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Film Analysis: Girish Kasaravalli’s “Kurmavatara” (The Tortoise,an Incarnation)

By N. Manu Chakravarthy • Published on November 12, 2012

A Still from Kurmavatara

[T]he preoccupations and the creative base of all the films of Girish Kasaravalli lie not only in capturing the tensions and anxieties of a community, but also in seeking ethical alternatives to the crises of an era. Many symbols are created in this process of capturing and seeking. The anxiety of each period of time gives birth to a conducive and correlating symbol. Such symbols that portray the spirit of the times are found in all films of Girish Kasaravalli. One can observe this from Ghatashraddha to Kurmavatara. In other words, a symbol which emerges in a specific period of time reveals the ideological, philosophical problems of that time. We must note that the symbols that appear before us are problematic ones. They are not emblems or unidimensional truths. Kurmavatara is a text which seeks to understand the inner self of Gandhi with openness.

This is also a creative work which analyses the ways of functioning of visual media by considering the limitations of film and television media, and the compulsions and temptations (TRP ratings, sponsorship) that they come under as problems of capitalism. In other words, it could also be said that Girish Kasaravalli has tried to understand the state of affairs in the present in his medium through introspection in Kurmavatara. One can notice in Kurmavatara Girish Kasaravalli confronting serious political and cultural questions of our times through the medium of television which is a major force in the ultramodern world.

Gandhi, as a symbol, is unravelled through Rayaru who does not care for love, human relationships, but slogs in his government job with mechanical sincerity. Rayaru – engrossed as he is in his work without realising that love and affection towards his wife and children are very essential – begins to compare his life with that of Gandhi when he, accidentally, gets an offer to act in a television serial. Acting, for him, transforms into a seeking of his inner self.

Rayaru, who involves himself completely in his work, has no emotional bonding with his family. He does not even feel the need for it. Hence Rayaru’s story entwines itself with that of Gandhi’s where those who speak of truth in public life must practise truth rigourously as a vow in all respects in their personal lives too. For those of the outer world, Rayaru is one who dons the role of Gandhi. But, for Rayaru – in his inner cosmos – it is a matter of conscience.

The unique vision of ‘Kurmavatara’ lies in the manner in which it shows, without any preconceived notions, the path to understand the inner world of a great historical figure through an ordinary middle class individual. The ideologies and theories that one comes across in public life are elements of life that are on an oppositional plane which cause anxiety and mental agony in personal life. It is a great contradiction of life that public life and private life are contrary to each other. These are happenings that contain streaks of tragedy.

The strong base of ‘Kurmavatara’ lies in critically viewing the life of a person who was a great symbol for the whole world by basing it on the details of the life of an unknown individual. Gandhi’s life is not beyond questioning. In fact, one of the central preoccupations of this film is the thought over whether there can exist an ideal individual whom nobody can question. This is not shallow iconoclasm. It is a way of expressing the strong character that is inevitably necessary to know the profound multidimensional truths of life.

Whatever be the attempts of individuals to lead noble lives, it is a truth observed and understood by all that moments of history push such individuals to circumstances where they have to compromise their values. The fact that great personalities who live by profound ideals are forced to give them up due to the contradictions of life highlights the complexity of life.  Relaxing one’s idealism for the sake of survival believing that aapaddharma (special provisions not allowed in normal circumstances) is the actual truth in moments of crisis, in times which rattle one’s very existence indicates the contradiction of life. Kasaravalli has captured this truth in the film in a charming manner. The fact that Rayaru has to submit to the corrupt system and pay a bribe for the sake of his son symbolises this truth. In fact, Gandhi who said that the country could be partitioned only over his dead body was compelled to agree to it for historical reasons, and confront it completely. ‘Kurmavatara’ makes us understand at an experiential level that the contradictions which arise in the lives of individuals are, in fact, historical realities. This is not just the understanding of history that the film has, but also the philosophical vision which makes one understand human beings with sympathy through the limitations that life brings upon them.

Girish Kasaravalli

Autobiography (when it finds expression in the oral or the written form) portrays the torments of one’s conscience. It is not just the routine of an individual’s life. This conscience leads an individual towards the seeking of truth through action. In the true sense, an individual’s action must be considered as an action that responds to the needs of the times. The seeking of truth does not take place only in abstract philosophical contemplation. There is no seeking of truth that does not confront authority and communalism in society. This confrontation must become true only through action. It should happen within the framework of history.

The remarkable and mature historical vision and political consciousness of Kurmavatara converge in the relationship between Hindu and Muslim communities. The communalists who create a commotion demanding that the role of Godse, the assassin of Gandhi, must be enacted only by a Hindu and not a Muslim cause intense anguish and deep disappointment in Rayaru. Here too, Rayaru’s conscience gets intertwined with Gandhi’s seeking of truth and his action of struggling for the unity and harmonious co-existence of Hindus and Muslims inIndia. In other words, an incident forges an emotional bond between Rayaru’s life and Gandhi’s struggle. The consciousness thatIndia’s history is extremely complex as it is replete with Hindu-Muslim harmony, conflict, cruelty and violence is internalised by Rayaru at an experiential level, and thus gets communicated to all. Kasaravalli constructs this aspect in the film in a manner that awakens our intellect and emotion.

It is the duty of historians, cultural theorists, political thinkers and the common people to view history in an open manner. Kurmavatara places all these visions before us. Kasaravalli accomplishes this as not just a lifeless thought, but in the living moments of people.

The title ‘Kurmavatara’ is not accidental. There are many meanings and interpretations to it. Hence, the internationally renowned Leftist historian Romila Thapar begins an important work of hers with the salutation “Kurmaya Namaha”.

Translated from the Kannada by M.R.Rakshith

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2 Responses to “Film Analysis: Girish Kasaravalli’s “Kurmavatara” (The Tortoise,an Incarnation)”

  1. Srinivasan Sundaram says:

    I am a huge fan of Girish Kasaravalli's films. Has the film been released in Bangalore?-sundaram.

  2. After TaIsaheb which was not released in Maharastra, Girish kasaravalli should attempt to picturise marathi novels translated by uma kulkarni in kannada. there is one beautiful marathi novel with the backdrop of. old Belgaon, I hope he tries to produce this.In the meantime N.F.D.C is in deep slumber.

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