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Ananya Kasaravalli: I learnt about cinema by studying my father’s films

The young director's first film, Harikatha Prasanga, received a positive response at the Mumbai film festival last month.

Keyur Seta

Ananya Kasaravalli’s debut Kannada film, Harikatha Prasanga, received a thumbs up during its premiere at the MAMI festival in Mumbai last month. The film narrates the story of a man facing a gender identity crisis. The film also has a contribution from her father, veteran filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli. In an exclusive chat with Cinestaan.com, Ananya spoke candidly about the film and her journey so far. Excerpts: 

What is Harikatha Prasanga about?

The film is about a Yakshagana artiste. Yakshagana is a folk art in Karnataka in which men play women. It is about one such artiste and the intense conflict that he goes through. It is a very personal conflict. He has a conflict as to whether he is a man playing a woman or a woman playing a man. But his conflict also lies in the fact that people around him are not ready to accept him. When he is performing, people are happy with his cross-dressing, but in real life they become very uncomfortable with it. There are different layers how society perceives him.

What was the reason for choosing this subject?

When I was studying, we had an exercise of making a documentary film. We made a documentary on transgendered people and it was very well received by my teachers. They were very happy with the whole thing. After that, I found the subject very intriguing. So, I made another documentary on the same subject for an organization. This time I expanded it not just to transgenders but also to gender neutrality and gender fluidity and I was intrigued even more. Then I met Mr Gopalkrishna Pai. He was writing this short story [on which the film is based]. We started discussing and this is how it happened.

How did the research take place?

We researched for almost a year. I wanted to cover both elements – Yakshagana and gender conflict. Although I belong to that region where Yakshagana is performed, I wanted the film to not look like an outsider shooting Yakshagana art. I wanted to show it in an elaborate way. There is a lot of make-up; it’s very vibrant. I didn’t want to celebrate the vibrancy of Yakshagana. For me, to get over that and try to understand Yakshagana took some time. I and Udit, the cinematographer, constantly worked on that. Even he did a lot of research. For him also it’s very new as he is from Delhi. He had only seen it. We watched a lot of Yakshagana, to see and understand.

It looked as if Shrunga Vasudevan was born to play the central character of Hari. How and where did you find him?

It was very strange. I had this gut feeling. He is a very popular and brilliant theatre actor. He has done a lot of theatre. When Mr Pai had told me about the story, I saw him at a cafe and I just said, “This is the guy who is going to play Hari.” If you see him otherwise, he doesn’t look anything like Hari. He looks like a normal 20-year-old. He is very masculine and has a beard. We had around 4-5 rounds of screen test with him. I was also looking at other people. I knew he is a great actor. But I needed someone with a feminine look and longer hair. But this guy came back and said he will do this and try that. It really helped. He was evolving.

Did you come across any real-life Yakshagana artiste facing such a gender dilemma?

Yes, we did. There are Yakshagana artistes who face this. In fact, even when we were shooting, I met one artiste to help us. Over there, I met one boy who walked up to me and said, “Akka [Kannada for elder sister], you are doing my story.” But facing such a dilemma is not the norm in this art. There are a few who go through this.

Your father, Girish Kasaravally, is a respected filmmaker. Your mother was an actress and director. Your brother, too, is a filmmaker. So, was cinema the obvious career choice for you?

Yes it was. I had this fascination [for films] since childhood. I wanted to be an actor for the longest time. I have acted in films and also did a lot of television. But after my stint in television [as a director], it became very difficult for me to go back and act. Also, it was a very natural path for me to get into direction and learn it.

Your father has written the script for Harikatha Prasanga. How was it working with him?

Honestly, I was very nervous. He is a master and I am an absolute newcomer. Keeping aside the father-daughter relationship, I am actually asking a master to write the screenplay for my first film. With what audacity I approached him (laughs). So, this was one kind of anxiousness I had. The other is the father-daughter relationship. All said and done, he is my father who will say, “Okay, you don’t know anything, I am going to tell you now.” That is also not good for a filmmaker. It was a very difficult emotion for me to deal with. 

But having said all of that, he is one incredible human being because there were moments where he would say that whatever I said was right and he would make those changes for me. In fact, we both had different versions [of the script]. My version was very different from his version. He even once told me, “I don’t think you should use my name because this is your version.” So, it was very nice.

Mr Gopalkrishna Pai is also a National award and Sahitya Akademi award winner. We have had multiple fights about the script. Once we had a difference of opinion on a scene. Later, when the film was done, one day, Mr Pai called me home and said, “You were right.” For me it was so humbling because he is a man who has done and achieved so much.

The cinematography of your film is very realistic, Rashomon-like. Was this a conscious decision?

Yes, it was. I wanted it very natural. I and the cinematographer looked at the houses, places, with this context in mind.

Do you believe in categories like ‘commercial cinema’ and ‘art cinema’?

No, I don’t. Every film is an art film and every film is also a commercial film (laughs). I am happy now as the line is blurring and I hope it does in the future also.

So would you like to try your hand at those hard-core commercial capers?

I don’t think I will. See, I don’t believe they are bad films. I won’t do them because I don’t think I can do it. All said and done, a film is a very personal statement. I have my own narrative style. No matter how many cars I put in a scene, like in a Rohit Shetty film, and show a couple of them blasting, it is not going to work. The whole sensibility of Rohit Shetty is very different from the sensibility of Harikatha Prasanga (laughs). But I don’t know. I am open to it. But from where I stand today, for some time I don’t see myself doing that. 

Which are the films you have grown up watching?

A lot of my father’s films, actually. All my learning about cinema has come from very closely studying his films. During my graduation in direction [from the LV Prasad Film and Television Academy, Chennai], we had an exercise where we had to study a filmmaker and write a thesis on him. I obviously chose my father’s films, not because he is my father but because I have watched his films so much. There was this little joke in my class that I am writing a Montessori essay on my father (laughs).

What next?

Right now, I am busy promoting this film. I wish this film goes to many other festivals. I also want it to have a theatrical release. So, the next one year at least I will spend on this film.

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