Sunday, July 03, 2011

116. Indian filmmakers Girish Karnad and B. V. Karanth’s “Vamsha vriksha” (The Geneology Tree/The Family Tree) (1971): A major Indian cinematic work, often forgotten by Indian and global cineastes

Often important movies lean on great literary works to make an impact. Girish Karnad and B.V. Karanth’s Vamsha vriksha, made in black and white on a shoestring budget, is one such example. Vamsha vriksha was based on an Indian novel written in the Kannada language. Soon after the Kannada film was made was made, it went on to win the National Award for the Best Director, the Swarna Kamal (The Golden Lotus award). Forty years down the road, this important landmark in Indian cinema is forgotten. An entire new generation of film-goers in India can hardly recall the film.

Vamsha vriksha is a tale of three generations of two Hindu families in Karnataka. It deals with Indian society’s perceptions of widowhood, motherhood, women’s emancipation, family secrets, intrigue to secure family’s assets after the death of a parent, renunciation of the family, and marital infidelity. Indian culture and societal demands of the day make the film totally riveting in the Seventies with indelible acting performances by three individuals who briefly made a name in Indian cinema as movie directors, each winning top national honors—Girish Karnad (who followed this work with another memorable directorial effort Kaadu/The forest --1973), B.V. Karanth (with his equally important film Chomana Dudi/ Chomana’s Drum--1975), and G.V. Iyer with his ambitious historical biopic in Sanskrit (a dead Indian language) titled Adi Shankaracharya (1983).

There are several reasons why Vamsha vriksha stands out today. First, the film's subject is relevant today as it was in the Seventies. It embodies many aspects of Indian society and its strong foundations built on family values. It underscores the importance of the family tree as a transmitter of those perceived values. In Vamsha vriksha, the devotion and respect of a young widow for her father-in-law and the understanding of the elder for the aspirations of his daughter-in-law convey the feelings of the emerging, evolving India with its gradual acceptance of women’s emancipation and widow remarriage. The importance of the male heir in an Indian patriarchal family is another aspect of the film Vamsha vriksha. The absence of a parent in a child’s life is yet another aspect studied through two contrasting examples in the film. And, finally, there is an unenviable choice for a young Indian Hindu widow to take--whether to deprive a loving family of their only grandson or to live with her son and new husband, bringing sorrow to her first husband’s family. The dilemmas offered in the film are not particular to Karnataka where the Kannada language is spoken but could be applicable anywhere in India or even in other parts of the sub-Continent.

Most Indian critics sideline Vamsha vriksha partly because quality Indian cinema is often associated with three languages—Bengali, Malayalam and Hindi/Urdu—and partly because the better Indian critics and scholars are more comfortable with those afore-mentioned languages. Vamsha vriksha is forgotten today because it was made in Kannada language and its main actors were the directors themselves.

For this critic, Vamsha vriksha and another Indian Golden Lotus/President’s Gold Medal winner, M.T. Vasudevan Nair’s Malayalam film called Nirmalayam (1973) are two important Indian films that have been deprived of international and national recognition in recent decades. Both discuss Indian society and its affinity to the Hindu religion as Ingmar Bergman would in his films on Swedish lifestyles and Christianity. (This critic has often compared and contrasted the ending of Nirmalayam with that of Bergman’s Winter Light--1962.) But the core strength of Vamsha vriksha comes, not from the directors or the actors, but from the Kannada novel by S. L. Bhyrappa, on which the film hangs. The novel’s name, used for its English translation, is The Uprooted.

Girish Karnad is arguably one of India’s finest playwrights ranking alongside the Hindi playwright Mohan Rakesh. Karnad could envisage how the novel could be dis-aggregated into poignant sequences to make an impact on the screen. Karnad and Karanth, like Bergman, had an affinity for the stage, but knew what cinema could achieve which the theatre could not. The last sequence in the film, one of the most evocative sequences in Indian cinema, could not have been achieved on stage—only cinema could record that. That sequence transcended tragedy as it made the viewer review all the values of Indian society. But what was more important for this critic was that final sequence could easily be considered to be parallel to the end of Shakespeare’s King Lear or Bergman’s Winter Light. Several parts of the film rely on movement of the actors, the camera angles, light and shade, rather than the spoken words. It is a remarkable directorial effort, rarely encountered in the annals of Indian cinema. It is a film that indicates a sophisticated mind behind the camera pulling together diverse visual segments that add up to more than the sum of its parts.

However, the true majesty of the film rests on the central character of the film—the patriarch of the film. He is a devout husband, a son who respects his dead father and prays for him on each death anniversary, a caring father-in-law and a doting grandfather. He is steeped in tradition and very religious. Even when his wife urges him to sleep with her handmaiden because she cannot do that for medical reasons after the first child is born, he refuses (compare and contrast it with the almost similar tale of Sarah and Abraham, in the Christian/Jewish/Islamic scriptures). What then, can lay low such a morally tall and charismatic individual?

The true hero behind the film is indeed the writer of the novel--- S L Bhyrappa. The novelist’s development of Katyayani (played by a charming Kannada actress, L.V. Sharada) who breaks free from the shackles of widowhood with tact and consideration for her late husband’s family but loses the companionship of her son, was used by the novelist as a pivot for the see-sawing tales of two families both having to weather moral turpitudes in different contexts. Shame and scandal in families, rich and poor, occur worldwide. But Bhyrappa weaved together the myriad psychological and philosophical strains that a family tree bears on its branches. The film and the novel might expose the reality under the surface of strong cultural values but they do not undermine the role of the tree preserving the cultural values for generations. For Ingmar Bergman in Winter Light, the priest continues his vocation at the end of the film following his personal social and religious turmoil. For Bhyrappa, Karnad and Karanth, in Vamsha vriksha, the family tree does not get uprooted---a grandson following his cathartic moments of losing his mother still cries out for his grandfather, although there is no response. The family tree continues to serve in preserving social and cultural values through the generations.

Vamsha vriksha is one of those rare works of Indian cinema that can match international standards in content and style and can be a rewarding experience for a viewer even after the film gets over. And surprisingly, both Vamsha vriksha and Nirmalayam are two movies that rarely get mentioned in any serious discussion of Indian cinema.

P.S. Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light was reviewed on this blog earlier.


I'm Ram Shankar said...

your blog very uni q, i like your uniq postings

Cine Cynic said...

Interesting. The director-writer duo Bapu-Ramana adapted the same novel (or the movie) to Telugu in 1980, also called "vamSa vRkSham" (not B&W).

It was also overlooked, and continues to be lost among other more famous works of Bapu. I caught it on TV as a kid, when I couldn't understand it. And it all came back to me a couple of years ago, almost like an epiphany that knocks the wind out.

I'm glad you reminded me again.