The Ritual

05/27/2012

India / 1977 / Kannada

Directed by Girish Kasaravalli

With Meena Kuttappa, Ajith Kumar, Ramaswamy Iyengar

Still from 'Ghatashraddha'The sharp tones of the drums ring slowly, with insensate determination, cymbals crashing in sympathy. Voices merge, sounding out little-understood passages from antiquity. We are in the realm presided over by the priestly brahmins, who read nothing but ancient scriptures, and conduct the rituals so integral to the daily lives of Hindus. At this temple there is a religious school where young men spend their lives training to be priests. The Upadhyay, or head of the school, is a soft-spoken old man who lives with his grown-up daughter, Yamuna, and two young students who are his charges. Shambhatta, a brahmin from a nearby village, brings his young son, Nami, to become a student at the school. Upon the boy’s transformation from an effete youngster into a true student (shaven-headed, cloth-swaddled, string-wearing, etc.), so too does his countenance change, from bright and vacantly youthful, to awed and searching, a world of mystery having opened up before his eyes. He becomes fast friends with Yamuna, who takes it upon herself to comfort him in his first days of learning Sanskrit grammar and being teased mercilessly by his older roommates, Shastry and Ganesha.

Yamuna stays at home all day with an unnamed ailment, meanwhile conspicuously avoiding Godavaramma, the nosy, suspicious woman who lives nearby. Yamuna’s father, weary from running a school that has been in decline for so long, talks of leaving the place after having selected a successor to see to the administration of it. The two boys that live with them seem to have nothing better to do than pull humorless pranks and rag the newcomer, a tiny slip of a boy already overwhelmed by the new environment to which his father has seemingly abandoned him. Yamuna becomes his playmate, mother, and defender, even while lying low, out of sight of the community, trying to conceal her condition. Her father spends much of the rest of the film away from home, leaving her without the necessary respectability to deflect the accusatory gaze of the neighbors.

Nami goes to the house of Godavaramma, the neighbor, to pick Bilva leaves. She expresses that she thinks the Upadhyay is too busy raising money for the school to do any teaching. Then she cuts to the chase and inquires about Yamuna, asking the boy a barrage of questions that he coyly deflects. Back at home he repeats Godakka’s suspicions back to Yamuna. She forbids him to go back to the woman’s house, for fear that, in his incomprehension, he might give away details of her predicament. Our first sighting of her lover, a local schoolteacher, is from the other side of the gate to her home, as he tries to press an herbal remedy upon her that will terminate her pregnancy. While he is from out in the broader community, he seems to appreciate the ruinous impact that bearing the child will have on her life. They seem long ago resigned to being unable to stay to together, to the fact that sleeping together was a mistake, and to the certainty that no one should know. But she chooses not to take anything he offers, even as he implores her. She seems to be weighing the options interminably, as though there were some way out of any of the drastic choices ahead of her.

Still from 'Ghatashraddha'Nami pursues the trickster mold to which the other boys conform, although he is too naturally kind to be like them. Very little of Yamuna’s personal life goes unobserved but, for reasons all their own, the young ones keep mum. Nami peeks in on the teacher, in his village classroom, teaching different subjects to four grade levels at once. Later on, the boys spy on the two lovers conversing through the latticework. The house’s walls are thin, as are the village’s, and the young woman has become a nocturnal being so as not be seen stepping outside of them. The boy who has attached himself to her follows the drama from a distance. He doesn’t hate her for what is going on, but he also doesn’t understand it. So, like the others, he spies, watching life that is inaccessible to him unfold at a distance. When his brahmanic teacher tells him to get Bilva leaves for a ritual, Yamuna repeats her admonition not to go to the neighbor woman’s house. For him it is a choice between there and the eery glade. So she relents, but instructs him to say that she only has a fever.

Shastry, the elder of the three boys staying at the house of the Upadhyay, talks to Nami about being an orphan, how he has no choice in being at the school. He tricks the boy into touching the ancient naga stones in the middle of the forest, then telling him the stones will unleash vengeful snakes if defiled by human hands, offering his own ability to repel the beasts as the only means of salvation. It all looks so inconsequential to us, but imagine being a small and impressionable boy in such an overwhelmingly superstitious environment. The combination of abuse and protection presented by Shastry (the boy’s de facto mentor) is echoed when Godavamma pays Yamuna a visit, at this point sure enough to call her on the secret she’s been keeping. The older woman professes her support for her, but then, when turned away, loudly calls her a whore. Her words hold a venom and a violence that have been stored up for generations for young women who imagine they could break free.

In the forest, at night, seeking Yamuna, Nami takes comfort with Kateera, a local untouchable man. Together they find her lying in the forest, having given up on life. Kateera cannot help her up off the ground because that would mean touching her, thereby polluting her, as she is of a higher caste. So he provides the torchlight while Nami helps her to her feet and walks her home. All the while the drums play in the background. Are they sacred, coming from the cavernous old temple? Or are they profane, emanating from the depths of the dense undergrowth?

Even before her official purging from society has taken place, Yamuna is warned not to enter the temple, lest her defiled body pollute it. Led by the lower-caste neighbor, Nami and Yamuna continue on to the house of Parbhu, a Christian, where Yamuna’s boyfriend has arranged for her to undergo an abortion. Terror overtakes Nami, as he struggles to rescue Yamuna from the operation to which she has resigned herself, while outside, untouchables have gathered around a fire to drink and socialize. Their dancing frightens Nami while he watches, through the vertical bars of the window, his beloved Yamunakka writhing in pain. Her cries and the drums of the untouchables fugue to a dissonant, overwhelming music that, strangely, lulls the boy to sleep. Her jaws shoot open in a frozen scream, and everything is silenced.

Still from 'Ghatashraddha'Quietly the old man prepares the clay pots for his daughter’s excommunication ritual. He cleanses himself in the river. Then he sits despondently against the wall of his house while Nami’s father takes the boy away for good. The Upadhyay is now all alone, the parallelograms of the house’s window screen closing in on him as the camera pulls away and outside of the room. This is not the film’s last image, nor is it even its most striking or affecting frame, but it is the most final, the most tied-together conclusion that it presents.

Upon its release the film took a lot of criticism for being anti-brahmin, but that’s too narrow an interpretation. True, the priestly caste is not portrayed in the most flattering light. But their hypocrisy often takes the form of weakness or indecision rather than a knowing evil, neither profound nor concrete. When the young Brahmins’ card game is interrupted, they wind up in a fight over the shuffled money with which they were gambling. Director Kasaravalli is really targeting social problems that have their roots in the imbalance that has, for so long, been built into Hindu societies – one that bears some to sweet delight while leaving others locked within endless night. But the inequalities are complex, as we see by Yamuna’s tribulations. The Brahmins are just as trapped by the system, without much room to move freely, even if the Hindu world is tipped in their favor for much of daily life. They are not the focus of the film’s condemnation, because the Brahmin characters exhibit a whole range of feelings brought on by society, not least frustration, hopelessness, and a desire to transcend.

This early work by Kasaravalli is an adaptation of a short story by the Kannada author U.R. Ananthamurthy. While the title of the film is usually translated into English as, simply, The Ritual, its original name, Ghatashraddha is, in fact, a very specific type of ritual, one in which a person is excommunicated from caste, religion, and society. Shraddha on its own means an honoring of the dead, so the particular ceremony can be thought of as treating a living person as if he or she has died. A woman, like Yamuna, who becomes pregnant outside of wedlock and caste, is effectively dead to her society and family, so profound is the stigma wrought by her transgression.

V.S. Naipaul, describing Ananthamurthy’s novel Samskara (adapted into a 1970 film), posits that the author “portrayed a barbaric civilization, where the books, the laws, are buttressed by magic, and where a too elaborate social organization is unquickened by intellect or creativity or ideas of moral responsibility (except to the self in its climb to salvation).” He continues: “these people are all helpless, disadvantaged, easily unbalanced; the civilization they have inherited has long gone sour; living instinctive lives, crippled by rules…” The novel in question chronicles the downfall of a righteous acharya as he succumbs to sin and caste deviation, thereby polluting those around him. Both that story and The Ritualexist in a setting that is at a remove from time and progress, a repository of the archaic that persists within modern India, a black forest that the lanterns of Kalidasa, Ambedkar, or even Ghandi have failed to permeate. While the acharya‘s situation is different from that of Yamuna, their respective environments are very much the same. Their shame is unbearable, unmentionable. And their fates are the same, as well: to be forcibly forgotten. But the acharya‘s story continues further: “formless” (as Naipaul puts it) he seeks to discover himself as a human being on his own terms, no longer by his society’s definition. We cannot see if Yamuna makes it that far, or if she is even allowed to.

The film runs on a parted commentary, as Nami’s experiences in the setting of the school are contrasted with the very serious issues that Yamuna faces. While there is a degree of levity to the tribulations of the skinny boy in the young man’s world, things are no less serious for him, particularly as he gets more and more entwined with the young woman, who is flooded on all sides by hypocrisy and violence. So we have this relatively weighty social drama episodically coming into play, while much of what happens onscreen has to do with the superfluous activities of the children. The boys pull pranks but cannot even laugh at the outcome. So their jokes just seem crudely, cruelly compulsive. The notion that the self-serious daily work of the priests is directly descended from the nebulous, irresponsible folly of children before a backdrop of educational deterioration, does not bode well for their future place in society. Meanwhile the tragic and (functionally) comic coalesce readily in philosophy and tone, both of them giving the sense that there is a greater, underlying fatalism that the characters are trying to escape, to a myriad of ends.

Still from 'Ghatashraddha'In many of the frames we see a complex interplay between solidity and negative space; many of interior shots are often divided, either in their midst or peripheries, by foregrounded pillars. This effect is most acute in the tessellated or horizontally-girded shots seen through the latticework of the house. Activity occurs in the gaps, and thus has the lightness of a flat illusion. This geometrically segmented way of receiving light – and observing life – is in line with the social striations upon which much of the human interactions hinge. In the unstructured forest, where the cobras make their home and nature corrodes the vestiges of human architecture, the camera movement becomes facile, hypermobile in tandem with the aspersed sunlight and effusion of amorphous figures.

The ritual music heard throughout the film seems to pulse straight from the very aortas of the characters, although in reality it is always coming from some distant spot, away from where the scene is taking place. It is like we are never, in fact, at the center of the action, but watching a story that is happening on the margins, but whose implications are no less real. The music highlights the feeling of inevitability to what is transpiring, the age-old script that it is following. Its atonality (being functional, plucked from daily life) only occasionally crosses over with the consonance of the incidental music (the aesthetic and cinematic frame in which religion is being placed) but the two never fit snugly together, coming from two entirely separate places.

Although the setting is largely without time-specificity, the story without a particular era, the film could also be looked upon as a parable from the time of the ‘Emergency’, which was going on in India during its production. Kasaravali, working from a short story by Kannada author U.R. Ananthamurthy, crafts an environment that is timeless, an accretion of Hindu mythology and tradition, but one that is, at the same time, filled with echoes of the mid-to-late-70s. This was a time when ‘family planning’ posters plastered walls across the country while the government went on a secret rampage of forced sterilization, a sort of genetic scorched-earth campaign. While the Congress party’s anti-natalism bore the clothing of progress, it is similar to that which we see in the film in one general way: its brutality is considered, by those who perpetrate it, to be in the interest of keeping society stable.

While the sterilization was being done to poor people, and the film takes place almost entirely in the insular micro-society of the Brahmins, the similarity is the lack of choice. Yamuna could not keep the child if she wanted to – if she did go through with the pregnancy, she would become an outcast regardless, and have the child in addition to no support structure. She cannot have it both ways, keeping her place in society and keeping the child (which is, no doubt, what she wants – although she literally has no one to confide in about her own feelings on the matter), or, if the patriarchy can help it, either way at all.

Still from 'Ghatashraddha'She seems to be one in a line of female heroines in Indian films – Neeta in Ghatak’s The Cloud-Capped Star (1960) and Ananga in Ray’s Distant Thunder (1973) among them – whose heroism appears to stem only from having male oppression heaped on them. But we see her strengths take on almost mythological proportions, while it outwardly seems as though she does not express any will at all besides momentary hesitations. But she does demonstrate at least the seeds of opposition, but thrown into a windless, heartless vacuum – resistance without recourse. She has not been equipped with wisdom or hatred of the system, so opting out of that environment is not an option that is open to her. That the ability to bear the burdens of society has, for the generations of women before her, resulted in continuation, survival is not foremost on her mind; yes, her needs and desires as an individual are obscure due to silence and duty, but we sense that they are there, an electricity beyond the shroud, an equanimity at the center of the pounding drums.

It’s not a stretch to compare the gender politics of the film with those of India as a whole, or with class relations during the era in which it was made, because so much behind politics in that country was – and still very much is – weighted in favor of upper-caste Hindu males, in spite of how things are dressed up on the surface. The main difference between now and Indira Gandhi’s time is that, for a few years, even the pretense of democracy was dropped, as it was getting inconvenient to maintain. Society was simply being turned over, like so much compost, to bring down the inherited nobility so that the capitalists and the Congress could ooze to the top. But the poor and their allies remained on the bottom of the heap, bearing the brunt of the government’s anti-speech, deeply anti-human policies, which seemed new and progressive but only imitated a classical set of ground-rules and decrees. Each of the characters in the story – the gossiping woman, the meddling young men, the clerics, the lay teacher, even the innocent child – have a role in upholding the accepted system, and each is equally boxed in by it. Shelter and oppression. If life doesn’t follow instructions, if it falls out of step with the chain gang, then its funeral rites are readied, it is metaphorically buried and literally cast out, so as to no longer pose an obstacle to the march.

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