A decade ago, ace Kannada director Yogaraj Bhat made a striking statement prior to the release of his maiden production venture Pancharangi. “I am a huge fan of biryani in five-star hotels. But that doesn’t mean I have stopped loving the roadside chitranna (lemon rice).” Quirky yet real, it was a typical Bhat response.
Back then, it was almost blasphemous to question Bhat. For he was a filmmaker who had changed the face of Kannada cinema with Mungaru Male (2007) and then given blockbuster hits in Gaalipata (2008) and Manasaare (2009). Despite knowing the formula of success, Bhat wasn’t entirely optimistic about the box-office numbers of Pancharangi. His diplomatic stance explains how every producer is prepared for the worst.
Pancharangi made sure Bhat remained the numero uno of Sandalwood. What Bhat had begun was a new kind of Kannada cinema. He made refreshing relationship dramas that convinced the reluctant family audience to go to the theatres. His success motivated filmmakers to take the same path.
Too much of anything is bad and the golden goose died a quick death. Kannada cinema was once again battling content crisis when Pawan Kumar’s Lucia released in 2013. Sometimes, great ideas come out of sheer desperation. Pawan’s struggle to find a producer for his psychological thriller is one of the most repeated stories in the Kannada industry.
The fact that Pawan had to resort to crowd-funding — an unprecedented effort — to realise his dream shows there was no space for films that we now call content-oriented. The terrific success of Lucia kicked the door open for a new chapter in Sandalwood.
In this phase, a new crop of directors like Hemanth M Rao (Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu and Kavaludaari), Rakshit Shetty (Ulidavaru Kandante), Nirup Bhandari (RangiTaranga) and Rishab Shetty (Ricky, Kirik Party and Sarkari Hiriya Prathamika Shaale) pushed the boundaries of telling stories that were unheard of in Sandalwood. More importantly, their films weren’t anchored by superstars.
So are there enough producers to back movies without all the must-haves of commercial cinema? Hemanth feels it is important to understand the economics. “If a content-oriented film makes money, it is just an opportunity for other people to believe that there is more than one formula for success. At the end of the day, cinema is a business driven by economics.” he tells us.
Hemanth reasons why producers hesitate to bankroll films that veer away from the mundane. “Many filmmakers in the past have tried off-beat films and failed, so it has set a bad precedent for the producers. They will think ‘if we fund such films we will lose money’. Only if unconventional stories or risky subjects become hits will it give a sense of perspective change for old school producers,” he explains.
Hemanth’s third flick will be backed by Pushkara Mallikarjunaiah, the producer of his debut film. Pushkara is an important figure in Kannada cinema’s resurgence. With Hemanth and Rakshit, he forms a great team but the passionate producer has also backed rookies like Karthik Saragur (Jeerjimbe & Bheema Sena Nala Maharaja), Arvind Kaushik (Huliraaya), Kiranraj K (Charlie 777), Senna Hegde (Katheyondu Shuruvagide) and Saad Khan (Humble Politician Nograj).
Directors thank him for the free-hand he offers on all aspects of film-making. Trust in your team and patience are two important traits of a good producer. As Avane Srimannarayana, his biggest film till date suffered the typical hurdles of a magnum opus, Pushkara stood like a rock behind his team.
His films might appear tailor-made only for the multiplex audience but they have had a pan India-reach.
Rishab began film-making during a time when the producer’s consent was still everything. His directorial debut Ricky was a poignant thriller that could have received greater laurels had it avoided the routine elements like comedy tracks and forcefully fit songs. A first-time director has only so much freedom, Rishab had expressed multiple times.
Today he has his own production house, the Rishab Shetty Films, that bankrolled an anthology of seven films called Katha Sangama (2019). “I want to produce content-oriented films and not high budget ones. When it’s a small budget film, you know the entire focus is on the story. You don’t go overboard in any aspect,” he says.
Rishab and Rakshit have offered a lesson in marketing skills for struggling filmmakers. Secondly, they are always aware of their target audience, a vital quality.
“We knew Katha Sangama was suited for the multiplex crowd. It was for a niche audience. We didn’t have unrealistic expectations from it. And as expected, we got our profit when the film was released on an OTT platform. What’s satisfactory is that the anthology introduced seven directors out of which four are now working on full-length feature films,” he offers.
Pawan too made his next film U Turn (2016) under his banner Pawan Kumar Films. He supported the terrific indie flick Ondu Motteya Kathe (2017), which wouldn’t have got the vast exposure that it did without Pawan’s backing.
Conservative producers force directors to fund their own films. Satya Prakash, who made heads turn with Rama Rama Re (2016) faced rejection from 40 producers before he decided to spend his own money.
The Malayalam industry offers a level-playing field for both masala films and off-beat movies. The consistent flow of innovative scripts and the unceasing hunger of moviegoers keep the industry booming.
Sandalwood is showing signs of change as well. Companies like Skkandaa Entertainment, Crystal Park Cinemas and Venus Entertainment have backed films that have the usual run-of-the-mill template at the core but are fresh in their making and outlook.
It’s the story-telling that matters feels Hemanth. “Not necessarily will all content-oriented films be good. A masala film can definitely be entertaining and engaging. It’s about who tells a better story and caters to different tastes,” he points out.
In perhaps a major step forward, Puneeth Rajkumar, the superstar from the first family of Sandalwood, has decided to support upcoming talent under his banner PRK Productions.
Sri Vajreshwari Combines, established by Parvathamma Rajkumar, wife of late Kannada legendary actor Rajkumar, has a rich history in production. The company has produced some of the biggest hits in Kannada with popular actors. Yet, Puneeth’s decision to support smaller films could be a game-changer.
“When a big superstar like Puneeth Rajkumar puts his weight behind these kinds of films, it’s an indicator firstly in terms of economics that these movies are also profitable ventures and good investment options,” says Hemanth, whose second film Kavaludaari was produced by PRK Productions.
“More importantly, his (Puneeth’s) large fanbase will be open to watching such movies. If it wasn’t for Puneeth sir’s backing, Kavaludaari and Mayabazaar might not have received the brilliant response that it eventually did. So it comes down to the aspect of influence on the audience. This development is an important part in the evolution of the industry,” he says.