D Shankar Singh was on the train from Arisikere to Bengaluru when he happened to meet a fellow passenger by the name CV Raju. Just as Singh was contemplating the purchase of a theatre, Prabhat Talkies that was up for sale, Raju derailed his plans when he suggested producing a film instead. Changing tracks, Singh went to Mysuru in 1946, which was a turning point in his career. And that resulted in the making of the first Kannada film, Krishnaleela (1947) under the banner Mahatma Pictures. Interestingly this was the first time that the entire shooting took place in Mysuru.
On August 15, Singh’s centenary, his son Rajendra Singh Babu, a veteran film director himself, released the book cover of Kannada Chitrarangada Bheeshma Dada Shankar Singh which delves into the life and times of his father, who is said to be the pioneer of the Kannada film industry.
Singh junior, who is known for films like Nagarahole, Khiladi Jodi, Tony, Bandhana and Muthina Haara, recalls being surrounded by cast and crew growing up. By the time he saw his father, Singh was at the peak of his career, having turned producer and bankrolling many films. “My father had humble beginnings. After SSLC, he went to then Calcutta, and returned to become a tea agent. He would come back to Arsikere now and then and would spend time over dosae and filter coffee at a hotel run by B Vittalacharya, who later became a famous Telugu producer,” he says, adding that he soon left behind the agent business for calling of the film industry.
An owner of two touring talkies, Singh encouraged his colleagues to think big and go beyond the then Madras where the films were made. “My father was aware that the film industry was completely dominated by other languages – Tamil, Telugu, and Hindi. When he wanted to release a Kannada film, he would meet the Chief Minister for it, because theatres would otherwise be occupied with releases in other languages.He had taken a delegation to minister Nijalingappa to curb the release of other language films in Karnataka. At the same time, Vittalacharya left my father, as he thought Kannada cinema was a dead industry which didn’t have any money. But my father did not wish to leave Mysore. He made sure he roped in artistes from Mysore only, and nobody else.”
His perseverance paid off and by the ’50s Singh had carved a niche for Kannada films. Before he knew it, name, fame and money were his. And the rest is history. Jaganmohini was one of the first Kannada pictures to hit screens in 1951 and was a runaway success with it playing for 25 weeks. “Someone even went to court because people were selling cows and buffaloes in exchange for watching the film. My father won the case, and the film was released all over Karnataka,” Rajendra says.
Personalities like Raj Kapoor and V Shantaram in Bombay knew about Singh, and even Hollywood filmmakers, including King Brothers, recognised his work. “Unfortunately, the Karnataka government doesn’t know who Shankar Singh is. They don’t even have a road in his name, and there’s no recognition. It’s very sad,” Rajendra rues.
Singh refers to his father’s film career as that of snakes and ladders. “He produced 3 to 4 films every year under the banner Mahatma Pictures, and churned out 45 films for almost 15 years, and mostly made content-based films -- shuffling between social oriented scripts, mythology and folklore,” he says about the black and white films with the exception of Prabhulinga Leele which was a two-reel Kannada colour film. There’s much hype about pan-India in the Kannada industry today. But way back in 1949, Nagakannika earned this distinction. The first pan-India film, it was dubbed into Hindi, Telugu, and Tamil.
Sowing the seeds of success
Singh even worked in an English film, Maya, produced by King Brothers. A number of actors owe their success to Singh. In fact, Rajkumar’s first film Srinivasa Kalyana was made under the Mahatma Pictures banner, which had the actor playing a pivotal role.
The production house introduced Vishnuvardhan as a child actor. Mahatma Pictures also introduced Uday Kumar, Ambareesh, Saroja Devi and Harini, and director Hunsur Krishnamurthy. Rajendra feels blessed to have been ‘gifted the art of filmmaking’. His father drilled in him the importance of being a good writer to be a good filmmaker. “I owe everything I am today to my father,” he says.