by Allan Fish
(India 1977 108m) DVD0 (India only)
Aka. The Ritual
Outcast of the agrahara
p Sadananda Suvarna d Girish Kasaravalli w Girish Kasaravalli, K.V.Sabanna novel Ananthamurthy U.R. ph S.Ramachandra ed Umesh Kulkarni m B.V.Karanth
Ajith Kumar (Nani), Meena Kuttappa (Yamuna), Naraya Bhatt (Shastri), Ranaswamy Iyengar (Udupa), Shanta Kumari, Janganath, Suresh, H.S.Parvathi, Ramakrishna,
Girish Kasaravalli’s Ghatashraddha should be better known in the west. It was voted one of the ten greatest Indian films ever made by critics in 2007 and its viewpoint, that of a child’s view of adult hypocrisy and injustice, it a familiar one in the west. The reason for its neglect isn’t entirely clear, but language may have had something to do with it. While very much in the tradition of great Hindi humanist cinema, it isn’t actually a Hindi film. Kasaravalli’s film, and Kasaravalli himself, speak another language; Kannada. The only DVD of the film as yet released advertises the fact in typically intrusive Indian style in the form of a bright logo running through the top right of the screen and a Kannada text logo below it. Some sources have it running over half an hour longer than the running time of the DVD and quoted above; even now it seems elusive.
It’s set in and around a Brahmin Vedic school in a remote village. Nani is bullied by older boys and feels like an outcast at school. His only friend is Yamuna, a young widow who lives there with her father, Udupa, a girl who is also shunned by the locals, all except a young teacher who works at the school. While Udupa is away from the village, it becomes clear that Yamuna is pregnant by the teacher’s child, and while he tries to persuade Yamuna to have an abortion, the village elders begin to gossip. They proclaim her immoral and make her an outcast, ceremonially evicting her from the village in an Indian take on the old bell, book and candle.
Many scenes stand out vividly in the memory; Yamuna’s painful secret abortion, the unwitting betrayal of Nani, the ceremonial excommunication and the encounter with the cobra that gives the game away in the last act. Most startling, though is the sheer desolation of the final scene. Nani is being taken away by a village elder to return to his parents. Leaving the village, crossing the plain, they stop at a large tree. Under the tree, hidden like a leper in a long cloak and with a head shaven as if in preparation for martyrdom as the stake, is poor Yamuna. She cannot bear to look at Nani and nor can he at her, and she bursts into tears. The elder leads Nani away and the camera angle swivels so while they move towards and eventually past the camera, the tree recedes into the background. That will be the only shelter the widow will know from here, and she fades into the dark shadow cast by its foliage. It feels almost like leaving a family behind rather than returning, and could not have been more powerful if Yamuna had been Nani’s mother. Like the leaves on the trees and the basket hanging on a nail, the tragic meaning of her isolation with remain out of reach to Nani, but its hypocrisy is shattering.
Ghatashraddha exposes not merely the hypocrisy of village life but also the self-defeating nature of it. The result of the scandal is that the school is closed down and Nani is forced to return home to his parents. And for all the alien trappings of caste and outcast, religion and mysticism, its themes are universal. There are even faint echoes of Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter…and Spring and Tornatore’s Malèna. It’s gorgeously shot by Ramachandra with lighting patterns worthy of the old masters, and the performances are all perfect; Kuttappa haunts the film as the unfortunate widow while Kumar should be as well-known as Subir Banerjee’s Apu in Pather Panchali. Indeed, it’s arguably the greatest debut in Indian cinema after Ray’s masterpiece, its director only 26 years old at the time of its release. One film may not put Kasaravalli alongside Ray and Ghatak in the pantheon of Indian art-house directors, but it does place him with Mani Kaul and Mrinal Sen, in the vanguard of the new generation of filmmakers trying to live up to their example.