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Ananya Kasaravalli: Dance like a woman

Ananya Kasaravalli on being inspired by Adoor Gopalakrishnan and exploring gender in her first film

A still from Ananya Kasaravalli’s ‘Harikatha Prasanga ‘
A still from Ananya Kasaravalli’s ‘Harikatha Prasanga ‘

Growing up in an environment where filmmaking was an essential part of the household, Ananya Kasaravalli was acquainted with Rashomon, Charulata and a lot of Chaplin from an early age. Ever since her childhood, she and her brother actively participated in discussions in which her parents, filmmakers Girish and Vaishali Kasaravalli, discussed various aspects of their craft. This informed the kind of cinema she now wants to make herself.

After researching the traditional musical theatre form of yakshagana for a year, Kasaravalli has made her directorial debut with Harikatha Prasanga (Chronicles of Hari). The film, about a yakshagana artist named Hari who’s become popular playing female roles, addresses themes of gender and identity, questioning the pragmatism of an artist’s choice of shedding gender identity in an insular society. The film had its international premiere at the Busan Film Festival and was also screened at the Mumbai Film Festival and the International Film Festival of India. This week, the film will be screened as part of the Indian Cinema Now section of the International Film Festival of Kerala. Edited excerpts from a telephone interview:

You belong to a family of film-makers, but you nevertheless joined Chennai’s LV Prasad Film & TV Academy to learn film-making.

When you talk about art, you forget that it needs to be learned. Yes, you have to be an artist within, but it also has a discipline. Though I had worked in films in the capacity of an actor, assistant director and costume designer, when I decided to become a director I needed to go through that rigorous training and discipline to achieve a command over the medium.

How was your film school experience?

K Hariharan (director, Ezhavathu Manithan, Dubashi) was my dean in LV Prasad, and he is one of the finest teachers we have in India right now. He encouraged us to have more and more conversations about cinema. I owe a lot to him and his theory classes, because these have helped me become the kind of filmmaker that I am today.

You had two co-writers for your screenplay: your father and Sahitya Akademi Award winner Gopalkrishna Pai. What was your experience of working with two legends of the Kannada arts?

The process was mesmerizing because I was not only the co-writer but also a student and observer. It was very interesting as well as very intimidating at the same time. At times I would be silent and not talk about my concerns with the script because in my mind I thought, how could I question them? But it was nice that both of them recognized this, and Mr Pai sat me down and told me that there was no need for such reluctance, as they were there to write a script for me. And that gave me a lot of encouragement.

How did you end up casting Shrunga Vasudevan in the titular role?

Shrunga Vasudevan is a theatre actor with Ranga Shankara, a noted repertory in Bangalore. I have seen his performances on stage and met him. When I started writing the script it was a very intuitive feeling that Shrunga will be able to pull it off. But if you look at him he looks very different. I had auditioned all the streepatradhaari (a man who plays female roles in a yakshagana play) in every nook and corner of south Karnataka. They were all talented but I did not find the quality I wanted in any of them.

What I really liked about Shrunga was his extreme vulnerability. We did 15 rounds of makeup tests because I wanted him to look as natural as possible. Once on set, he was totally into the character. He did not know how to dance in the Yakshagana style and he rehearsed day and night to get that grace into his body. I would be tired after the shoot but this boy would keep rehearsing and I adore him for making Hari so believable.

The episodic structure of the film, where the image of the protagonist is built on other people’s perspectives, reminded me of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Mukhamukham (Face to Face).

Interestingly, that happens to be my favourite film, and the intense structure of that was something that I wanted to try in my film. By doing this, I was not only talking about Hari and his gender issues but adding different layers to his character by introducing the two documentary filmmakers, Sharmila and Sunder. They are not present in the original short story by Gopalkrishna Pai.

I have used this structure as a narrative tool, where I constantly disengage with the story of Hari. In each segment, what people are narrating is not Hari’s story; these are different people’s stories, which the filmmaker is now putting together as Hari’s story. What I am saying is, this isn’t the story of one yakshagana artist, but the story of multiple artists who have gone through this struggle.

Chronicles of Hari will be screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala. Visit for details.

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