On any given day, you can watch movies in six languages in Bangalore. You can watch some Hollywood films made for teenage boys in any multiplex. You can catch a new Hindi movie there too, or in any of the old single screen halls. In Ulsoor, you can enjoy a Tamil movie at Naga theatre, one of the last all-Tamil movie halls, with its accoutrements: signs strictly telling you not to bring pooja flowers or coconuts into the halls, big and beautiful hoardings and fan tributes. You could drive down Outer Ring Road and watch a Telugu movie at Nagwara, even joining a 6 am (yes, am!) fan show of the new Mahesh Babu film. On Old Madras Road, in a miniature mall, there’s usually a Malayalam movie to check out. Many weeks you can watch a Bengali or Punjabi movie. This week you can watch the Marathi superhit Sairat. And this week you can also pick from 11 different Kannada movies.
Kannada cinema is having something of a moment right now. A moment that must not be (even if it is annoyingly easy) called a ‘New Wave’ as the appearance of two off-beat movies is likely to make us do. One among the 11 films running is Pawan Kumar’s third film U-turn, a thriller with a female lead set in central Bangalore. Thithi, a black comedy plays out against the funeral rituals of a rural patriarch in Mandya (a city in Karnataka). Made by the 25-year-old Raam Reddy, it’s already won a Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival and a National Award. Rangi Taranga - Anup Bhandari’s visually arresting mystery that follows a reclusive novelist and his wife in a Dakshin Kannada village - is a week away from a full year’s run. In two weeks, Hemant Rao will release Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, in which a career-driven young man is forced to confront some hard truths when his father (played by Ananth Nag) goes missing.
These are not quite the stories you associate with Kannada cinema if you haven’t been paying attention. The chatter around Kannada films is usually about misogyny and the industry’s patronising nod to its rural and migrant male audience - that violence is the opiate of their choice. For millions of residents of Karnataka it is entirely possible to grow up without watching any Kannada cinema - to not know Shankar Nag from Yograj Bhat, to not know Upendra from Yash or their Karnad from their Kasaravalli (from Kannada’s actual New Wave). Even for those of us who did grow up addicted to our Doordarshan Kannada movie quota, there’s been a blind spot.
Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu is the story of a career-driven young man who is forced to confront some hard truths when his father goes missing.
The other kind of news that you hear is about the industry’s attempt - through boycotts and dharnas - to protect itself from bigger rivals. These protectionist moves can take interesting turns. A friend tells this story of going some years ago to a Hrithik Roshan movie at one of the few theatres that chose to screen it during an anti-Bollywood agitation. The interval stretched for a bit longer than usual and eventually the manager of the theatre came out to apologise. The man bringing the reels of the second half of the film from another theatre on his scooter had been briefly abducted by the protestors. They let him go, but not the reels.
Rangitaranga is a mystery thriller, written and directed by Anup Bhandari.
The bathos isn’t quite over yet. Last summer, Kannada film producers went on strike to demand that their stars promote their own films. That the superstars of Kannada cinema don’t mess up their film shooting schedules by participating in reality shows. The saddest line written about this strike was: “no artist has neither opposed the dharna of film producers nor visited the Karnataka Film Chambers of Commerce to convince the producers to withdraw the ongoing agitation.”
And that’s all we hear or see except for an occasionally deeply pleasurable song sequence like this one from Puneeth Rajkumar’s Vajrakaya (2015):
Or this one from Pawan Wadeyar’s Govindaya Namaha (2012):
New directors, new directions
Filmmaker Suneel Raghavendra, however, has no time for New Wave talk. He is working hard to make sure his film Puta Tirugisi Nodi gets a June release before his 32nd birthday.
Raghavendra’s film is not ruthlessly tailored for the international film festival circuit. Its charms lie in its leisurely storytelling (framed by a mockumentary around its protagonist, a former cricketer). Set in Malleshwaram and Kathriguppe, it tells the story of rival groups of cricket lovers and a young couple in love. Its emotional landscape is sincere and it isn’t violent towards women - quite unlike the look-at-me-I-am-so-gritty mode of indie filmmakers.
He says he has wanted to make a film since he was three years old. The child of two engineers, he had to wait until the ink was dry on his engineering degree before he went to film school first in Bangalore, then in Prague. He has since worked in the Kannada film industry (called Sandalwood by the punsters), apprentice to big names like Yogaraj Bhat and Prakash Raj. He enjoys the industry’s chaos, humour and takes its internal mythologies with a big pinch of salt.
Watch the trailer of Rangitaranga here:
Is Kannada cinema having a moment? “Sure there are a lot of young filmmakers, writers and cinematographers suddenly, and that’s because a whole lot of crucial technology has become cheaper in the last couple years,” says Raghavendra.
Raghavendra is a huge Kannada film geek. He grew up watching Shankar Nag’s Nodi Swami Navirodu Hige over and over again on video through his childhood. 31 years after Nag passed away in an accident, he is still widely remembered and admired. Autos across the state carry his picture in tribute - a fan following immortalised in Sushma Veerappa’s documentary, When Shankar Nag Comes Asking. A middle-aged Malayali friend astonished me a couple of years ago by saying that when Shankar Nag died she wished she could have died instead, and given him her years.
Watch the trailer of Godi Banna Sadharna Mykattu here:
An urbane Shankar Nag is a nice pick. It’s a bit like someone saying they love Amol Palekar but also not quite. But Raghavendra is not so neat in his tastes. He also adores the less ethereal Nag of OTT (Over The Top) fight sequences of SP Sangliana (1990). Nag plays a version of the Manipuri policeman-turned-politician HT Sangliana (”Double roles! The who’s who of Kannada villainry! Too good!” he exclaims.) He watched the beginning of Upendra’s directorial debut Tarale Nan Magga. “It had a mockumentary, like my film.” He giggles at the memory of someone accusing him of having art-house tastes. What he would like to do is make a honking big, commercially successful Kannada film.
For many young filmmakers, the moment that Kannada cinema took its upswing was in 2006 with the tremendous success of Mungaru Male (starring television comedian Ganesh) which ran a glorious 865 days. Male acted as an anti-depressant for the Kannada film industry. “Before Mungaru Male, Kannada cinema was producing 40-60 films a year. Now it’s averaging around 120. This year we’ve already hit 107,” Raghavendra points out.
Watch the trailer of Lucia here:
The film featured several Alice-in-Wonderlandish elements: a hero who falls into a manhole outside Eva Mall on Brigade Road as soon as he sees the heroine, a lost heart-shaped watch and a rabbit called Devdas. (I am eternally indebted to Bangalore quizzer Thejaswi Udupa for his plot summary of Mungaru Male: Boy meets girl. Girl meets boy. S**t happens. Rabbit dies.)
33-year-old Pawan Kumar is in a good place. This weekend his third film U-Turn has opened strongly in Bangalore, dozens of centres outside the city and in the US. He is currently the byword for new Kannada cinema, having drawn unlikely new audiences around the world to his dark fantasy film Lucia in 2013. With a crowd-funded budget of Rs 0.75 crore, Kumar made a profit, and made critics happy. He says without hesitation that Mungaru Male changed his life. In 2006 he was trying to make a career in films in Mumbai. “I really missed home. When Mungaru Male happened I realised I could come back to my city and work here.” The film had a hit soundtrack and raised production values substantially for its time. Kumar points out that the film had a big budget for its time: Rs 1 crore. Most importantly, for Kumar it had a ‘positive energy’ that created the virtuous feedback cycle the industry had needed for a while. (Today, mainstream Kannada films Mr Airavatha like can run up to Rs 15 crore and occasionally even recover Rs 12 crore in its first week, says Kumar.)
Watch the trailer of U-Turn here:
Tanveer Hasan, a programme officer at the Centre for Internet & Society in Bangalore, is a volunteer at indiancine.ma, an annotated online archive of Indian film. He, like many others, grew up watching Kannada cinema and only stopped watching in the last decade or so. When I ask him about Kannada cinema’s ‘moment’, he says, “It’s a flash, even more ephemeral than a moment. We have had a few flashes. A film that seems to create a whole new vocabulary and then it fades away.”
Usha BN, a Bangalore-based writer and translator is a die-hard fan of Kannada movie song lyrics. Yograj Bhatt songs give her a happy, fizzy feeling. She feels grateful that the grip of the old guard is loosening a bit on Kannada. She also remarked that it was nice it was to hear new dialects in cinema like the Mandya style Kannada of Lucia’s protagonist Nikki/Nikhil.
Watch the trailer of Ulidavaru Kandate here:
Tanveer Hasan disagrees, “Dialects outside of Bangalore/Mysore have always existed in Kannada cinema. And since the hero always came from Bangalore/Mysore that’s assumed to be the ‘good’ Kannada and the villain’s is ‘bad’, caricatured Kannada. It’s strange to how the villains are set up to speak Mangalore Kannada, one of the sweetest Kannada dialects. It barely has any actual swear words.”
Has the industry even noticed the flash, as Hasan called it, I ask? Raghavendra laughs at the thought. “Perhaps if I make a ton of money,” and keeps laughing. Pawan Kumar is a little more optimistic. He feels that distributors, fans and actors are locked into what has worked in the past and find it unnerving to try anything different. But the attention being paid to the new cinema is encouraging them to pay more attention to other departments, “even though the stories have stayed the same”.
Watch the trailer of Thithi here:
If wishes were horses, new filmmakers would love for decent theatres to be built outside Bangalore and for a more transparent distribution system to be created. They’d love to live in an industry where an assistant director could actually make a living. Raghavendra complains of the pool of actors being depleted by the blight of engineering. When I laughed, he exclaimed, “I am serious. It’s not just that people are pushed into engineering. It’s also the attitude. Young people now think they should buy a car at 25 and buy a house at 29. You really can’t have that kind of lifestyle in the arts.”
A bigger, more diverse industry in Karnataka would make a serious difference to actors. Raghavendra’s female lead, the gamine Adithi Kalkunte, moved to Mumbai a little while ago. She talks of going to the odd audition or two in Bangalore and quickly realising she just didn’t “fit the format”. “They prefer casting girls from Delhi. That’s fine. I don’t think actors from anywhere should be denied work. But it was only one kind of [woman] actor who gets work in Bangalore. Perhaps things will change now with all the new directors.” She is gently sardonic. “Meanwhile I keep bumping into girls here who tell me they have acted in ‘Kannad’ movies.”
In arrangement with GRIST Media.