They say blood is thicker than water. But how can one be sure if the lineage one takes pride in isn’t what one perceives? Vamsa Vriksha (The genealogy tree), a 1972 Indian Kannada-language film directed by BV Karanth and Girish Karnad, questions the authenticity of family trees and makes one muse on the social fabric of India. Based on SL Bhyrappa’s novel of the same name, Vamsa Vriksha won the National Film Award for Best Direction, along with three Filmfare Awards in 1972.
The ensemble of ace actors like Venkata Rao Talegiri, BV Karanth, Sharada and Girish Karnad makes each character stand on its own, amid the labyrinthine lanes of the film’s complex plot.
Bloodlines and bigamy
A widow falls in love and decides to remarry, but is denied the rights to take her son with her, since the son is the only torchbearer of the family. A researcher marries another woman, apart from his wife, to pursue his research on India’s history. Having abandoned his first wife, the researcher falls ill and finds solace in the company of both his wives during his final hour. The widow’s father-in-law discovers that his father wasn’t who he has always believed, but a random priest who had been chased off after impregnating his mother.
His so-called father had arranged such adultery so that he could have an heir to whom he could pass the ancestral property without having it pass to his brother. This revelation compels the widow’s father-in-law to donate such ill-gotten wealth to the needy, to which his grandson too agrees. On realising the futility of such pride in bloodlines, the father-in-law decides to see his son’s widow for the last time, before embarking upon his journey to salvation as a sanyasi. When he reaches her home, he finds that she is on her deathbed. Her son is summoned to offer her gangajal before she breathes her last.
Still resonating today
The film, though dated, finds resonance with our times. The broken homes and bloodshed in the name of one’s caste and creed are bitter truths of the times we live in. The practice of female infanticide finds its roots in the belief that a son will take the family’s legacy forward, while the daughter will end up becoming the means to carry another family’s lineage to the next level. Though Vamsa Vriksha doesn’t touch the topic of female infanticide, it does make one think about the futility of prejudice and holding on to the lineage of one’s family.
One scene that will linger in your mind after watching this film is where the husband forces his wife to sleep with a random pandit, to beget his heir. The wife silently gives in to the husband’s wishes and copulates with the pandit. If given a modern context, there are umpteen cases of husbands forcing their wives into sex with their bosses or superiors for the sake of their careers. If not such adultery, there are cases of widows being forced to marry their deceased husband’s brother. The man whom the woman considered as her younger brother or sometimes even a son is later transformed into her husband.
We may boast of a modern time but there is no denying that such incidents occur around us. Vamsha Vriksha reflects our society and the writers were clearly way ahead of their times to challenge the norms and introspect with questions that we still fear to ask ourselves.
Vamsha Vriksha is available online with subtitles and can be watched for free on YouTube.