This is a simple and elegant film, made with the creative dexterity of a talented director. It is also a film about theater, history of performance, and about gender identity. There are many strengths of this film; the closer you get to it, the more there is to discover.
If the director’s name sounds familiar; it is! Her father Girish Kasaravalli co-wrote the script with Gopalakrisna Pai, both immeasurable talents in Kannada film and literature. The film, based on a short story by Pai, is centered on Hari, a young actor who plays female roles in theater in Karnataka. The film peers behind the long-standing practice in theater by foregrounding the troubles of male performers playing women’s roles in theater. Their negotiations with the tensions between performed and lived roles remain part of cultural history, though hidden for some time.
Hari has been playing a woman in the Yakshagana tradition. Hard working, sincere and reflective, he is admired for his roles. Graceful in his body, his own life reflects the roles he plays. He prefers to wear saris, and in female company, he finds a mutual ease. His own disposition in everyday life, his stated vocation in theater, and his gender ambiguity cause great distress to the family. His brother cannot get married as the family is tainted with a presence of a scandalous member who dresses like girls. Immensely and sensitive, Hari finds the environment too painful. Frustration drives him to rare fits of anger at his brother.
Hari quits the theater troupe, cuts his long hair and attempts to return to normal life as a young man. But eligible women avoid him, making his existential crisis even deeper. Distraught and torn between his role as a woman-performer and the pressures of his culture, Hari finds himself adrift in a culture that does not understand him. He leaves his family. An aging actor in the Yakshagana tradition recognizes his face, strikes a friendship with him, and invites him to perform together. The older actor also offers a place to stay in his own house. Now, another stigma haunts him; the scandalous relationship with an older man. Again, the social perception proves than Hari’s reality, driving him to despair.
Hari’s co-performer once remarks that he talks like a philosopher. In one of the most eloquent scenes in the film, Hari is ruminating on the odd contradictions of his life. “How strange our life is,” he says. “When we are made up, people exalt us…. abandon us when it is off… mock at us.” We are “nirmalyam- flower offerings discarded after use.” “Am I a man playing a woman or a woman playing a man,” he asks, “Who am I?” The scene is a singular treasure in this film, filmed in the tones of the theatrical stage, light yellow dominating the faces of actors in make-up. It encapsulates the anguish of generations of performers, and raises crucial questions of failures of our language to understand the gender of the interlocutors. It is indeed ripe for philosophical and cultural investigation.
Kasaravalli is in command in this meticulously structured film. She allows the lead actor in Hari’s role, Shrunga Vasudevan, ample room to shape the character. Vasudevan’s face is interminably expressive; a face that speaks of the here and now, the imminent and the historical at once. Vasudevan directs us to the oceans of stirrings inside of him. Even brief glimpses are enough to peer into his inner turmoil. His sentient, bodily grace stands in not for him alone but for generations of performers who went through troubles like his and at great personal cost, they kept the traditions alive. Here is a performer whose presence on the screen is one of the richest in Kannada and Indian cinema. His performance is a lasting discovery of this film.
Kasaravalli has recruited Udit Khurana, a fellow graduate of the L. V. Prasad Academy in Chennai, to bring forth rural Kerala, already famed for its lush landscapes, with a life of their own. The theater and performance scenes are as rich as outdoor scenes, the color palette shaped by the air it breathes. The spaces of old rural homes, the texture of the objects lingers long enough to paint the scenes with carefully-lit sculptural existence.
The bare minimum, economically judicious but culturally rich script is powerful in its simplicity. The meditative pauses reveal much in speech and sound as in movements of actors and spaces between objects. I watched the film again to notice the thoughtful economy employed by the writers to bring forth a historical tale in simple language. Beneath the subtitles, I am sure, there is a richness to be relished. Yet, it is hard to mistake the effort to say so much with so few words. A commendable work in many areas of filmmaking; Harikatha Prasanga speaks well of Kannada and Indian cinema.