‘KARNAD STOPPED ME FROM GOING TO MUMBAI AND MADE ME HIS ASSISTANT ON MOVIES INSTEAD’
I remember the first time I saw Karnad. He had just moved into the neighbourhood in
JP Nagar and came over to our house with bellulli tambuli (a traditional Kannadiga delicacy — coconut-based gravy made with garlic). Karnad had for long been friends with my late grandfather GS Shivarudrappa (acclaimed and award-winning litterateur and poet) and my father and writer Marulasiddappa — and would often visit our home. I’d always say, ‘Hello sir. How are you?’ and exchange pleasantries but my first real interaction with him happened when I graduated from university and wanted to go to Mumbai to find a job. My father then suggested that I meet Karnad and see if I could get any advice or leads from him. Imagine going to Karnad and asking him for leads! I did go any way and am I glad I did. Upon approaching the topic, Karnad said, ‘why go all the way to Mumbai? Why don’t you assist me here?’ I had no idea about films, production or managing a crew — I was a 22-year-old boy fresh out of college! But my destiny was sealed right there: my career was kick-started by Karnad.
He left the filming of Kanooru Heggadithi to a novice like me for a week when he won the Jnanapith award. My first project with Karnad was turning assistant director for a series for Doordarshan called Antaraal based on the numerous case studies on mental health by Dr. Ashok Pai. It was the start of an enlightening and enriching journey that, till the very end, continued to remain so. Soon after that, we embarked on the filming of Kanooru Heggadithi. Karnad who was directing it, won the Jnanapith award during the course of its making and had to go away to receive it. There were so many veterans on the crew including the (late) acclaimed cinematographer S Ramachandra but Karnad asked me take over the film in his absence. He was going away for a week and I was in a dilemma as to how I’d manage to accomplish this feat. Karnad would call on the landline every evening to enquire the progress of the film. When he was back, I was so nervous to show him my work. But he took one look at the footage and announced that I’d be directing the televised version of Kanooru Heggadithi which was to be made along with the film. ‘I will thus concentrate on my film,’ he said. Up next we got working on Swarajnama, a TV series that was an ode to 50 years of Indian independence.
Then Karnad was working on bringing to life three classics of Kannada literature, out of which he asked me to helm two: Devanooru Mahadeva’s Kusuma Baale and Shantinath Desai’s Om Namo. Karnad helmed the third venture, Poornachandra Tejasvi’s Chidambara Rahasya. He produced them all. Bikhre Bimb came next. He called me to the set one day and while showing me the proceedings, something about the way the images were being portrayed didn’t sync. I pointed it out to Karnad and suggested an alternative which he rather liked. When the first episode played, I was credited with the direction of Bikhre Bimb alongside Karnad and it was a revelation even to me. Then along came Aa Dinagalu — my debut as a director — which was initially offered to Karnad to helm, but he suggested my name instead. The rest as they say is history.
‘HE WAS RELIGIOUS, BUT IN A SPIRITUAL WAY. HE WAS NEVER FANATIC ABOUT IT.’
Karnad could quote the vedas, upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita verbatim: it’s a side not many know of him, but Karnad was thoroughly acquainted with all our great works including the Ramayana, and Mahabharata. Remember how Karnad came home with tambuli to offer? A few days later, we were invited to his home for a homa that was being held by his mother and Karnad was loudly chanting the Ganesha stotra. He was religious, but in a spiritual way. He was never fanatic about it. In fact, when he was asked by the BBC to anchor an episode for a program they were making called Art That Shook the World and the chosen theme was the Mahabharata; Karnad told them that the epic deserved a separate segment of its own because no literary work in the world could compare to it in its greatness. He asked them to title it as Art That Created the World.
Karnad has a lot of respect for his art which is why he always took off his footwear before stepping on to the stage. If some people perceived him to be distant or stand-offish that’s only because he was an emotional and an honest man. And if he didn’t sense the same genuineness in another person, he wouldn’t connect with them. I connected with him on that level. He may have been my guru and mentor, but he had the grace to accept a counter point when I disagreed with him. He was tired and wary of the ‘yes men’ around him. Karnad had been preparing us for this day for the past three years. More so since the last two months. Like I said, my life has been enriched by his presence. He taught me that cinema is not the exclusive project of a director, but an inclusive piece of art and a cumulative effort of the entire team. He taught me to speak my mind and never be afraid of the truth and I shall live by those lessons for a lifetime.
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