Girish Karnad: India’s Theatre and Film Icon


 1560149698-GirishFriends of Girish Karnad in London congregated recently at the Nehru Centre to celebrate his life in theatre and cinema. It was precisely the place which he had headed as the Minister for Culture, Indian High Commission and the Director, Nehru Centre from 2000 to 2003.

The event was organised jointly by the Nehru Centre and Vatayan which is a London based literary organisation. An emotionally charged Vatayan founder, Divya Mathur said that the memory of Girish Karnad was permanently lodged in the hearts of those who had closely worked with him.

The tributes came wrapped in anecdotes. My personal story with Girish Karnad takes me back to my student days when I first encountered him as a protagonist in Shyam Benegal’s seminal Nishant. Certain sequences are still fresh in my mind where as a school teacher he was confronted by a ruthless feudal family.

This was the period when New Indian Cinema was emerging. Shyam Benegal’s trilogy Ankur (19730), Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976) had such a great impact on me that I could not resist writing a letter to meet Shyam Benegal and to my surprise received a reply within a week to meet him in Mumbai. Before heading to his Tardeo office, I bought a small Japanese Shebro Delux mini cassette recorder to record an interview with him.I tried to hide my nervousness when I met Benegal and recorded my very first interview with him. That was, a decade before I joined the BBC, London. As I came out of Benegal’s tiny cabin, I was struck by a young Girish Karnad with a beautiful lady (who I later learnt was M.S. Sathyu’s wife Shama Zaidi) and the theatre icon Pandit Satyadev Dubey all sipping tea with a script on the table. That was Bhumika (1977) in the making where in the credits, Girish Karnad’s name appears on top before Satyadev Dubey and Shyam Benegal.


From L to R: B K Guhare, Nasreen Munni Kabir, Martin Pick, Jay Visvadeva, John Keay, Nasreen Rehman, Divya Mathur, Nikhil Kaushik, Chitra Sundaram, Sangeeta Datta, Lalit Mohan Joshi, Nona Sheppherd, Alaknanda Samarth, Ruth Padel, Sitting: Neelum Singh, Vayu Naidu and Anuraag Dhondhiyal.

By the time Girish Karnad joined Benegal, he had already established himself as a great playwright with two path breaking Kannada plays – Yayati (1961) and Tughlak (1964) which he had written in his early 20s. “His creative juices flowed with the theatre. And that’s where his real talent lay”, said Shyam Benegal, the new Indian Cinema pioneer, who gave him an early break as an actor and scriptwriter in Hindi Cinema.

Karnad made his acting and screenwriting debut in a Kannada movie Samskara (1970). It was based on a novel by U.R. Ananthamurthy and was directed by Pattabhirama Reddy. Girish Karnad made his directorial debut with Vamsha Vriksha (1971), based on a Kannada novel by S. L. Bhyrappa.  Later, he directed several movies, in Kannada and Hindi including Kaadu (1973), Godhuli (1977) and Utsav (1984).

On a personal level, I met Girish Karnad in London when he joined as the Minister of Culture and director of the Nehru Centre. It was a coincidence that the year he joined was the year I set up the South Asian Cinema Foundation (SACF) with Derek Malcolm and film archivist P.K. Nair with an aim to build and promote South Asian and predominantly Indian Cinema through film festivals, new research, publication of books and our South Asian Cinema journal.


I will never forget his interest and all out support to set up SACF at the Nehru Centre. He took personal interest in widening the inaugural panel which initially included only Saeed Jaffrey and Pamela Cullen. He telephoned Prof Corey Creekmur, Illinois University, and the late Jagmohan Mundhra to join the opening and release of the inaugural issue of South Asian Cinema.

Another quality of Girish was his being upfront and direct. Once in a SACF film event he advised me not to include a well-known broadcaster. He feared he would be difficult to control. On my insistence he gave in, but his fears came true. His grim expression at the end of the event spoke volumes. Next day without any malice he warned me to take a lesson from the experience.

Without mincing words he depicted the same directness while expressing his views before the media. Karnad drew heavy flak while he took on two Nobel Laureates – Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore by branding him a mediocre playwright and V.S. Naipaul as anti-Muslim.

I asked Shyam Benegal why despite having two theatre icons Vijay Tendulkar and Satyadev Dubey in his team he included Girish Karnad in scripting Nishant, Manthan and Bhumika. “He has a razor sharp mind. He takes plotting and constructing sequences, scenes and dialogues in the screenplay like a game of chess”, replied Benegal.

During the making of Bhumika, Girish Karnad and Satyadev Dubey would drop into Benegal’s Pedder Road flat at dinner for idea bashing. Nira Benegal would cook but before dinner could be served, both Girish and Dubey would start an intellectual debate descending soon into a shouting match. Nira Bengal would finally ask them to get out of the flat and fight instead on Pedder Road. Sometimes, it would go for hours and both Benegals would go to sleep. Girish had a set of their flat keys. In the morning, Nira and Shyam would find both Karnad and Dubey tired and snoring on the floor of their living room.

This anecdote narrated by me at the Nehru Centre drew cheers. Other officials, scholars, artists and filmmakers who addressed the evening were B K Guhare, Nasreen Munni Kabir, Martin Pick, Jay Visvadeva, John Keay, Nasreen Rehman, Nikhil Kaushik, Chitra Sundaram, Sangeeta Datta, Nona Sheppherd, Alaknanda Samarth, Ruth Padel and Vayu Naidu. The audience got submerged in the ambiance of bitter-sweet, funny as well as wacky tributes paid to the one and only icon Girish Karnad.

Lalit Mohan Joshi is a London based journalist, film historian and documentary filmmaker.