A rebel in cinema and life is finally at peace

Bengaluru: A perennial rebel, a liberal to the core and Jnanpith award winning playwright, actor and filmmaker Girish Karnad, 81, died here on Monday. He was on mobile breathing support for over a year and suffering from various ailments.

Karnad’s persona went beyond the world of showbiz – a versatile career spanning various mediums and genres. In a way, he was a rebel both in cinema and life. His was the fearless liberal voice that took a strong position against strident Hindutva.

He was among over 200 writers and artistes who had appealed to citizens to vote against hate politics; even as an octogenarian he had rattled the establishment when he wore a placard around his neck that read -- 'Me too Urban Naxal --' at an event marking the first death anniversary of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh. In fact, Karnad was on the hit list of a right-wing group which allegedly shot dead journalist Lankesh.

Of late, due to threats, Karnad was keeping a low profile, avoided his walks and even interactions on plays and writing at Rangasankara, his well-known theatre platform.

The Karnataka government declared a holiday on Monday as a mark of respect and has announced state mourning for three days. Politicians, writers and other noted personalities took to social media to pay glorious tribute to the playwright.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Girish Karnad will be remembered for his versatile acting across all mediums. He also spoke passionately on causes dear to him. His works will continue being popular in the years to come. Saddened by his demise. May his soul rest in peace.”

Born on May 19, 1938, in Maharashtra, Karnad did his schooling in Siris in the Uttara Kannada district in Karnataka and then went on to study in Dharwad. He subsequently studied at University of Oxford.

He was known for his acclaimed plays that used historical and mythological narratives to critically reflect on society. It was at Oxford that he wrote his first play Yayati in 1961.

With Tughlaq (1964) and Haya-vadana (1972) Karnad burnished his credentials further. Eventually, Karnad made his foray into cinema with the iconic Kannada movie Samskara in 1970, which was based on the famous novel of the same name by radical rebel writer UR Ananthamurthy.

Samskara came out after a long struggle with the censors for its stance against age-old Brahmin preserves and deep-seated conservatism. It was so bold and radical for its times that it became iconic almost as soon as it was released.

'Tughlaq' is one of his gems, which theatre aficionados of the 1970s would remember for being showcased in the precincts of Old Fort in the capital city. The play was directed by Ebrahim Alkazi -- the doyen of Indian theatre.

Karnad won the National Award for best director for the film Vamsha Vriksha, and his next film Kaadu won the best Feature Film Award. Karnad also directed the critically acclaimed movie Ondanondu Kaladalli in 1978, which was an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai.

He also featured in Hindi movies 'Manthan', 'Nishant', 'Pukar', 'Iqbal', 'Dor' and 'Ek Tha Tiger.' His frequent collaborators, director Shyam Benegal, and actress Shabana Azmi, were both too emotional to talk about the sudden demise of Karnad, but the film fraternity at large was generous in praising not just his talent but his benevolence too.

The playwright was also one of the actors in Shankar Nag's TV adaptation of Malgudi Days and Swami and Friends. In fact, for the 1980s' kids who tasted TV time with 'Malgudi Days', Karnad’s portrayal as Swami’s stern father, remains an indelible memory.

An excellent conversationalist, his most quotable was: "A man must commit a crime at least once in his life-time. Only then will his virtue be recognised."

By Shankar Raj

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