If you test someone from up and above the Vindhyas on their knowledge of South Indian cinema, eight out of ten would know of Tamil and Telugu cinema. The remaining two would go for Malayalam cinema. Their knowledge of Kannada cinema would start and end with Dr. Rajkumar, Vishnuvardhan and Shankar Nag, provided they’re cine enthusiasts. Kannada cinema stands last among the four big industries of south India, when it comes to popularity.
Modern Kannada cinema suffers from an identity crisis. Telugus and Tamils have always been passionate about cinema. Their industries have gained huge markets as a result of which they’ve afforded high-budget films with technical excellence and gained visibility. Malayalam cinema has reinvented itself in the last decade. It has carved a niche identity for itself as the maker of most sensible cinema in India. Kannada cinema is still hanging somewhere in between. Neither has it managed to create a huge market for itself nor an identity.
It has tried to emulate Tollywood and Kollywood since the beginning of 21st century in trying to establish a fan base. The fundamental flaw in this is that Kannadigas are not as passionate about cinema as their Telugu and Tamil compatriots. Their fan base will never be as huge or as effective. The clearest proof of this is how Telugu/Tamil stars have converted their filmy popularity into political success and changed the political landscape of their respective states. Nothing of the sort has been possible in Karnataka.
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They have neglected all other sections of audience outside the target fan base for more than a decade and have helped set up a lucrative market for other film industries in their own turf. They’ve made redundant films in limited genres and remade so many movies that remakes are treated evil and broadly resented. Many big producers in Sandalwood tend to give precedence to self-interest over the welfare of industry and actively take up large scale distribution of non-Kannada films and release them in over 60% of Karnataka’s screens. They have, however, failed to create even a miniscule market for themselves outside Karnataka.
Kannada cinema today suffers from lack of screens even in Karnataka. Two high-budget films releasing alongside in a state with 600+ screens shouldn’t, ideally, be a big problem but it indeed is. One of the two has to make way for the other or all hell breaks loose between fan factions. Three other major industries have considerable presence and take up a sizable percentage of these screens. Kannada films literally have to fight for the leftover. There are instances when a major Kannada film is postponed because it clashes with a big Telugu/Tamil release.
The silver lining for Kannada cinema amidst this all is the new-age filmmakers. They’ve churned out some wonderful content-oriented cinema in the last three years. It all began with Pawan Kumar’s Inception-esque film on lucid dreaming titled Lucia and Rakshit Shetty’s Pulp Fiction-inspired Ulidavaru Kandante. Other young directors like Anup Bhandary, Hemanth Rao and Raam Reddy have joined them in their quest for establishing a new genre where directors, not actors, are the real heroes. They’re catering to the sections mainstream had deserted and have found commercial success, despite a thousand adversities.
Experimental art films like Nanu Avanalla Avalu, Kiragoorina Gayyaligalu, Thithi ran to packed houses, debunking the excuse that there’s no audience for intelligent cinema.
Social media is a boon for these filmmakers who can’t afford to spend heavily on promoting their low-budget movies. Most of their films picked up second week onwards on word-of-mouth publicity.
Since Kannada news channels are infamous for promoting Tamil and Telugu movies extensively (remember me saying Kannada film producers distribute non-Kannada films? Connect the dots!) and neglecting Kannada cinema, these filmmakers also rely mostly on social media for marketing and publicity. It comes at little or no cost.
Social media has ensured that Kannadigas across the world sit up and take note of films garnering acclaim back home. This has helped Kannada cinema enter overseas and pan-India markets quite successfully. Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu ran to packed houses for a fortnight in USA, running more shows than a Salman-starrer. It released in many European countries where Kannada films hadn’t entered before and ran to full houses. Thithi ran to packed houses in various Indian cities. These trends have debunked another Kannada film industry excuse that there is no market for its cinema outside Karnataka. It’s only that they’ve been too lazy to tap those markets.
The new-age filmmakers are passionate and aren’t here just for the sake of it. They’ve given up safer, easier means of life midway to pursue their love for cinema.
They are well aware of the million problems that haunt Kannada cinema and are determined to conquer them. It’s heartening to see them come together and promote each others’ films putting the welfare of Kannada cinema over self-interest.
They are creating new markets, catering to different segments of audience and carving a niche identity for Kannada cinema. If you’d asked me three years ago, I’d have said I have no hopes from Kannada cinema. Today, they’ve given me hope and they’ve made me dream.
More power to new-age Kannada cinema which is here to stay and become the new mainstream!
By Rakshith S Ponnathpur
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