Where has the 'society' gone in Kannada cinema?

A new breed of young filmmakers are experimenting with new themes and treading unexplored terrains.

The critically-acclaimed ‘Nathicharami’ addresses a taboo topic. Sruthi Hariharan’s character is in conflict, not with the misogynist society, but with herself and the death of her husband.

Over the last few years, the consensus is that Kannada cinema industry has been finding its feet in a new world that is abound with possibilities. A new crop of young filmmakers is harnessing these possibilities by exploring off-beat concepts and putting their faith in the audience that they will acknowledge and embrace their product of creativity.

However, something is amiss.

When compared to the movies of yesteryear, the movies of today take place in a vacuum. A film like ‘KGF: Chapter 1’ (2018) may tell you that its events are taking place in the 1970s, while its storytelling choices, be it the costumes the characters wear or the cars they drive, hardly convey the same. If made right, ‘KGF’ could have been the story of people in involuntary servitude, only to rise up, if only with the help of the hero. But, what we get is where a whole working class of people reduced to tools and props, whose only purpose is to exhibit their struggle enough to aid our amoral hero to become a better version of himself.

Not unlike Chetan Anand’s ‘Neecha Nagar’ (1946), where a village is facing imminent danger of its water resources getting polluted due to the greed of an industrialist, Kannada films have largely been socially conscious. In other words, instead of addressing the socio-political conditions of the working class and their conflicts with the ruling class which is used as a vehicle to critique the inherent power structures for producing such conditions (social realism), they make a choice of addressing the issues without outrightly critiquing them. Critique is the key word here.

Ayyu and Gulla in ‘Bhootayyana Maga Ayyu’ represent two different social groups. While the former is an upper-caste feudal lord, the latter is a lower-class tiller just like their respective fathers. While the movie does show injustices of the society, Ayyu is redeemed after he has a change of heart. Following which the villagers, including Gulla, returns the wealth that was accumulated by abusing the same villagers. The cruel feudal Bhootayya is traded in for the benevolent one in Ayyu. Thereby, assigning the blame on the individual himself and not on the system.

Yet, we cannot disagree that ‘Bhootayyana Maga Ayyu’ is a remarkable feat in filmmaking. It might not be a social realist movie, but its social consciousness is definitely alive and pulsates throughout the narrative. Even movies which are more targeted towards the masses like Vishnuvardhan-starrer ‘Karmika Kallanalla’ (1982) possessed an inherent awareness about the injustices and the inequality in the society. They weren’t blind to them unlike in today’s films where social consciousness is absent.

‘Nathicharami’ (2018), one of the critically acclaimed Kannada movies in the past year, addresses a taboo topic such as sexual desires of women. Sruthi Hariharan’s character is in conflict not with the misogynist society but with herself and the death of her husband. Of course, this is because of her character’s social location which affords her not even give a single thought about the wife of the man she has chosen to sleep with.

From cinemas in tents to single screen theatres to multiplexes, what comprised of ‘society’ also changed.

The rural populace who used to catch movies in temporary tent theatres and later, the urban class catching their monthly movies in a single screen are not the people with most disposable income today. It is the middle-class that rose post-1991 liberalisation that became the new ‘society’ or more aptly, the ‘market’. And the sad thing about this new society is that there is zero class consciousness.

Our cinema started reflecting that. ‘Om’ (1995) heralded a new era of movies centered on the underworld and rowdyism. From this point on, Kannada cinema became about individual journeys where instead of critiquing the state of things, we surrender to the injustices of the society like Satya does or completely ignore these inequalities altogether. Despite ‘Mungaru Male’ (2006) breaking the monotony of these slice-and-dice films, these new waves of rom-coms lead by Yogaraj Bhat too have failed to awaken the lost social consciousness.

Of course, as consumers the middle class is aspirational. It chooses to go blind against any division that exists in society. For, any acknowledgement on their part that something is wrong is going to put a break to their journey of upward mobility. Hence, the movies that cater to this class had to be changed.

It is all about individual journeys and individual stories now. Systemic oppression and structural limitations are simply smart-sounding excuses which mean nothing if you work hard enough. Your government wants you to believe that. Your movies teach that. Everything is well and good.

If ‘Naagarahaavu’ (1972) was made today, the inter-religious couple would definitely not kill themselves. If they were to die it would be by some other freak accident that has nothing to do with society.

Because there is no society anymore in Kannada cinema.

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