A drawing from popular cartoonist Satish Acharya that went viral earlier this year brilliantly captures Kannada cinema’s defining moment of the decade.
The picture shows Shah Rukh Khan, popularly known as ‘King of Bollywood’, asking Kannada star Yash how many zeroes he has in his pushcart. “Pure gold,” is the reply from Yash, who starred in the Kannada gargantuan hit KGF: Chapter 1.
It was that time of the year when a Kannada film, released in four other languages, had done the unthinkable. Hitting the theatres alongside Shah Rukh’s Zero, Prashanth Neel’s KGF had completely outshone the Bollywood biggie. The cartoon, which takes a dig at Zero’s poor box-office fate, was the clinching proof of KGF’s dominance.
A little over a year after its release, it’s still debated whether KGF, an out-and-out star vehicle with the archaic ‘good versus evil’ story, deserved its massive success. But with its technical mastery and enormous scale — both unprecedented in Kannada cinema — KGF infused a fresh energy in the industry. It was a license to ambitious thinking. The movie gave rise to a belief that Kannada films can transcend regional boundaries.
KGF is just one of the many exciting chapters of a decade that’s significant in the history of Kannada cinema. In the early 2000s, Kannada films were marked with a blatant lack of creativity. Storytelling took a beating as filmmakers were on a mindless pursuit of entertainment.
Yogaraj Bhat with Mungaru Male (2006) and Suri with Duniya (2007) saved the sinking ship. The two iconic films brought the audience back to the theatres. But those films were akin to bandages to heal a fracture. Fact remained that Kannada cinema was in desperate need of a movement.
To resurrect the industry, directors needn’t have to look beyond Malayalam cinema, which was making heads turn with its ‘new generation films’. Helped by fresh ideas and inventive narrative forms, Malayalam cinema set high standards for filmmaking.
Tamil cinema, which is blessed with a constant inflow of talent, wasn’t far behind. Kannada tried to imitate Telugu’s template of ‘bombastic entertainment’ but didn’t have the resources to pull it off.
It was only in 2013 that the night passed and the sun shone brightly in Sandalwood. Pawan Kumar’s psychological thriller Lucia turned out to be a game-changer. It broke new grounds in filmmaking and inspired many young directors to be fearless in style and keep substance over gloss.
The pan-India success of Lucia led to the birth of a golden generation as the likes of Rakshit Shetty (Ulidavaru Kandante), Rishab Shetty (Kirik Party, Sarkari.Hi.Pra.Shaale), Hemanth M Rao (Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, Kavaludaari), Prashanth Neel (Ugramm, KGF) and Anup Bhandari (RangiTaranga) pushed the envelope of storytelling and refrained from pandering to popular taste.
The non-Kannada speaking audience, which was open to good content, found it easier to embrace such Kannada films. An industry that mostly punched above its weight, Kannada cinema began producing films that were no less compared to the best works of other industries. Popular film critics, who were oblivious to the existence of Sandalwood, made efforts to discuss and write on Kannada films.
In 2016, Kannada cinema took a notable stride forward when four films attracted large crowds across Karnataka. Thithi, Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, U Turn and Karva were different in themes but one common factor among them was quality. They satisfied the commercial film lovers and also catered to the cineastes. Sandalwood drew curtains to the year with Kirik Party, a well-made coming-of-age film that enjoyed a 365-day run.
The landmark year also exposed the problem of consistency. Before 2016, the industry hardly witnessed such a gush of impressive films. Smiles were back on ardent Kannada film lovers two years later as wholesome entertainers like Tagaru, Sarkari.Hi.Pra.Shaale and KGF showed that even in this era, where films mostly crawl towards the 25-day mark, massive hits are a possibility.
The latter half of the decade is a strong reflection of the changing taste of Kannada cinema audience. Today, they support earnest attempts and out-of-the-box ideas. They have come to terms that a star isn’t a guarantee for good content. This explains the success of unconventional commercial films like Gultoo, Rama Rama Re, Aa Karaala Ratri, Shuddhi and Thithi.
While a loyal following is crucial for the industry, it also has other battles to fight. The fierce competition from other language films has always remained the biggest threat for Sandalwood. It’s high-time the authorities in Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy and Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce find a suitable solution to the growing problem of lack of enough screens for Kannada films. Good quality notwithstanding, only sustained presence of a film can assure its success. The outrageous number of films released every year doesn’t augur well for the industry as quality and not quantity is the need of the hour. Also, it remains to be seen how Sandalwood reacts to the curse of piracy that has begun to dent its functioning.
On the artistic front, directors must show strong disregard to jaded concepts. Stars like Darshan, Puneeth Rajkumar, Sudeep and Ganesh should learn to differentiate between organic masala entertainers and monotonous commercial affairs. And like their contemporaries from other industries, it’s time they also focus on revelling in performance-oriented roles.
More importantly, the industry must churn out films that tell stories from the eyes of the leading lady. Women in films should be given more voice.
Only if talented actors like Hariprriya, Radhika Pandit and Aditi Prabhudeva are challenged with complex, yet meaningful roles, can Sandalwood get its ‘Lady Superstars’.
The eventful decade has neared its end and the year’s final release, Avane Srimannarayana, involving the gifted Rakshit Shetty, could be the proverbial cherry on the cake. As we welcome a fresh decade, let’s hope the only way is upwards for Kannada cinema.