The opening titles of Ghatashraddha unfold over the bark of a tree in close up, an abstract image that has an unremitting primordial sentiment. Juxtaposed to this singular image is a rhythmic drum beat that is violently out of control, characterising the ways in which Girish Kasaravalli intends to disrupt with a rejoinder to religious orthodoxy expressly Brahminical hypocrisy and casteism. Released in 1977, and coming at the peak of Parallel Cinema, Kasaravalli’s seminal debut along with films like Samskara were an extension of the literary Navya Movement in Kannada in the 1970s critiquing the Brahmin elite. When Parallel Cinema first emerged in the late 1960s, it was a resolutely iconoclastic approach to making films, upending traditional storytelling methods, experimenting with aesthetics and smashing apart conventional themes. If at first it appeared that iconoclasm was merely a reactive expression, unleashing political and aesthetic forces, the rupture of this particular moment was sustained and re-emerged continuously as Parallel Cinema spread regionally.
Based on U. R. Ananthamurthy’s writings, a key voice in the Navya movement, the story takes place in a tight knit religious milieu, a Brahmin enclave complete with Vedic school and temple, framed by Kasaravalli as cut off from the rest of society, existing in a non-temporal state. Nani, a young Brahmin boy, arrives at the school for his Vedic education. Terrified by his new surroundings and bullied by the older boys, Nani strikes up a friendship with Yamuna, the widowed daughter of Udupa who also lives and works at the enclave as a Vedic scholar. In the opening shot, coins are placed into puja thali, which one of the priests carries through a congregation of women in prayers led by Udupa, a Vedic scholar and widower. A seemingly innocuous detail, signifying the exchange of money for prayers, is the first of many refrains that suggests religion exists in a incongruous state, seemingly impossible to adhere to its many precepts.
Ghatashraddha draws its power from three terrifying sequences. The first is the abortion of Yamuna’s unborn child, a clandestine affair that takes places at night and is starkly intercut with a drunken reverie around a log fire, a notably expressionistic rendering of a traumatic pain. The second sequence sees Yamuna attempting suicide as she pushes her hand and arm deep inside a snake hole only to be rescued by Nani. The third and final sequence comes towards the end and details the ritual of ex-communication (conducted by Udupa) which sees the expulsion of Yamuna from the Brahmin community; effectively ostracized, the final image of Yamuna with her shaved head, left to ruin, is a figurative manifestation of both patriarchal violation and religious hypocrisy. Moreover, Ghatashraddha can also be read as a coming of age film; Nani’s tearful departure from the Brahmin enclave runs parallel with the marginalisation of Yamuna, both emerging as victims of a historical, social and structural trauma that Kasaravalli critiques with a febrile eloquence.