Geetha: The Gokak agitation as nostalgia

The period drama mixes Kannada pride and a love story that spans generations and cities

Kannada cinema has taken an ambivalent position vis-à-vis the Indian Nation and an instance of this would be Puttanna Kanagal’s ‘Naagarahaavu’ (1972).

In it, the rebellious protagonist Ramachari has two teachers — his Guru Chamayya (KS Ashwath), whom he worships, and the principal of his college (Lokanath), who is a despised figure of authority and whom Ramachari ties to a tree in petulant anger.

It is significant here that in the home of his revered Guru, we see pictures of Kannada cultural figures like Kuvempu, DVG and T P Kailasam, while on his principal’s walls are pictures of national leaders like Nehru and Gandhi.

The reel relationship between the Kannada-speaking region and the rest of the nation was further amplified in ‘Geetha’, which released recently. It is directed by Vijay Naagendra and is based on the Gokak Agitation of 1981. In the film, Akash (Ganesh) is a young software engineer in present-day Bengaluru, living a carefree life filled with cigarettes, alcohol and parties. His father Shankar (Devaraj) and mother Aarti (Swathy) are separated and his pleasure-loving father is blamed for habituating Akash to drinking.

Akash meets Priya (Shanvi Srivastav) at the engagement party of Geetha (Prayaga Martin) and the two become friends. Soon enough, Shankar tells his son the real story of his life.

The year is 1981 and a younger Shankar (Ganesh) is a Kannada activist in Mysore, prepared to use his fists equally on those who are against the language and those who harass non-Kannadigas. In the course of agitating, he meets and falls in love with Geethanjali, a Hindi-speaker, whom he assists in speaking Kannada (‘Learn Kannada in 30 Days’).

The agitation brings him into conflict with state authorities (presented as ‘anti-Kannada’), including the police.

The higher ranks in the police force are anti-Kannada but not the constables, who love Shankar.

Shankar speaks mellifluous Kannada and, in contrast to Akash, he neither smokes nor drinks.

Shankar and Geethanjali (Parvathy Arun) gradually fall in love but her father takes her away from Mysore. When she returns, Shankar is already married and his son has been born; upon learning this, Geethanjali leaves.

The world has evidently transformed since the Gokak agitation and the change is manifested in the story moving from Mysore to Bengaluru, and from 1981 to the present. Akash finds employment in Kolkata and meets Geetha there, whose wedding was called off. He also meets his father’s old love Geethanjali (Sudha Rani), who is still unmarried.

Akash’s ambiguous relation with Priya is something he has briefly mistaken for love and evidently, ‘Geetha’ and he need to come together. The film also has to resolve the issue of Shankar, Aarti and Geethanjali. The melodrama in the story is absorbing but significant is the film’s eulogy of Kannada activism as ‘nostalgia’, as though such passion is not pertinent now.

‘Geetha’ is intriguingly poised in its mother-tongue-as-sacred rhetoric because it is Akash who is more important to the story than Shankar.

The Gokak Agitation of 1981 galvanised Kannada speakers and one initially wonders whether the film is invoking it in the context of the reported move to enforce Hindi on non-Hindi-speakers.

But my own questions about the film are only these: if the issues raised by the Gokak agitation are still pertinent, why does Shankar look upon it only with nostalgia?

Secondly, why does Akash remain unaffected by his father’s story, seeing only the romantic side of it but ignoring the rest? The story not returning to Bengaluru and the language issue will also be questioned.

‘Geetha’ is an engaging film, recalling ‘Mungaru Male’ for its intricate story, and makes us want to interpret it.

My own sense is that the aspect central to the film is the shift of the narrative from Mysore to Bengaluru, which mirrors the transformation of the language activist Shankar to the easy-going Akash (both played by Ganesh).

Bengaluru has always been viewed ambivalently by Kannada cinema, to which Princely Mysore was sacred. But since 1981, Bengaluru has gained importance while Mysore has lost it.

Bengaluru was the seat of the British power in 1834 when the Maharaja was deposed on charges of misrule, and also the location of central investment after 1947. It is therefore associated with India rather than the ‘region’ and has hence been censured in Kannada cinema.

The rise of easy cosmopolitanism in Bengaluru is noted by Geetha but there is no sign of unhappiness, still palpable in the way earlier Kannada films of a few years ago portrayed the city.

There seems to be a sense that language activism was a thing of the past and it is better to enjoy the ‘good life’, essentially what Bengaluru and metropolitan cities like Kolkata have to offer.

‘Geetha’ seems like Kannada cinema embracing ‘India’ and its promise, instead of sticking with the region as it had been doing.
(The author is a well-known film critic)

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