Think about Kannada cinema of the 1980s and the ’90s, and you get wistful. Well, it isn’t mere nostalgia. It’s a sense of longing for good films. Today, Karnataka has a row of new directors — but almost all of them reel out forgettable stuff. In fact, some of them are fly-by-night operators. The adage, ‘the more the merrier’, need not necessarily apply to cinema, surely to Kannada.
Think of creative cinematic elegance, and the names that pop up are D Rajendra Babu, S V Rajendra Singh Babu, T S Nagabharana, Nagathihalli Chandrashekar, Sunil Kumar Desai and V Ravichandran. They were trend-setters who conjured up wholesome material, never the straitjacketed ones. Their range of subjects was formidable; the end-product was refined. No wonder, they won major awards.
Even till the middle of the last decade, there was an occasional flicker of hope on the screen. Then, in 2006 came Mungaaru Male. The phenomenally successful work by Yograj Bhat turned Kannada cinema upside down. Soon there was a slide in the real estate business, and we saw the entry of a horde of land developers entering the filmdom as producers. There was a deluge of new heroes. Glamour, fame and the quick buck became the mantra; film-making took a backseat. Yet, the flip side was glaring: most films only fell by the wayside. Only a few like Suri’s Duniya became a super-hit, courtesy its unusual love story.
Naturally, film circles are agog with animated discussions — what ails Kannada cinema? If one looks at the awesome body of work of the ace directors, in terms of their technical quality and content, the answer is obvious: today’s films are being done on a piecemeal basis — either for the hero, or at the whim of a producer. Definitely, not for the viewer. Circa 1986, V Ravichandran’s maiden directorial film Premaloka is an ideal example of a film made with zeal. The blockbuster became a trendsetter in many ways. It ushered in the concept of expansive films. For over a decade, the winning Ravichandran-Hamsalekha combination churned out songs with excellent picturisation. True, the locales were exotic locales and the sets lavish, but the aesthetics never looked cheap. Juhi Chawla and Khushboo added glamour to Kannada films, but a parallel display of simple dialogues and lyrics ensured a certain sobriety to the glitter. Ekangi, Malla and Puttnanja prompted Ravichandran to be a serious experimenter.
As youthful in attitude was D Rajendra Babu. Most of his 50-odd films were big successes. Clean, even-paced entertainers they were, focusing on human relationships. He handled a range of themes with aplomb, turning the tide of many a hero too. Multi-starrers were his gift to Kannada cinema: Habba, Yaare Neenu Cheluve and Preethse wove a rich tapestry of art and artistes. But see his recent Bindaas and Bombat. Rajendra Babu has, sadly, attuned himself to the times. “Earlier,” he says, “we had committed producers. Now everything is in a flux. The new heroes want to become directors. Even the media does not encourage seniors.”
Equally versatile has been S V Rajendra Singh Babu. His first mid-1970s Naagarahole remains unmatched as an original children’s film that had adventure as its core. No preachy messages. The spell of freshness continued. If Anta helped Ambarish metamorphose from a villain into a hero, it also began the trend of political satires. Singh was ahead of his times: Bandhana, Mutthina Haara and Mungaarina Minchu testify to his brilliance. A broad and bold canvas; no run-of-the-mill formula. Fun-filled were his comedy series: Kurigalu Sir Kurigalu, Kothigalu Sir Kothigalu and Katthegalu Sir Katthegalu.
The ’70s are considered by many as the golden era of Kannada cinema, but the next two decades saw it blossom into an industry with expansive and sophisticated productions. Sunil Kumar Desai wasn’t prolific, but was a class apart. His Beladingala Baale, where the heroine is never seen but only heard, is imaginative. Uthkarsha, Nishkarsha, Nammoora Mandaara Hoove and Prathyartha are models of refinement and novel treatment.
T S Nagabharana maintained a fine balance between art and commerce. His films were steeped in regional ethos — Nagamandala, Janumada Jodi, Banker Margayya, to name a few. The scripts, by established writers, were weighty. Similarly have been the outings of Nagathihalli Chandrashekhar. A writer himself, his America America, Paris Pranaya and Nanna Preethiya Hudugi encapsulate his sensible, breezy material.
But that gust seems to be over. Scripts are no longer considered as the fulcrum of a film, and classic novels are found not suitable to the fast-changing social scenario. Kannada cinema of now is a beehive of activity, but rudderless. Only the veterans, it seems, can give it some direction.