Kurumavatara: A metaphor for exploring Gandhiji’s legacy and values

Rupen Ghosh is a Delhi-based senior GoI officer with a keen interest in arts and literature.

Rupen Ghosh

Rupen Ghosh

Girish Kasaravalli, one of the pioneers of parallel cinema in the seventies, alongwith Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, MS Sathyu, Saeed Mirza and others, has come up with one of his finest works in Kannada cinema with his latest offering Kurumatavara, that has understandably won him the National Award for the best Kannada film. The film is now winning much critical acclaim in international film circuits. Kurmavatara ( Lord Vishnu’s avatar) is based on a short story written by Veerabhadrappa and is a take on contemporary India and whether Gandhian values still impact us and whether they still hold relevance. The film draws its inspiration from the Puranic tale where the Lord Vishnu’s Avatar Kurma (The Tortoise), as the legend has it, saves Mount Mandara from sinking into the ocean and the world from destruction. As like Kurma, Girish Kasaravalli in Kurmavatara retains the title and uses it and the story as a metaphor by exploring the legacy of the great saviour and savant: Mahatma Gandhi.

A still from the film

A still from the film

What exactly is the story of Kurmavatara? It is about a naive, non-corrupt, aging and about-to-retire government employee, Anand Rao, who slogs for long hours in office, has little interest in worldly affairs, and is generally not much liked by others. He doesn’t have a good family life; detached from his family environment of his son, daughter-in-law and grandson, Rao, a widower, lives in a world of his own. His nondescript, banal, commonplace, dull and uninspiring life suddenly takes a turn when his striking resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi helps him get a role in a television serial that is based on the father of the nation. Rao has no special fascination or regard for Gandhiji nor does he know any acting, never having taken part in theatre or any other form of performing art. Reluctantly, he accepts the role and then he is under pressure to learn about Gandhiji and there starts his inner journey to discover life and discover himself. As he delves deep into Gandhiji’s life and works, he is haunted by his dilemma, of his past deeds and how he feels guilty about his past actions and inactions. As he intensely studies his character, his finds his own life’s failings; they appear more stark: his strained relationship with his son, his stubborn refusal of tears at his wife’s funeral.

Getting more and more into the skin of the character, Rao draws a parallel with Gandhi’s life especially in respect of his relationship with his son, finding resemblance to that of Gandhi and his son Harilal. His also finds remarkable similarity of own dealing with his wife, the way he ignored his wife, to that of how Gandhi ignored his wife Kasturba. As the serial gains popularity and people increasingly start talking about it and as Rao is seen more and more on television, people begin to look up to him as Mahatma and expect him to act accordingly, to the ideals of Gandhiji and lift the society out of the present morass. His son sensing this an opportunity, wants to encash on his father’s popularity, but Rao disappoints and refuses to help him when he (the son) finds himself in trouble due to, what his father thinks, to be his own makings, his own indiscretions.

Girish Kasaravalli

At the end, Rao increasingly finds it difficult to enact the role of Gandhiji, to live up to the ideals of Mahatma, confronted as he with increasingly chasm and hiatus between ideals and reality. He realises at the end as to how difficult it is to emulate Mahatma in real life. The viewer is left to wonder whether Gandhian values and belief do still have relevance and whether it is possible to rescue the present generation from what many believe it to be degeneration and moral bankruptcy.

Girish Kasaravalli, a master in etching out characters, places the leading protagonist, Rao, in a unique role where his studies of Gandhiji and Gandhism leads him to a kind of self-discovery, a kind of inner journey about himself, about viewing his past in a different light. Kurmavatara is a must for all those who believe in serious cinema and those who are concerned about its plight and decline.

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