This Life at Play: Read an excerpt from Girish Karnad's memoir on how he transformed FTII's acting course

Girish Karnad
·9-min read

Girish Karnad was undoubtedly one of modern India's greatest cultural figures. His memoir, titled This Life at Play, is all set to release on 19 May this year, commemorating his 83rd birth anniversary. It provides a glimpse into the life of Karnad as an accomplished actor, a path-breaking director, an innovative administrator, an erudite thinker, and of course, one of the most extraordinarily gifted playwrights of modern India.

This Life at Play has been translated from Kannada in part by Girish Karnad himself and in part by award-winning translator Srinath Perur. The memoir covers the first half of Karnad's remarkable life €" from his childhood in Sirsi and his early engagement with local theatre, his education in Dharwad, Bombay and Oxford, to his career in publishing, his successes and travails in the film industry, and his personal life.

Moving and humorous, insightful and candid, the memoir not only throws light on the life-shaping experiences of a towering genius, but also opens a unique window into the India in which he lived and worked.

Following is an excerpt from This Life at Play which has been reproduced here on Firstpost with due permission of the publishers HarperCollins India.

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The first major decision I took after becoming the director of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) was to scrap the screen test which every applicant to the acting course was expected to take. This was a radical decision for the establishment, since it hit at the very foundation of the philosophy that guided teaching at the institute €" that its main purpose was to cater to the needs of the Hindi commercial film industry. The screen test was meant to help the selectors choose those candidates who had a 'cinematic appearance'. And given that, some talent for acting and the ability to dance. The search was for the good-looking and potentially glamorous, for first-class star material. Bombay, the home of Hindi cinema, and other centres of language films, like Madras and Calcutta, were already overflowing with young talent with 'chocolatey' looks. The institute was to make its own choice, train it, shape it and present it on a platter to the film moguls, with no obligation on their part towards the institute. I thought the whole idea farcical.

Girish Karnad as student at Karnatak College (left); at Oxford with his friends (right).
Girish Karnad as student at Karnatak College (left); at Oxford with his friends (right).

Girish Karnad as a student at Karnatak College (left); at Oxford with his friends (right).

The change naturally upset Prof Roshan Taneja, the professor of acting. But even I had not anticipated that this decision of mine would yield such immediate results. Among the aspirants for the acting course that year was a student with strikingly different looks who had already trained at NSD in New Delhi. He was tall, scrawny and bore the marks of his malnourished childhood on his pockmarked face. Had the screen test still been in place, he would have been rejected in the very first round. But the improvisation he presented at the interview showed him to be an exceptionally gifted actor.

The jury I had invited for the selection rejected him outright. Their opinion was that he was undoubtedly a brilliant actor, but his looks disqualified him from working in the film industry. I disagreed. "His looks are his problem," I argued. "Our job is to train him if he has any talent." Only one other member of the jury, the actor Jairaj, supported my argument. The rest were firm in their opinion that instead of letting him face inevitable humiliation in the industry, we should gently guide him to accept theatre as his métier. For the only time in my professional career, I overruled the jury and admitted the young man to the acting course.

Om Puri went on to justify my faith in his ability by blossoming into one of the major actors of his generation, building an international reputation with films like Gandhi and East is East. I was very touched when, twenty years later, he received the Filmfare Award for lifetime achievement with the words, 'I would not be standing here today if Girish had not set aside precedent and admitted me to the institute.'

An unintended consequence of Om Puri's admission to FTII was a rare visit by one of the titans of Indian cinema.

Among the applicants to the acting course that year was a young man named Dilip Dhawan. An (inevitably) good-looking young man with bluish eyes and boyish features, his application was supported by letters of recommendation from a dozen movie moguls of Bombay. He was not particularly gifted, and certainly did not stand out amidst that year's batch of candidates. But Taneja, the professor of acting, was eager that we should take due cognizance of the keen and unanimous interest the moguls had taken in the boy's career, and admit him. I refused. There were twenty sanctioned seats in the course €" ten for men and ten for women €" and they had all been filled, the last one by the unlikely Om Puri. But Taneja continued to be unusually persistent. "Let us place Dilip in the eleventh place," he suggested. "Let's not say we have totally rejected him. Just let him be the first on the waiting list. That would indicate that we have given due attention to their interest in the institute." CV Gopal, the deputy director, warned me: "Let us either admit the boy or reject him. This waiting list business will open a Pandora's box." Rather than annoy a senior member of the staff in my very first year, I agreed to the compromise suggested by Taneja and fell into a trap.

Karnad receiving the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award from the vice president of India, Gopal Swarup Pathak (1972)
Karnad receiving the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award from the vice president of India, Gopal Swarup Pathak (1972)

Karnad receiving the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award from the former Vice President of India,Gopal Swarup Pathak (1972).

We announced a waiting list in which Dilip's name was at the top. The list had been on our notice board for only a couple of days when my weekly meeting with the teaching staff was interrupted by a frantic Dabak, my door attendant. "Mr Raj Kapoor is here," he panted. "He is waiting outside."

Raj Kapoor owned a farm in Loni, a little outside Poona, but in thirteen years of the institute's existence, he had never once bothered to step into its campus. Members of the staff, startled by this sudden visit, assumed the meeting would be instantly terminated in order to welcome Raj Kapoor, and started gathering their papers. But Raj Kapoor had not bothered to take an appointment, and I saw no reason to interrupt my scheduled programme. I asked Dabak to give Raj Kapoor a chair in the administrative officer's room €" since we did not have a proper waiting room for visitors €" and proceeded with the meeting. When it ended and the teachers started dispersing, Satish Bahadur whispered to me: "I hope you realise none of your predecessors would have made Raj Kapoor wait like this."

Raj Kapoor had barely lowered his hulking self into the chair I had offered when he began to pour out his woes: "What have you done, Girish-ji? I returned home from Dubai yesterday toh maatam chal raha tha, maatam. There was mourning going on there, wailing and breast-beating."

Since it was clear why he had come, I went to the nub of the matter: "The acting course has only ten seats, and Dilip wasn't among the ten best candidates. To select him, I would have had to sacrifice a better candidate."

Raj Kapoor nodded gravely, indicating that he completely understood my argument. He said, "If Dilip has no talent at all, then reject him. I won't say a word. But if he is first on the waiting list, surely you could extend your consideration a bit, if only out of respect to the producers who have supported his application? When we have staked our entire lives, our fortunes, on the film industry, shouldn't the institute show some consideration for what we have contributed?" His voice quivered with the pain of humiliation.

I felt like a fool to have disregarded CV Gopal's warning that had come from many years of experience with the games played at the institute. At the same time, it was strange to sit there and have an actor of Raj Kapoor's stature spin out his consummate artistry for my sole consumption. After a deferential but firm tug-of-war of this nature, I stated what I knew was the perennial grievance of the institute: "You producers support the applications of candidates to our institute, and it upsets you when we ignore those recommendations. That is perfectly understandable. But may I point out that in the last thirteen years of the institute's existence, not one of those producers has employed a single graduate of the institute in any capacity in their films? You recommend but do not employ."

"Girish-ji, you know what an unpredictable tangled web of an industry we work in," the great filmmaker moaned. "There are so many gifted individuals I would like to give a chance to, but my hands are tied by the heartless pressures of the industry."

Finally, I said, "Let just one of these producers promise me that he will give Dilip a significant role in his next production €" not an important role, but a role that will register €" and I'll admit him to the course."

Raj Kapoor looked at me for a moment, spread out his arms in a gesture that all at once communicated that he understood my argument, that this is how the world was, that we were both caught in a much larger network of obligations, and that all said and done he knew I was the boss here and he would bear no grudge. He beamed affectionately: "I have done what I had come to do. Now it is up to you to decide what's appropriate." He got up to leave.

As I accompanied him to his vehicle, I said, "It is no small matter to have Raj Kapoor visit the institute. We do need your goodwill, your guidance. We are delighted to have you come here. I shall not €" I cannot €" say no to you. Please inform Dilip that he has been admitted to the institute."

Raj Kapoor thanked me and left. Dilip later told me that Raj Kapoor sent for him immediately after this meeting and told him, "I have got you admitted to the institute. Now don't come to me asking for work." When Dilip finished his course and joined the industry in Bombay, not one of the producers who had so generously supplied him with recommendations offered him a role. It was his classmate Saeed Mirza's TV serial Nukkad that brought him national attention.

Also read on Firstpost: Remembering Girish Karnad: Among India's literary greats, his versatility made him unique

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€" All photographs used in the piece above are courtesy of HarperCollins India

This Life at Play by Girish Karnad is slated to publish on 19 May by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins India.

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