‘Samskara’: A scathing indictment of Brahman hypocrisies and prejudices

Recently, I did something that I’ve never done in my life before: Read a novel and watch it’s film adaptation side by side. I would read a small portion of the book and then watch the length of that portion covered in the film. Being an aspiring filmmaker, I wanted to see how much of the film was faithful to the book and learn how everything was conveyed on screen. The book was U.R Ananthamurthy’s Samskara: A Rite for a Dead Man, which was translated into English by A.K Ramanujan. It is one of the best and most immersive Indian novels I’ve read in a long time. It immediately transported me to my childhood days of reading mythological epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata.

However, the intricacies of the subject matter of Samskara is such that only a properly matured adult – and preferably someone who was born and brought up in India – can fully comprehend. Western viewers (and readers) shouldn’t see this as a hindrance as some of its themes are universal. The film version, directed by Pattabhi Rama Reddy and written by veteran Kannada actor and playwright Girish Karnad, is a flawless and faithful adaptation of Ananthamurthy’s book. The characters that inhabit the story are Brahmins belonging to the Madhwa community from Karnataka’s Durvasapura village. These characters are faced with a most awkward predicament: A man named Naranappa (played by P.Lankesh), who belonged to this community, is dead. But there remains a problem: the man had vehemently denounced his religion and its practices. He had married a low-caste woman named Chandri (played by Snehalatha Reddy) who also happens to be a prostitute. He consumed meat and alcohol and had vowed to destroy Brahmanism for good.

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Seeing that the man doesn’t have any family, the confused Brahmins approach the most prominent Brahmin in their community, a priest called Praneshacharya (played by Girish Karnad) for a solution. Who will perform his last rites? This is the perplexing question on everyone’s mind. Praneshacharya is revered by them as he is seemingly the most devout and erudite one of them all. He agrees to consult the scriptures and come up with a solution. Many complications arise as Naranappa was hated by them all and the one person who displayed some compassion towards him was Praneshacharya. But even he was provoked by Naranappa at one point and all these flashbacks agitate him deeply. Though this story seems simple on the surface, it is underpinned by many thought-provoking themes and questions, many of which includes God, religion, sex, death etc. Is a man capable of abandoning his principles if he is not bound by the shackles of laws and rituals? Who decides who is pure and who is not and who decides what is a sin and what is not? Is everyone who experiences basic human emotions and desires a “sinner”?

The nature of most characters are evident from the outset but it’s the character of Praneshacharya who is the most complex. He has been married to a sick and bed-ridden woman who continually suggests that he get married again. But he never listens to her and takes care of her every day, tending to her every need. He sees this as some sort of blessing from a past life – to serve her. And he is considered a true brahmin by everyone in his community. Even Naranappa says so in a flashback. But is he really pure as he makes everyone believe or is he “weak” as everyone else? Everyone else is revealed to be a hypocrite and the longer the body of Naranappa remains unburied, the more frustrated everyone becomes. We see all sorts of absurd superstitions and rituals in the film and the women are not different from the either. But oddly enough, one is compelled to ask if Chandri is actually the purest human being among them. Chandri and Naranappa are the only two people who are honest about who they are. Naranappa is seen as a corrupting influence by many because he introduced some of the youth to theatre, drama and dance.

On one side, we have Praneshacharya and his followers and on the other side, we have Naranappa and his followers who are mourning his death. Naranappa, though a deceased character, still remains an important and influential character in the film. The story invites us to make our own judgments and evaluations of these characters. You might find it difficult to take sides because there are positives and negatives in both. The well-written screenplay explores everything in the book in a simple manner. Some passages are delivered in the form of expositions and character dialogues. And some dialogues from the beginning of the book are illustrated with the help of visuals in the latter part of the film. It’s been said that U.R Anathamurthy was inspired to write this book after he watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The film was met with a strong reaction from the Madhwa community as well as the Censors and one can easily understand why. Some interesting trivia about the crew: Pattabhi Rama Reddy was not well-versed in Kannada, the cameraman is an Australian named Tom Cowan and the editor an Englishman called Stevan Carta.

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