In the 70s and 80s, Hindi cinema broadly belonged to three categories. There was parallel or alternative cinema, best represented by Shyam Benegal. Basu Chatterjee typified meaningful, middle-of the-road cinema. And then there was mainstream masala, the biggest of them all. Girish Karnad engaged with them all. He came to notice in Benegal’s ode to rural uprising, Nishant (1975), where he played a schoolteacher whose wife is abducted by the village zamindar. In Benegal’s next, Manthan (1976), he played an idealist veterinary doctor who sets up a cooperative dairy unit in a Gujarat village. The film originated from an idea by Verghese Kurien, who mentored India’s milk revolution. Karnad also penned the screenplay of Kalyug (1980), Benegal’s modern take on the Mahabharata.Karnad’s performances were always informed by an understated aesthetic, informal and natural. He was confident enough to play second fiddle to strong women characters, as in Jabbar Patel’s Umbartha/Subah (Marathi/Hindi, 1981), where the spotlight was on Smita Patil, or negative characters such as the crafty zamindar in Sutradhar (1987). With an erudite face that was a mix of male beauty, sincerity and dignity, and a voice that was distinctive, Karnad could also be a fetching bhadralok, well-suited to novelist Saratchandra’s characters located in early 20th century Bengal. Director Basu Chatterjee’s Swami and Apne Paraye, based on Saratchandra’s works, were loved and lapped up by the middle-class. His nuanced rendering of an impostor, trapped between greed and conscience, in another Chatterjee venture, Ratnadeep, received lavish critical praise. And his enduring love for films with literary backgrounds was again evident in Chatterjee’s Man Pasand, shoddily inspired by GB Shaw’s Pygmalion. Karnad’s most lasting engagement with the world of letters in Hindi cinema was Utsav (1984). The film was based on ancient Indian playwright Sudraka’s work Mrichakatika (The little clay cart). Backed by generous producer Shashi Kapoor, Karnad ambitiously and painstakingly recreated the 5th-century BC setting of the erotic love story. Few remember that he also acted in dozens of Bollywood potboilers, vacuous family dramas as well as low-budget action yarns. Karnad played an honest cop who employs convicts to counter bandits in director Shibu Mitra’s Paanch Qaidi, a B-grade cross between Do Aankhen Barah Haath and Sholay. Among his more notable family socials was Shama, produced by writer-actor Kader Khan and based on a story by Bengali writer Jarasandha. Perhaps Karnad’s most underfeted performance was that of a classical singer in director K Viswanath’s Sur Sangam. Karnad invested the part of Pandit Shiv Shankar Shastri with craft and heart. In the 1980s, the actor had a fling with Hindi television too. He was a presenter in the science-made-easy serial, Turning Point and was pivotal to Khandaan, DD’s first urban serial that agonised over the loves and aches of a moneyed Mumbai business family. He was there in the cutesy sci-fi kid serial Indradhanush, where teenager Karan Johar too had a small role. But his most fondly remembered role was of Swamy’s father in DD’s much-loved Malgudi Days, which was based on writer RK Narayan’s fictional town. He remained a familiar face in Hindi films, albeit with lesser frequency, even in the 1990s and 2000s. Rajkumar Santoshi cast him as a forest officer in China Gate (1998). For many young moviegoers, he will be remembered as the empathetic and intelligent boss of Salman Khan’s superhit Tiger series: Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and Tiger Zinda Hai (2017). He might have been in the third part, currently in development, as well. But that was not to be.
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