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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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3 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.

  3. PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS, INDIA says:

    GIRISH KASARAVALLI PEAKS WITH KURMAVATAR

    BY PRADIP BISWAS, THE INDIAN EXPRESS NEWSPAPERS,
    JURY MEMBER INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL OF INDIA AND FRIBOURG INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL, SWISS

    Once again Girish Kasaravalli, now the senior maestro of eventful Kannada cinema, has hit the bull’s eye at the 59th National Award, bagging the “best Kannada film” laurel. He is the one auteur who refuses to tread the middle-of-the-road cinema pasture that nearly freezes average Indian film-lovers for a long time. Like his previous masterpiece Riding the Stallion of Dreams, Kurmavatar (Tortoise, An Incarnation) takes the socially conscious film buffs on to a new height that blends myth, dream and reality. He has simply stayed away from the manufactured kind of feel and look the average cinema indulges in for decades.

    On revisiting Kurmavatar, the most metonymic film of Girish Kasaravalli,, is a superb apocalypse for me/us. So it should mean to all those collected in tranquility of innovative imagination and creativity. This is one film where Girish conflates his innovative ideas and presents realty with contemporary sensibilities. There is a frail linearity but again it is not there. The play of duality of parallel senses seems to have marked the new film. It is due to uses of architectural patterns and cubic dimension, leading his small pack of characters to moral question, material realism and mercantile phenomenon. Whish is more important has never been loudly told; instead the pattern slowly grows to sway and question the lives of those who want to survive with personal equaton. Surly it touches the raw nerve.

    I, for one, never find Anand Rao, the protagonist, playing Gandhi, an extremely ordinary man, drawn to work and ideals of life that society demands from us, is detached man. He is a portrait of a gentleman, poorly tucked in day-to-day needs of self elevation and pride of living.

    How in the era of Multinationals, controlling every sphere of societal life, art, culture and politics, resemblance of a sober man of high iconic image, makes him an object of pity. Ananda Rao is one such simulacrum, enriched by self-education and ecstasy of tapping wisdom that none can, whatever his power or size, diminish his humility and greatness even when sucked into mockery and coded mimicry. In fact, his image, I strongly feel, compared to role-model of Gandhi, seems larger than life. It is more illuminating than the historical Gandhi now transformed into a cog of greed, power, corruption, selfishness et al.

    Kurmavatar is a film of self-introspection, a brilliant work as it has the quality of detaching itself from its period while embodying its period. The film seems to have crystallized that unshakable moral attitude towards the world we live in and towards its temporary standards that is the basic essential of powerful work of imagination.

    The impact snowballs more within our minds after we depart from screening of the film.

    The music by Issac Thomas is something any director would envy. He is simply his creative best. This is the first time I find you playing with light most meaningfully and clinically. That you are most averse to verbosity (found in abandon in script) and enjoy a proximity to silent track helping images play the purpose of words comes out strongly. Your milieu and that of trapped Ananda Rao seems to be ours own. And here you win, your film wins on all fronts.

    In a world where “facts are not important” and “drama is all”, says director Chandan. You seem to have hit the nail on the head.

    In finality, I ask myself if we have lost the innocence of Tataya, Ananda Rao and Abhi !!!

    Let viewers suffer to find the answer.

    END

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