The radical Kannada art cinema of the 1970s

Karnataka's defining moments: The radical Kannada art cinema of the 1970s

Some of the best films of the Kannada new wave cinema were literary adaptations

The Kannada art film movement was an offshoot of state intervention, first mediated through the Film Finance Corporation and later, its successor the National Film Development Corporation, but it also had aspects specific to the region from which it sprang.

Indira Gandhi’s national film policy was designed to move away from the 'escapism' of mainstream cinema. The first movies to emerge under this directive were Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome and Basu Chatterji’s Sara Akash in 1969. 

The first Kannada art film, Pattabhirama Reddy’s Samskara (1970) created a buzz since many Kannada cultural figures — U R Ananthamurthy (as writer), Girish Karnad (as co-writer and lead actor), P Lankesh (actor), Snehalata Reddy (actor), Rajeev Taranath (music), S G Vasudev (art direction) — were involved in its production. 

The choice of Ananthamurthy's novel, rather than the older literature of Kuvempu or K Shivaram Karanth is significant and can be interpreted as regional cinema staking its claim on modernity. 

Much like the novel, Samskara is a landmark film. Other movies that followed in quick succession — B V Karanth and Girish Karnad’s Vamsha Vriksha (1971) and Karnad's Kaadu (1973) though competently made, appear like minor works in comparison.

Right from the start, Kannada art cinema has thrown its lot with literature and its best films are adaptations of stories or novels. Most of these early movies were also made by people with a literary background.

Though he attained fame in literature, P Lankesh is also remembered for the handful of movies he directed, beginning with Pallavi (1976). Chandrashekhara Kambara made a few Kannada films like Kaadu Kudure (1979). Other names like T S Ranga (Geejagana Goodu, 1977) and Baraguru Ramachandrappa (Ondu Oorina Kathe, 1978) also crop up.

Even the grand old man of Kannada literature, Shivaram Karanth, made a couple of films based on his own novels.

Though the cinematic output in this period was prolific, all the movies that followed Karnad and B V Karanth lacked finesse. Only T S Nagabharana, who made Grahana (1978), survived as a filmmaker. 

Munithaayi, a segment from Puttana Kanagal’s Katha Sangama (1976) is a great example of bold, transgressive filmmaking in Indian art cinema that has stood the test of time.

The next landmark movie from the time is Girish Kasaravalli’s Ghatashraddha (1977). The film is more sophisticated than any its predecessors in Kannada art cinema; it has a discernible visual style not to be found even in Samskara.

Kasaravalli’s entry into cinema is noteworthy because after the first two or three films, he transitioned to making movies that were routinely recognised at the national level, a feat that few others from the state have achieved.

Outside of Kasaravalli’s oeuvre, only B V Karanth (Chomana Dudi, 1975) and Pattabhirama Reddy had been able to make a mark at the national level, although the versatile Karnad made films regularly, including the ingenious Utsav (1984) in Hindi.

Links to political discourse 

Though the art cinema in India of the 1970s seems radical, it is not anti-establishment or anti-state. This radicalism was in line with Indira’s own political rhetoric, which aligned her with left-wing partners. It was also an attitude she quickly shed in her second term.

The commercial Kannada cinema of this period (when Devaraj Urs was chief minister of Karnataka) also seems radical — Siddalingaiah’s Bhootayyana Maga Ayyu (1974) with its anti-zamindar, anti-brahmin rhetoric comes to mind — but the later cinema does not continue with this.

The Kannada art cinema of the time was greatly influenced by the public political discourse of the time, and gradually became more tepid. Regardless of art cinema toeing the line set by Indira, one could still see the 1970s as its most productive period. The presence of a definite political discourse benefitted the art, unlike the years that followed, when one did not know what the Janata Party or Indira in her second term stood for ideologically.  

So what does Kannada art cinema do today? It raises issues that the state considers important but has not attended to as much as it would like. Or it adapts literary classics as a reliable way of getting picked for awards or being selected for the Indian Panorama at each year’s International Film Festival of India.

Despite an occasional movie like Thithi (2015), the characteristic that marks out art cinema in the state today is a reluctance to take risks. This is unlike the Kannada cinema of the 1970s, which despite its rawness, was transgressive and transformative.

(The author is a well-known film critic)