Finding Baba: Making a film on B V Karanth

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Finding Baba: Making a film on B V Karanth

An essay by Ramchandra P N

It was the early 1980s; I was studying in college in Udupi. One day, our English class did not start at its usual time, as our ever-punctual lecturer, BR Nagesh, went missing. When some of us went to the staff room to enquire, we suddenly saw – in a long shot - our ever-cautious lecturer speeding away on his bicycle as if his life was at stake. The next day, we gathered that he was rushing to meet one B V Karanth who, in his nomadic disposition, had come to town for just a few hours to meet with the participants of a theatre workshop that he had previously conducted. It wasn’t just Nagesh, but a couple of other lecturers were also missing from the staff room that day - they were all with Karanth. That was the first time I heard about the man BV Karanth - the one who had compelled our lecturers to bunk classes.

Later, I learnt that the man had influenced not just our lecturers but an entire generation or two of theatre and film practitioners, a period termed as the “Karanth era” by Girish Karnad. During this period, like a hermit, Karanth travelled to far corners of Karnataka (and elsewhere in the country) to direct plays and train people who, in turn, trained others. Although I am not an active theatre practitioner myself, as a young filmmaker, I was deeply inspired by aware of Karanth’s work in films which heralded a new wave in Kannada cinema such as Vamsha Vriksha, Chomana Dudi, Kadu etc. It is not hard to discern that without Karanth, Indian theatre and cinema would not have had the legacy it does. So, in 2012 when I made a 93 minutes long documentary movie titled BV Karanth: Baba, it was in grateful acknowledgement of this fact.

When I began preparing for this documentary in 2009, B. V. Karanth had already passed on. I was on the lookout for some live footage of Karanth; Natarang Pratistan had some and so did T. S. Nagabharana who had made a documentary on him while he was still alive. I was also told that some footage was available with the national TV channel Doordarshan in New Delhi. I also had another entry point - Karanth's autobiography, Illiralaare, Allige Hogalaare (Cannot be here, cannot go there), painstakingly compiled by Kannada writer, Vaidehi. While people adapt books into fiction movies, I decided to adapt his autobiography into a documentary.

My initial thoughts were to select portions of this autobiography and use them as first-person voice-overs in the documentary using a professional voice over artist. But as months passed, and as I began contacting some of the people - Karanth's associates and students - mentioned in the book, I realized that there were many from all over the country who were associated with Karanth at different points in his life, and who harboured a sense of fondness and gratitude for him. I decided that selected portions of the book would be spoken by these people, people who were trained by Karanth, in performance spaces where Karanth himself had once performed. In a sense, every one of them, irrespective of their age and gender, would not only embody Karanth but be him. At this point, I stopped looking for Karanth's live footage for I would, through this method, have authentic views of Karanth by Karanth himself, albeit not in person.

Let me proudly confess here that this is not an original idea. German filmmaker Harun Farocki, in 1969, made a short called The Inextinguishable Fire. The film was a critique of the Vietnam war and the manufacture of chemical weapons by huge multinational companies that were abetted by governments. Conventional war documentaries use actual war footage to depict the devastation. But Farocki, by choice, did not go to Vietnam. Instead, he used the testimony of a war-affected Vietnamese and reads out her written statement stoically. So, is Farocki within the realm of 'reality'? At one level obviously not, as Farocki is reading out something written on paper and it is not the actual Vietnamese person who is speaking. But on another level, it is, as the testimony itself is real and it vividly describes the misery of the woman caused by the chemical weapons. Farocki talks of the process within the body of the film itself.

The same technique is used by the American filmmaker Jill Godmillow in her 1984 documentary Far from Poland on the Polish Solidarity Movement. As she could not procure a visa to travel to Poland, she used press interviews of Polish citizens who had participated in the solidarity protests and then enacted them as interviews in the United States using US-based Polish actors. It is made known to the audience at crucial points in the film, in a Brechtian way, that such enactments are taking place.

The context within which Farocki and Godmillow made these choices is very political. I used this technique in my documentary mainly because I didn't have Karanth with me. Nevertheless, it was exciting. But what could my documentary on Karanth have apart from different people speaking as Karanth? The people mentioned in the autobiography were contacted so that they could speak about the aspects of Karanth's life each of them witnessed. Some agreed with the enacted Karanths and some provided different perspectives on the events narrated. So, what emerged is a multi-layered portrayal of the person who defied a definite singularity.

For example, regarding the Vibha-Karanth case, Karanth, in his autobiography, hints that the whole thing was an accident; Dharmendra, his lawyer in Bhopal, is sure that the case against Karanth was false; Girish Karnad speaks almost as if it was Karanth who had lit the fire; Ashok Vajpeyi is convinced that the facts in the matter are unclear and the courts decided that Karanth was not guilty. By keeping all these divergent aspects within the body of the documentary, I let the audience decide for themselves. This was fitting given that in his autobiography, Karanth himself says that a person is who he says he is and who others say he is.

But I now had another issue at hand - what is a documentary worth if it just has talking heads? I should caution here that there is the whole school of thought that believes interviews are the best way to bring out the 'real'. The 1978 documentary by Errol Morris, Gates of Heaven, is a fine example of this. A film about the pet cemetery business in the United States, it consists entirely of long interviews. Critic Roger Ebert regards this film as one of the greatest that he has ever watched. But I am no Errol Morris and I have no Roger Ebert by my side. Such allusions apart, I was simply not confident enough of making a documentary based solely on interviews.

The documentary demanded the use of video recordings of plays directed by Karanth. The Natarang Prathistan, I was told, had some. The National School of Drama also had quite a few. So did the BV Karanth Ranga Prathistan - the official trust of BV Karanth and Prema Karanth. I was not sure about the quality of the recordings that would facilitate the effective usage of these clippings. The last thing I wanted was the producer rejecting my documentary for technical issues. Fortunately, there were a lot of photographs from Barnam Van to Havayadhana to Gokula Nirgamana. I also had people enact portions of plays that Karanth had directed or had acted in. In one such enactment, in Bhopal, a recording of the original play was projected on to the white screen on the backstage while the present-day actors enacted portions of the play on the main stage. The theatre group Benaka – founded by Karanth in Bengaluru continues to perform many of his plays even today. But, unfortunately, they had no shows planned during the filming of my documentary.

Adding colour to the narration were the songs that BV Karanth had composed for his plays. Some of the tunes that he has composed have attained legendary status amongst theatre practitioners. I use the word 'tunes' because the compositions are unconventional, are of varying lengths, and Karanth has not restricted himself to the Antra-Mukhda format of song composition. These are tunes composed contextually for specific scenes enacted on stage. The documentary was fortunate to have singers like Srinivas Bhat, Amod Bhat (pre-recorded), Aruna Shetty, Shylashree HD, Chandrashekara Achar, Mandakini Goswami and others who were Karnath's associates or students and who were gracious enough to demonstrate and offer a glimpse of Karnath's musical genius. These evocative tunes/songs were used such that they accompanied and complemented the emotional times of his life. So, Karanth's life was not only depicted through his words but also through his music.

And finally, adding the last layer of perspective to the documentary were the 'movement' shots. Karanth was an eternal nomad who was uncomfortable rooting himself in a place for long. How do I visually depict this? I used travelling shots of various kinds - Buses, Tongas, Trains, Boats, Taxies, Tricycles, etc. These helped punctuate the narration and also provided a visual base for the music.

So, a documentary which was supposed to be 52 minutes in length grew up to 93 minutes. Yet, we had to leave out quite a few aspects of Karanth's life and work. His work with Surabhi theatre group in Andhra Pradesh, his work in the North East, Kerala and other states, his work abroad, the light and sound show that he designed, the documentary films that he made, his career in film acting, and the humungous task of writing his autobiography - all of these could not make it to the final cut. Ebrahim Alkazi was inaccessible while I was filming the documentary, Karanth's early theatre associate, Rammurthy, politely refused to come on camera. A couple of his early colleagues had passed just a year before I began filming. The schedules of Namvar Singh, B Jayashree, Chandrashekar Kambhar, and some others, did not match with that of my filming schedules. Even without these perspectives and elements, I had overshot the prescribed length, but I was ready to battle, as if for my life, had the producer insisted on cutting any portion of the movie. Fortunately, not a second was asked to be cut which reassured me that every bit of the movie worked.

Prior to Karanth's death, Jayaram Patil of the BV Karanth Ranga Prathistana had taken him on a road trip to his native place, presumably to help him recollect memories for his autobiography. If a camera were to record this journey, the resultant documentary would have been distinct from the one that I have made. There could be a hundred other ways to narrate the story of BV Karanth, even in a documentary. In the post-completion screenings, there were, invariably, comments about aspects of Karanth that could have been added to the documentary. The truth is, whichever form the movie takes, it can never be definitively said that a complete picture has been given, especially if the person is BV Karanth. You could never tie him down.

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Ramchandra PN is an Indian filmmaker based in the city of Mumbai, India.

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