Some films remain relevant for a long time because they examine a critical period of time in a nations history.A new film called Kurmawatara (The Tortoise, An Incarnation), which came out last year by the master filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli is one such film.It marries Gandhian philosophy with a modern context and more importantly human nature at its most ordinary and nondescript to make a comment on 21st century India in a rare and sensitive way. Kurmavatara examines the turmoil in the life of a hardworking low level honest civil servant when he is persuaded to play the Mahatma in a TV serial being directed by an ambitious and amoral young director.
Anand Rao (played brilliantly by newcomer Shikaripura Krishnamurthy), the protagonist is emotionally blackmailed into taking up the role by his family, who see him as a ticket to a comfortable middle class existence. In his journey towards becoming a TV star which is fraught with angst and enormous self introspection, he finds himself falling victim to the very corruption and narcissism that he managed to avoid in his unremarkable avatar of a government babu. He goes from being a “babu” to “Bapu”, trying to better himself by reading Gandhian literature and seeking council from an old Gandhian. Ironically his devotion to his cosmetic metamorphosis is what survives, while his inner innocent core, which he tries to fortify with a dose of vitamin “Gandhi”, quickly crumbles.
This is a highly complex film adapted from a deceptively simple looking short story by Kumvee a celebrated Kannada writer. Dr.Girish Kasaravalli, the veteran of 14 highly acclaimed and awarded films,does not believe in making films that are just realistically filmed stories but tries to makes them vehicles of astute commentary on our times . He categorically says that it is meaningless to makes films unless they are a part of the ongoing dialogue in society. His cinema is typically multilayered and densely packed with social commentary. Dr Kasaravalli is sometimes criticized for tackling too many issues in one go, leaving the audience a little exhausted,i.e. if they do make the effort of diving into the depths of his cinema.All this surely makes him one of the most exiting filmmakers in India and the world today!!
The title of the film alludes to the mythology of Lord Vishnu’s tortoise incarnation when he supported Mt. Mandarachala during the churn of the ocean(Ksheera Sagar).Then the embattled and weakened Gods formed a “coalition” with the Demons to produce the nectar of eternal life .The outer shell of his tortoise avatar cracked in the process and the aftermath of the ocean churn has clear parallels with the modern political saga of greed and corruption in India.I am always captivated by how hopelessly human our Hindu Gods are, and perhaps the title mocks the current political establishment for fighting for the fruits of the churn, which can be an allegory for the freedom struggle. The tortoise incarnation of Vishnu ends up with a cracked shell, and similarly the protagonist of this film at the end is a broken man after trying to shoulder the burden of his families ambitions and his own abortive attempts at trying to reform the likes of the TV serial director whose ruthlessness is a stand in for corporate greed.The fame and money which arrive with the role damage his life beyond repair.
The story deftly weaves in the question of the socio economic problems faced by Muslims in Indian society and Dr. Kasaravalli seems to suggest that the solution lies within the community. Its easy to not notice all this happening beneath the surface as the story of Anand Rao and his struggle to cope with his shiny new life as a small celebrity keeps us occupied from the word go.
The weakness of human nature in the face of a relentless consumer society which tests our integrity with new temptations is finally what every character is a victim of. Sex, power and money have always been the key drivers of human nature but the modern 21st society offers an unprecedented access to luxury and vice to undoubtedly the largest absolute number of humans in our entire history.So does Gandhi and his concepts of self control,self reliance, absolute equality between humans, celibacy, a classless society etc stand a chance in our overwhelmingly capitalist society?
Perhaps by putting a weak and puny little man who appears somewhat like RK Laxman’s common man and uncannily like Gandhi, Dr. Kasaravalli is trying to caution against a literal reading of Gandhi and advocating a more tempered approach.The dichotomy between Gandhi the politician who wisely and at the same time cleverly ousted the British(a little bit like strategy and tactics in management speak), and Gandhi the social reformer, needs to be remembered.Cinema in the hands of its most cerebral practitioners is a mediation on time and space, and perhaps Kurmawataras message is to let human nature run its course over a much longer timeline while globalization expands the spacial canvas exponentially.This is a very thought provoking point of view and reflects the directors deep humanism and reluctance to come to knee jerk reactions on any issue.