Kannada cinema is currently going through a pleasant phase of transformation.
With the introduction of rich content and the will to explore culture, not only have awards been coming its way, but lost audiences are returning as well.
A case in point is Rishab Shetty’s film on a Kannada-medium school fighting for individuality in a Kerala district.
For years together, Kannada cinema was in a limbo. Cine-goers would lament about the kind of movies that Sandalwood was churning out, except for the rare gem each year.
But the national film awards that came to Kannada’s kitty earlier this week have announced the comeback of good storytelling on the Kannada silver screen.
And barring the one in the Best regional film category, all these award-winning films have had stiff competition from the whole of the country, yet proved their mettle. This speaks volumes about the transformation that the industry is going through.
The accolades have termed this a ‘return of the glorious age’ of Kannada cinema, as it has not just received 13 national awards, which is the highest this year for any single language, but also has the distinction of being the industry which produced the highest number of films in 2018.
A total of 243 films were dished out by Karnataka in 2018 outdoing even the more popular and bigger Tamil, Telugu and Hindi film industries. In its own history too, this is the first time the industry has won these many national awards, its last best being six awards.
But a lot has gone into bringing about this change. The industry was at its lowest ebb a decade ago with run-of-the mill content, making it a subject of ridicule. Dubbed Kannada cinema played on television channels would often subject Kannadigas to humiliation.
But the last few years, however, change set in. The last two-to-three years saw cinema being redefined. From crowd-funding to linguistic decentralisation to story-centric filmmaking to exploring regional cultural flavours in an authentic and non-tokenistic fashion, Kannada talkies have had a rebirth.
And this breaking free from the mould has what has made all the difference, says Director Rishabh Shetty, whose film Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shaale, Kasaragodu, Koduge: Ramanna Rai won the Swarna Kamala or the Golden Lotus Award for the Best Children’s film.
Set in Kasaragod, a border district in Kerala, where almost everyone speaks Kannada, the socio-political comedy is centered around the survival of a Kannada-medium school that struggles to deal with the issue of language supremacy and domination.
Elated at having won the National award, director Rishab Shetty shares what this means for him, the film and the industry in his unapologetic coastal Kannada. Here are excerpts from an interview:
Shetty, who began his silver screen innings as an actor with a small role in the 2013 first crowdfunded Kannada film Lucia, is glad that the Kannada film industry is finally getting its act together.
The audience that stopped going to theatres is now returning. There was a culture of watching movies in theatres earlier, which kind of vanished around the 90s thanks to the kind of films that began to be made. But that is now slowly changing.
“Until the mid 90s we had a steady mix of content-driven as well commercial star- driven cinema and both had their own large fan bases. But then, the stories that were told stagnated. Writers and novelists stopped writing for cinema. Novels that were cinematically rendered were made with an ‘award’-oriented or festival-oriented mindset, without a proper commercial release or promotion. They were happy with awards alone. Because of which such cinema didn’t reach people at all,” says Shetty.
“They made it with a limited way – small budget – for competitions alone – content based ones,” he adds. This he says took the audiences who watched films for content away from the theatres. “The culture vanished,” he laments.
But thankfully not anymore. The last few years have seen a comeback of Kannada cinema, with many newcomers experimenting with style, format, genre, scale and storytelling.
“ From the time of say Lucia and Ulidavaru Kandante, the trend is changing and it is bringing the audience back to theatres.”he says gladly.
Where Commerce meets Content
While most national award-winning films were the kinds that not many people would have watched despite getting theater releases, the commercial success of the ones that have received awards this year shows that there is a change.
“Our film ran for 125 days, was the biggest blockbuster last year. And the national award now means we have been able to achieve both quality as well as commerce,” expounds Shetty.
A Feast of Films
Another key feature of the latest wave of Kannada cinema is that it has broken free of the habit of formulaic filmmaking.
The lull that Sandalwood witnessed was because one successful film meant the next few would have the star typecast, the genre being over exploited and the treatment being repeated, which unfortunately meant only cloning that lacked creative exploration.
This thankfully changed with this new bunch of directors who also brought with them cultural nuances which were not mainstream, took pride in telling stories that had realistic characters and not cultural caricatures.
“Every time there was a successful film, it kind of spoiled the scene for the next few years because people started replicating and trying to repeat. Om became a cult film for instance in 1995, and till date, there are many who haven’t yet gotten over its hangover,” says Shetty.
“Mungaru Maley, Or Duniya or even Kirik Party — one good film is being taken as a formula and then they bore the audiences with that mould. But you need to break the monotony, go beyond it and try anew; which these films that have won awards have done,” he explains.
Language too has been a defining factor as most of these films have explored a different variety of Kannada, have set the stories in regions beyond Bangalore, and have popularised it with ease.
This was not the scene earlier; regional variations, be they of culture or language, were only used to add comic relief and even that would not be done correctly.
“ That was what was missing in Kannada – they stopped exploring cultures. And even when they did, only certain cultural traits would be distorted and portrayed for comic relief. For instance, the way Mangaluru Kannada was portrayed. No one speaks like that in Mangaluru,” says Shetty, who hails from Kundapura on the coast of Karnataka.
Comparing it to Tamil and Malayalam films, which unlike Kannada films, didn’t shy away form exploring sub-cultures, Shetty opines that it is this in-depth and honest portrayal of cultural nuances is what changed the cinematic fabric of Kannada films today.
Interestingly, even as this film has won a national award for a story about letting children obtain education in a language they understand and not make it a subject of power politics, Kannada-medium government schools in the state are having to battle with English supremacy, with former CM H D Kumaraswamy having introduced English medium in all government schools.
Shetty, who has adopted the school in which they shot the film, is not pleased with the move and has been very vocal against it. Although dwindling numbers at Kannada- medium government schools is a reality, the issue is not the medium of instruction, emphasises the filmmaker.
“English can be taught from class one to students as a special skill, which is not being done. Merely changing the medium of instruction won’t help,” says Shetty.
“I studied in a government school myself and I know the trouble I have with English speaking to this day, but changing the medium of instruction is not the way to address this issue,” says Shetty, miffed with the government move, adding that it will only leave children disconnected from their roots and clueless about their own land, language and culture.
The school they adopted in Kairangala is a Kannada-medium one and will continue to be so, he opines. The number of students had dropped from 40 to around 24 in one academic year when they shot the film.
But the revamp of the school, which the team undertook at a cost of Rs 10 lakh, along with efforts to hire more teachers, whose salaries are also being paid by the team, special spoken English lessons and the like have pushed the numbers to 70 this year.
“ We painted the school with colourful and creative images, making it attractive for kids, and have started pre-primary as well, but a lot more needs to be done,” says the filmmaker, signing off, dedicating the national award to all the government school students.