Irrepressible storyteller


Girish Karnad (1938-2019). PHOTO/K. Bhagya Prakash

Exploring mythology and legend, Girish Karnad (1938-2019) confronted contemporary issues by asking uneasy questions about institutions.

The first time I missed Girish Karnad was in Utsav (1984), an adaptation of Mrichhakatika, a 10-act Sanskrit drama penned by Sudraka, an ancient playwright. The film had arrived at the box office riding on the inexorable charms of Rekha. People came in droves. Some raved about Rekha and Anuradha Patel; others of Shashi Kapoor who played Samsthanak in the film. Some could even recall the parts played by Neena Gupta, Amjad Khan and Shekhar Suman. None could recall Karnad.

Therein lay his success. Like Oscar Wilde would have it, Karnad’s aim was to reveal the art and conceal the artist. As the director of Utsav, he chiselled each of his characters with meticulous care. Each character had a story to tell. Each character added to the value of the film. The success of Karnad lay in making the audience talk of his work rather than the man.

The next time I almost missed Girish Karnad was just a year or so later. This time, it was K. Viswanath’s Sur Sangam where he played an ageing classical artist, Pandit Shivshankar Shastri, who wants to pass on his vast knowledge to the next generation. As he waits for the last leaf of the autumn of his life to drop, there steps in the little son of Tulsi (Jayaprada). Shastri’s music is in safe hands. Fine, but why did one almost miss Karnad? Well, this time, he immersed himself completely in the character of the seasoned musician. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could take the viewers’ attention away from his nuanced performance, not even Jayaprada’s beauty and dignified performance. When he performed to Rajan-Sajan Mishra’s playback, one forgot Karnad was merely doing a lip-sync to Mishra’s voice. Incidentally, Karnad, as Jayaprada recalls today, “was very particular about how a scene should shape up. We would rehearse for long. Even in songs where I had a small role, he would ensure I was present at each rehearsal. We practised together. For instance, the first part of the song ‘Sadh re man sur ko sadh re.’” She started singing the song, more than 30 years after it was picturised on Karnad and her. Such was the power of Karnad’s performance.

It is the same ability to slip into the skin of the character that stood Karnad in good stead when he worked with Shyam Benegal in the 1970s. Both Manthan (1976), where he a played a veterinarian who comes to a village to start a milk cooperative scheme, and Nishant (1975), where he played a helpless schoolmaster whose wife (Shabana Azmi) is kidnapped, conveyed a couple of things. First, he could carry a film on his shoulders, as in Manthan. Then, in Nishant, he could hold his own in front of the bigwigs of arthouse cinema, including the likes of Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Mohan Agashe, Anant Nag, Smita Patil and Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Either way, here was an actor who was a director’s dream. He understood that cinema was a director’s medium. In fact, because of his ability to give flesh and soul to his characters, many of his directors and producers became recipients of viewers’ love and attention. 

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