Here’s How Girish Karnad Shaped Debut Films Of Naseeruddin Shah & Om Puri

Abhishek Srivastava - 67 weeks ago

Beyond theatre buffs, not many in the millennial generation will be aware of the contemplative, temperamental and committed theatre and film personality, Girish Karnad. His life and times make for interesting reading, and reveal a man who wouldn’t let anything interfere with true artistic talent. The Film Hashery pays homage to the guru.

(Girish Karnad during his tenure at FTII from 1974 to 1975)

L’Avventura by Michelangelo Antonioni was the film that had taken Britain by storm when Girish Karnad first landed in the UK on a Rhodes scholarship. Despite the hype, a young Girish decided to skip it. He was just not interested. This incident gives an early glimpse into the fact that Girish was a reluctant screen hero whose only passion was theatre, and films were just a means to an end. 

When Girish Karnad earned a Rhodes scholarship and decided to pursue his studies at the Oxford University, his father was heartbroken. Girish’s father, a doctor earning government pay in Sirsi, a small town in Karnataka, had learnt his lessons well. Poverty and constant paucity of things in the house always reminded him that the only way to earn a stable and secured life was by becoming a civil servant. The father wanted his  meritorious son to become an IAS officer but the son had a different calling. 

(Basu Chatterjee, Dev Anand, Girish Karnad and Tina Munim durign the shooting of Man Pasand (1980)

The son was more inclined towards becoming a poet and in an earlier interview had revealed that his upcoming stint in the UK gave him an opportunity to observe the world of TS Eliot and PB Shelley from close quarters. When he realised that he could not be a poet, he was crestfallen. Young Girish found it difficult to weave words. Girish Karnad was many things wrapped into one man. Yayati – his first attempt at playwright at the age of 22, a stint of six years at the Oxford University Press and then into the world of theatre and films - reveals his multifarious personality.  Theatre was something that he had inherited from his family. The family kept a close vigil on the Parsi and Bombay theatre activities and grabbed every opportunity to watch a play. An unexpected perk of the job for Karnad’s father were malaria infestations common to their home town. The combination of Girish’s father being a doctor and Sirsi being a malaria infested place proved to be a surprise blessing, as whenever theatre troupes visited the place, the only constant at the play was his father whose job was to ensure that none of the actors suffered malarial bouts. This freely allowed members of the Karnad family access to every play that Sirsi witnessed. 

Though Girish harboured ambitions of settling in the UK, his stint in the UK also made him realise that the country won’t allow him to do things he was interested in and it might seem alien to its people.

(Amol Palekar and Girish Karnad in a still from Kumar Shahani's Tarang (1984)

After his return to India, settling in the world of theatre and writing did not prove to be a challenge but money to run the household was always a factor. He soon realised that it would be difficult to sustain on an income from theatre alone. Girish Karnad had revealed in an earlier Doordarshan interview that, “There was always a pressure on me to go and act in Hindi films. Before I proposed to my New York-based doctor wife, I asked her if she has money. She replied in the negative and countered that all along she had been thinking that I had money. It was then I realised that I got to make money and that’s how I got into Hindi films and then I pursued money quite single mindedly.”

Though Girish appeared in numerous so called middle-path cinema, theatre always drew him back and there were only few films that he looked back at, with pleasure - foremost being films of Shyam Benegal. He never considered himself a good actor. 

(Girish Karnad on the sets of Malgudi Days)

His two-year tenure (1974-74) in the role of FTII director was an eventful one. His stint at the film institute also coincided with the infamous strike by students from the acting batch. While acting students remained adamant on their demand of being roped by direction batch film students for their diploma films, Girish believed in finding a middle way to resolve the deadlock. While Mrinal Sen sided with acting students, Hrishikesh Mukherji tried to reason with students of acting by saying that directors will always be superior to actors. This only went on to provoke the striking students further. This phase also ensured that he came in contact with Naseeruddin Shah, who remained at the forefront of the strike. It was the administrator in Girish which cajoled and lured acting students into taking a trip to Delhi to participate in the ongoing International Film Festival of India (in its early years the film festival was part of Delhi’s annual cultural calendar), thus giving an opportunity to lockdown the institute and prevent students from entering the campus. Later when the board asked him to expel Naseeruddin Shah and Yashpal (another student at the forefront of the strike), he flatly refused saying how can he expel two of the brightest students from the batch. 

Despite facing trouble from Shah’s rebellious actions as student, Girish Karnad recommended him to Shyam Benegal when he informed him about his search for a ‘non-hero’ face for his film Nishant. But it was not only Naseer who was rescued by Girish Karnad, he also helped Om Puri get through the acting course at FTII. Nandita Puri in her biography on the actor recalls the episode when Om Puri faced the interview board. During the interview, Om was asked to recite Mark Anthony’s famous funeral speech from Julius Caesar. He came out with flying colors but despite the bravura performance, members of the interview board wondered why he should be given admission as he ‘neither looked like a hero, nor a villain, nor a comedian’. Out of ten members only two were in favour of Om’s admission, the first one was late actor Jay Raj and other being Girish. When matters came to a deadlock, Girish, being the director of the institute, had to use his power to grant admission to Om Puri.He also allowed Puri to pay his fees later, knowing well his paltry state of finances. Like Naseer, the thespian proved instrumental in getting Om Puri his debut film. It was Girish who recommended Om Puri to BV Karanth for the children’s film Chor Chor Chhupja

(Girish Karnad in a still from Telugu film Ananda Bhairavi (1983)

Another incident which reveals his fair-play attitude was witnessed during the making of Kalyug – the Shyam Benegal film which dealt with corporate rivalry taking Mahabharat as its base. The Mahabharat idea was suggested by Girish Karnad but both he and Shyam Benegal hit a road block as none were interested in making a period film. Their common friend Vinod Doshi, seeing their plight, suggested that the setting for the film could be contemporary with corporate background. It was Girish who later ensured that Vinod Doshi should be credited in the film despite having played a very minor role. 

Karnad’s strongest memory for millennial audiences will be Tiger Zinda Hai and Ek Tha Tiger, blockbusters but perhaps not his proudest cinematic moments. Yet, this temperamental and committed artist, who has mentored Indian cinema’s biggest acting talents, leaves his mark on popular culture simply by being true to his art. His contributions will remain timeless.


Girish Karnad / FTII / Shyam Benegal / Om Puri / Naseeruddin Shah / Nishant / Manthan / Swami / Ek Tha Tiger / Tiger Zinda Hai / Rhodes Scholar / Oxford University / Theatre /

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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