Darkness and light, sounds and silence – the delight of watching Girish Kasaravalli’s films

You can't show darkness without light, or light without darkness in cinema, Kasaravalli says
Darkness and light, sounds and silence – the delight of watching Girish Kasaravalli’s films
Darkness and light, sounds and silence – the delight of watching Girish Kasaravalli’s films
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By Sahana Maddali

The dark auditorium was only disturbed by the day's light peeping through the edges of heavy window-curtains, like the fisherwomen playing peeping-tom to catch a glimpse of Gulabi's new colour television in Gulabi Talkies or when the audience unanimously chuckled, like when thatha posed for a photo in Dweepa.

That's when I realized that moments of pregnant silence were aplenty. The little auditorium was jam-packed with people at every screening during the Girish Kasaravalli Film Festival held at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bengaluru on May 21 and 22. The young and old alike sat in silence and watched as the magic of Girish Kasaravalli's cinema took control of their senses. 

The festival was kicked off with Life in Metaphors – A Portrait of Girish Kasaravalli on May 20, a documentary on the filmmaker’s work. This was followed by screenings of six of Kasaravalli's National Award-winning films – Thayi Saheba, Ghatashraddha, Dweepa, Kurmavatara, Kanasemba Kudureyanneri and Gulabi Talkies – on May 21 and 22.

In all of these films, Kasaravalli’s aesthetics comes through. During the course of the festival, he said: “You can't show darkness without light, or light without darkness in cinema.”

And when it comes to sound, where most movies rely on reverberating music to amplify emotions, Kasaravalli suggests that quietness and silences can be just as, or in fact, even more striking.

In Kasaravalli’s first feature film Ghatashraddha, based on UR Ananthamurthy’s short story, when Yamunakka has goes out to check for a ghost, little Nani becomes as stiff as the silence. In later films too, this continues. When Gulabi finds out that her husband has brought the second wife into her hut, sound appears to recede just as fast as her eyes widen in realization.

In keeping with this attitude towards sounds and silence, the background music in Kasavaralli’s films is simple and the instruments few and easily identifiable. The music doesn't just fade to allow conversation, it vanishes, almost always. Concentrate, Kasaravalli tells us. 

The spoken word in the film too, is a sensory experience. Each movie is written in the local dialect of that setting and the simple yet substantial script takes on a nice rustic charm. I found myself trying to listen to the language rather than read the subtitles – the cadence of the language is music itself!

Kasaravalli chooses the sharpest point of view in each of his movies – that of the woman. His movies spill the truth of affairs through the most affected character, which is always the woman, thereby roaring feminism. His female characters take on a range of different temperaments. Whether it is Yamuna the obedient, Nagi the persistent, or Gulabi the insistent – they portray, what Kasaravalli calls “roles of men.”

When finally released from the clutches of his compelling stories, the cinematography and the breathtaking performance of the actors, the crowd would return after an hour's break for another dose of the same.

In the panel discussion that followed the last screening on Monday, columnist Prakash Belawadi asked Kasaravalli about where his sympathies as a filmmaker lie.

“How do you, as a film maker, align your sympathy? Because the inner voice or view you can give to some characters and not others. How conscious is this process?”

Kasaravalli says he believes in swaying the gaze of the viewer in a particular direction.

“There are two things. One is first person narrative, like is Ghatashraddha it is as though Nani is narrating the whole story. [But in reality] In cinema such kind of narrative is not possible, even if you use voice-over, only the soundtrack will be in first person whereas all the images will be neutral,” he said.

“But,” he continued, “when it comes to driving the attention of the audience towards the characters, you can sway the point of view of the narrator. We have to position ourselves very clearly as to what we are trying to say through this. Not just the plot. Not just the incident. We are also trying to prove this incident. So we need to know which characters will prove this incident. Very often I find directors fail to recognize the point where they can hinge the incident. That's very crucial for a film-maker.”

On the question of multiplicity in interpretation, raised by Belawadi, Kasaravalli said: “We need to think in terms of poetic imagination,” said Mr. Kasaravalli, “like the way how images are used in poetry. It offers our multiple interpretations and beliefs - so many start opening up as you read [a poem] again and again. The cinema experience should do that.”

To another question, the filmmaker said he couldn’t exactly say which of his films is his favourite.

“Actually, after I make a movie I am very confused. However, I do have a way of placing my films in my head. I speak to people I respect and ask them how they liked my movie, so then I have an idea of how to place my films,” he said.

Although Kasaravalli has always made what have been called art films or non-commercial cinema, he says he hasn’t had much trouble finding producers. “Usually sponsors come to me. I really, don't know why. If I have a script, I agree to make the film, otherwise I don't.”

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