For a man of letters that he was and, later, also one dealing with the moving images, one’s introduction to Girish Karnad happened ironically through the sound waves - a radio adaptation of his play, Hayavadana , by the All India Radio with Kulbhushan Kharbanda in a major role.
One may not have understood much of the beguiling tale of a creature with “the head of the human and the body of a horse, that spoke in a human voice” as one of its protagonists; its ideas about human imperfection and the complications and fickleness of desires may not have rung a bell back then but the interplay of modern ideas within the mythological construct was fascinating even to untrained ears. It was the same sense of contemporaneity that he tried to bring (albeit not quite as successfully) in his cinematic interpretation of Sudraka’s erotic text Mrichhakatika (The Little Clay Cart) in the 1984 Hindi film that he directed for producer Shashi Kapoor, Utsav . It was about looking back at the past through the prism of the present.
Cinema and Hindi films, in particular, may have formed a minuscule part of a multi-faceted life of Girish Karnad - that of writer, playwright, scholar, academician, administrator, towering intellectual, Jnanpith awardee and conscience-keeper of the nation. But, just as in modern Indian theatre, Mr. Karnad was at the head of the renaissance in Indian cinema as well, riding the parallel wave of the 1970s and stayed on well into the 1980s.
His literary foundations and social conscience shine through in the world of cinema, especially in the long stint in Kannada films that brought critical acclaim and awards aplenty. It was a memorable start with Samskara (1970), based on U.R. Ananthamurthy’s novel, which he wrote with Pattabhirama Reddy and also acted in. A strong indictment of the caste system, it was a story , the film laid bare the conflicts, quandaries, and hypocrisies endemic to the Brahmin community. A story, that was radical then and remains relevant till date.
For his directorial debut, Mr. Karnad co-directed Vamsa Vriksha (1971) with B.V. Karanth. Tabbaliyu Neenade Magane (1977), again co-directed with Karanth, had a Hindi version as well, Godhuli . Kanooru Heggaditi (1999) was based on a novel by Kuvempu.
It was Shyam Benegal’s Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976) that led Mr. Karnad’s entry into parallel Hindi cinema. In both the films, he played characters that trigger public movements. In the former, the struggle is against zamindari oppression and feudalism. In Manthan , he played Dr. Rao based on NDDB chief Varghese Kurien who ushered in the White Revolution via the milk cooperative Amul. In Jabbar Patel’s Marathi film Umbartha (also Subah in Hindi, 1982) he turned bad, as the conservative, adulterous husband of Smita Patil.
Mr. Karnad went on to do a string of the middle-of-the-road films directed by Basu Chatterjee including Swami (1977) and Apne Paraye (1980).
In most of these films, he played the erudite man that he was in real life. A patient, understanding husband in one, an imposter with a conscience in anotheror a friend who loses in a love triangle. In later years, he worked with Nagesh Kukunoor - as the hard-nosed coach in Iqbal (2005) and a conservative father in Dor (2006), among others.
In between the Chatterjee and Kukunoor phase were a string of mainstream films like Subhash Ghai’s Meri Jung (1985) to Rajkumar Santoshi’s Pukaar (2000).
However, it was during the heyday of Doordarshan that he become a household name as Swami’s father in the popular TV series Malgudi Days , and as the host of the science programme Turning Point .
More recently, Mr. Karnad played the key role of the RAW chief Dr. Shenoy in the Salman Khan blockbusters Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and TigerZinda Hai (2017).
When it came to the Hindi mainstream films, quite often it felt that he was there in the frames and yet not quite. It’s as though he inhabited the film’s world while remaining firmly outside of it. It was a world, that Mr. Karnad might not have belonged to yet still brought a gravitas to his characters. Much as he was in life, a public intellectual.