashraddha (1977), which has ever since its making, been used as a reference point to describe the riches which, put together, constitute what is celebrated as New Indian Cinema, a bold and experimental body of work which sought to move away from the earlier commercial format to an idiom of artistic and intellectual enquiry into the daily real problems of real Indians. So, the importance of Avsesh is not confined to itself, but overflows into what followed in Kasaravalli’s outstanding filmography. 

The aesthetically striking Ghatashraddha, the narrative of which unfolds in an orthodox Brahmin agrahara where young Brahmin boys are initiated into the minutiae of Sanskrit-based lore and culture, won as many as nineteen awards, including the Swarna Kamal for best film of the year.

It is a part of the folklore surrounding this film of great beauty, intense sadness and a certain suppressed anger, that Satyajit Ray, when he first saw it, said it was difficult to believe that its maker was only in his mid-twenties. But, as they say, the story began earlier with the formal and narrative freshness of Avsesh. Out of the remains of a family in transition, sprouted the genius of Kasaravalli.

Click here to watch the film

(Vidyarthy Chatterjee is an eminent film critic and political analyst. He writes on socioeconomic, political issues, films, books, art and culture. His photo was taken by Manesh Madhavan)

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