Why has popular Kannada cinema remained ‘local’?

Mungaru Male brought together a seeminglyunworkable couple, where one personis from Mysore and other from Kodagu.

South-Indian films like Arjun Reddy (2017) are getting remade in other languages and attracting national attention but the phenomenon is restricted largely to cinemas other than in Kannada. Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam films are routinely screened in cities outside their respective language regions but this is not something that has happened with Kannada cinema, which has generally restricted itself to cities in Karnataka. This is a phenomenon that needs theorizing about since it cannot owe only to more Keralites, Tamils and Telugus travelling/ living outside their home states than Kannadigas.

Kannada popular cinema has stood apart from the other cinemas of India in several discernible ways. If one studies the earlier Kannada films one finds caste more seriously implicated in film stories; until the 1980s, marriages were endogamous, i.e. within extended families, implying caste as a dominant consideration in unions. Where political movements in the Madras Presidency had produced the working-class hero (as in MGR’s films), Kannada cinema continued to respect caste hierarchy and valorised Brahmin qualities. Kannada films did not travel successfully outside as Tamil films did. While the MGR film Malaikallan (1954) was remade successfully with Dilip Kumar as Azad (1955), and Roja (1993) triumphantly dubbed into Hindi, Nagara Haavu (1972) as Zehreela Insaan (1974) or Antha (1981) as Mere Aawaz Suno (1981) were not successful. The difficulty for Kannada cinema was that it had addressed a space (Princely Mysore) under indirect British rule while the other cinemas were associated with territories under direct rule. Indirect rule – with a smaller colonial interface – seemingly produced a different mindset, and therefore greater the compatibility of Tamil or Telugu with mainstream Hindi cinema. The commitment of Sandalwood to former Princely Mysore continues to this day - though there is a Mangalore-based cinema (Ulidavaru Kandanthe, 2015) separately emerging.

Princely Mysore regarded itself as a ‘nation within a nation’ even after 1947 and many of its consequences are still visible. It is difficult to recollect a Kannada film with a romance between two Kannadigas, one from the Mysore area and another from outside, say Raichur or Gulbarga. The romance in Mungaru Male (2006) between a Mysorean and a Kodava fails for the same reason as the one between DJ and the British girl in Rang De Basanti (2006) – there cannot be a fruitful emotional relationship between someone exemplifying the region/nation and a ‘foreigner’ because of an invisible ‘boundary’ demarcating the home territory. The film Bili Hendthi (1975) in which the protagonist marries a white girl is actually the story of a failed relationship between him and a young woman played by Aarathi.

Each kind of popular cinema has characteristics based on the constituency it is addressing and partly owing to the constituency’s self-image. The heavy-spending Indians in Europe in Bollywood films (Dil Dhadakne Do) owe to Anglophone Indian audiences identifying with India’s growth story and the much publicised doings of its billionaires. In Salman Khan’s films (Dabangg, 2010) – which cater to a semi-urban or working class audience – such ostentation is rarely visible. If characters in films like 3 Idiots keep breaking off into English swear words, Salman Khan stubbornly pronounces ‘confuse’ as ‘confuj’. His disinclination to speak English on-screen is his way of courting non-Anglophones and his films hence ‘resist’ Anglophone India.

Kannada films cater to a local public that for a long while felt it was left out of the growth story in Bengaluru, even as the importance of the city to Kannada cinema grew. The result was that the dislocated migrant became the subject of a great number of films; the protagonists of gangster films (Jogi, Duniya), for instance, were migrants in the city living on the pavements in poor circumstances although they were nonetheless not pathetic but heroic. These two kinds of protagonists – the super-rich ones in Anglophone Hindi cinema and the migrants in Kannada gangster films are both exemplars, making one recognise the contrary narratives that mainstream Hindi and Kannada film audiences identify with. If Telugu and Tamil films are closer in spirit to Hindi cinema - since their audiences also identify with powerful or wealthy people (Ghajini, 2005) - Sandalwood, because of its preoccupation with the denizens of former Princely Mysore living precariously in Bengaluru, has been producing a predominantly local cinema that does not arouse much interest outside. But the constituencies are not mutually exclusive and overlap, because of different identities dominating at different times. A single member of the audience who watches both Hindi and Kannada cinema may have different expectations from them and might not cherish Kannada film motifs in Hindi cinema or vice versa.

Still, things are happening in the entertainment space and the phenomenal success of regional products as national cinema (Bahubali) implies this. The Kannada gangster film seems to have itself become spent because of social transformation. KGF (2018) is a gangster extravaganza difficult to make sense of politically but its differences with the earlier films (with the chopper as emblem) are glaring. An explanation is that there is a new pan-Indian urban-centric cinema emerging because of the cultural homogeneity of the metropolises; the language spoken is not of great importance since films could even be multilingual. The narrative excesses in KGF – with an unbelievable Mumbai underworld as a motif – may be symptomatic of it. But this also implies that former Princely Mysore as a separate ethos that continued long after its official demise as a political entity in 1956 (consequent to the linguistic reorganization of the states) may be fading – at least as represented in Kannada cinema.

MK Raghavendra is well-known film critic.

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