Why are Kannada filmmakers shying away from biopics?

Why are Kannada filmmakers shying away from biopics?

Stories of Karnataka’s real-life heroes deserve cinematic celebration

The Kannada audience, impressed by the retelling of Captain GR Gopinath’s inspiring story in the Suriya-starrer Tamil flick ‘Soorarai Pottru’, raised an important question: why didn’t a Kannada filmmaker make a biopic of this famous Kannadiga?

Gopinath, the founder of Air Deccan, hails from Gorur in Hassan district. He quit the army and became a farmer. He then launched a budget airline, realising his dream of getting people to fly for just Re 1.

Naturally, Gopinath was disappointed that his biopic wasn’t made in Kannada. Karnataka has an overflowing number of role models. Strangely, it appears that only filmmakers from outside the State are interested in their inspiring stories.

Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, who earned praise for her rural Hindi comedy-dramas like ‘Nill Battey Sannata’ (2015) and ‘Bareilly Ki Barfi’ (2017), is making a film on Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy and his wife Sudha Murthy, author, social worker, and chairman of the Infosys Foundation.

Sandalwood hasn’t witnessed sports biopics despite Karnataka being a sporting hub. During the recently concluded Indian Premier League, England cricketer-turned-commentator Mark Nicholas asked legendary Indian batsman Sunil Gavaskar what makes Karnataka’s KL Rahul so special. Gavaskar’s reply reflected Bengaluru’s great sporting legacy.

“I think it’s the Bangalore secret, it’s the Bangalore water. There is something about Bangalore that not just produces wonderful sportspersons but also great models. There is Prakash Padukone (badminton great), who is my all-time favourite Indian sportsperson. In cricket, there is Gundappa Viswanath, Erappali Prasanna, Anil Kumble, BS Chandrasekhar, Rahul Dravid, and many more. Look at those names! It’s got to be something to do with the Bangalore water,” said Gavaskar with a chuckle.

In the last decade, there have been only these three noteworthy biopics from the Kannada Film Industry (KFI): ‘Attahasa’ (2013), ‘Krantiveera Sangolli Rayanna’ (2012), and ‘Chambal’ (2019). AMR Ramesh’s ‘Attahasa’ was a gripping take on forest brigand Veerappan. It was technically sound and well-researched.

‘Chambal’, by Jacob Verghese, is a taut film on IAS officer DK Ravi, who was found dead at his residence under suspicious circumstances in 2015. Jacob created a believable world around an honest man in civil service.

Naganna’s ‘Krantiveera Sangolli Rayanna’ (2012) deserves praise for its technical mastery. BS Lingadevaru’s hard-hitting ‘Nanu Avanalla Avalu’ (2015), starring Sanchari Vijay, was based on Indian transwoman film personality Living Smile Vidya.  

On real-life incidents, ‘Dandupalya’ (2012), on the notorious gang by the same name, was disturbing, shocking, yet a well-acted film. It was a thriller in the true sense but its sequels were forgettable, with the filmmakers having nothing new to offer apart from sexual abuse and gory murders.

Kannada cinema isn’t bereft of iconic figures. Rajkumar, Puttanna Kanagal, Vishnuvardhan, Shankar Nag, and Ambareesh are prominent names in a rich history. In the past, KFI was known for many stellar female actors too.

Pooja Gandhi, who starred and produced ‘Abhinetri’ (2015), failed to do justice to the life story of Kalpana, whose successful career was marred by health issues and a failed relationship. In the film, Pooja lacked grace and her horrendous dialogue-delivery was an insult to the gifted actor.  

Apart from these, the other biographical films were mostly based on criminals from the underworld. The likes of ‘Deadly 2’ (2010), ‘Bettanagere’ (2015), and ‘RX Soori’ (2015) will not ring a bell to the audience outside Karnataka. 

Looking at the trend, it is apparent that romantic dramas and crime stories are Sandalwood's favourite subjects. One must not overlook its obsession with remakes. Since 2010, there have been approximately 140 remakes.

So why are Kannada filmmakers hesitant to make biopics? They are afraid of people’s reactions, feels K Puttaswamy, the well-known Kannada film historian.

“Some off-beat directors have done it but mostly with an intention to take their films to film festivals. ‘Savitribai Phule’ (2018), starring Tara, is one such example. I think our filmmakers are afraid because people today are oversensitive,” he says.

“In 1987, Krishna Masadi made ‘Avasthe’, a film on Shantaveri Gopala Gowda. But apart from the setting that showed a politician from Malnad, nothing else in the film resembled the socialist politician’s life, leading to controversy,” Puttaswamy recollects.

Bollywood is the home for biopics. The films are steered by big names. Are superstars in Sandalwood excited about biopics? Rockline Venkatesh disagrees.

“I am not sure if our heroes are willing to feature in biopics. For the longest time, Kannada cinema didn’t have the massive reach enjoyed by the Tamil and Telugu industries. So people hesitated to give story rights to us,” says the veteran producer, who is bankrolling ‘Madakari Nayaka’, a film on the last ruler of Chitradurga, with Darshan in the lead.

Directors don’t want to get entangled in legal hassles, feels director AMR Ramesh, whose ‘Attahasa’ faced a hurdle when Veerappan’s wife Muthulakshmi sought a stay. The Chennai High Court later vacated it.

“Once you claim you are doing a biopic, you must use real names. We cannot hurt the people involved in the story. That’s where research is important. We, biographical filmmakers, are like journalists as we collect a lot of information. Some of the key points to remember are that you can’t take sides, cannot have a central opinion, or exaggerate. In fact, convincing celebrities takes a toll on directors,” says Ramesh.

Ramesh is working on a 100-hour web series on V Prabhakaran, leader of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). The ambitious project will begin after the release of the 12-hour web series on Veerappan called ‘Veerappan: Hunger for Killing’.

Biopics are bound to get embroiled in controversies. In the name of creative freedom, the makers of ‘Gunjan Saxena’ (2020) were criticised for disrespecting the Indian Air Force and overlooking facts. Mani Ratnam’s ‘Iruvar’ (1997), an epic biopic on the lives of MG Ramachandran and M Karunanidhi, got into a battle with the censor board.

It’s a risk-filled and uncertain path and for now, Kannada directors are happy staying clear of it.