Kannada cinema began by addressing the citizens of the former princely state of Mysore. Only in the 1990s did it enlarge its territory to include Bangalore. BY M.K. RAGHAVENDRA
THE mainstream Hindi film is the closest we have to a “national cinema” because it addresses wide audiences within the boundaries of the nation. After the linguistic reorganisation of the States in 1956, the different regional language cinemas have had as their constituencies people from the States associated with the respective languages. Since each of these languages has its own diaspora, each respective cinema includes in its constituency those from the diaspora, which often stretches beyond the nation. Kannada cinema, because there is no significant Kannada language diaspora, is apparently a local cinema addressing people within Karnataka. The Kannada popular film, whatever its constituency today, began by addressing only the citizens of the former princely state of Mysore (southern Karnataka consisting of Bangalore, Mysore, Kolar, Tumkur, Chitradurga, Shimoga, Mandya and Hassan). It uses the Kannada spoken in Old Mysore, and the protagonists of Kannada popular cinema are still from that region.
A factor to be kept in mind about the milieu in the princely state is that it was under the indirect rule of the British before 1947. After the break-up of the Vijayanagar empire (1336-1646) and before the rise of Hyder Ali in the 1760s, the area, which was to be known as Mysore state, was ruled by a network of “little kingdoms”. The Wodeyar family, the ancestors of the Maharaja of Mysore, ruled Mysore, but it was only under Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan that any genuine consolidation of the little kingdoms under one authority took place. After Tipu’s defeat in 1799, the British needed suitable rulers for the dominions that they did not wish to administer themselves and so reinstated the Wodeyars. However, the British ruled indirectly through the dewan (minister), who was (in the initial period) an official from the Madras Presidency.
Mysore was a Hindu kingdom ruled autocratically. Hinduism was more orthodox, and the position of the Brahmins and the priests more elevated although Veerashaivism developed here as a system of protest against Brahmin domination. But it was still a conservative society in which caste hierarchy was not severely interrogated as it was in the Tamil region, although there was opposition to the Brahmins from the other upper castes in official life.
Outside social reform
In terms of form, the Kannada language cinema of the 1940s and 1950s was akin to the Hindi cinema of the same period. Like Hindi cinema, Kannada films were, without exception, melodramas in the earlier years but they also incorporated large chunks of mythology. The mythological in Indian cinema was an element in the agenda of anti-colonial nationalism. The mythological in Hindi cinema initially had puranic motifs but subsequently moved to the genre of the saint film, which was compatible with both spiritual and social reforms. The mythological in Kannada cinema was different from the Marathi/Hindi saint film of the 1930s and was closer to D.G. Phalke’s films, which were also retold puranic stories. Since Mysore was only under indirect British rule, many of the social developments under colonialism affected it less. Kannada cinema is, therefore, a conservative Hindu cinema, with the reform movements of the 19th century, including those aimed at women’s emancipation, which influenced Hindi cinema in the 1930s and 1940s, having little effect on it. This is suggested by the portrayal of the husband as the “lord” of his wife as late as the 1960s when Hindi films even in the 1930s showed women as standing up to their husbands, for instance, Duniya Na Mane (1937).
Kannada films, like mainstream Hindi cinema, has moral instruction for the spectator, which is roughly derived from the code of dharma, but Kannada films follow it more rigidly. A corollary is the respect for traditional hierarchy that dharma implies: it is good to respect hierarchy not only in organised society but even within the family, with the father at the top of the pyramid. This is unlike Hindi films, where the mother is sacred.
For several decades after Independence, Kannada cinema identified qualities with caste, and caste types were given appropriate vocations. Teachers, doctors, priests and cooks are Brahmins but the laudable Brahmins are only from the first two categories. Farmers and grain merchants are of the Vokkaliga caste, while traders and flour mill owners are Vaishyas (usually with Veerashaiva names). When farming or industry is associated with a Brahmin, he is someone with a modern outlook or a progressive farmer. If wealth is associated with a Brahmin family, it is a family of coffee planters. Caste identification is always covert—through names and associations—and only the priest wears a sacred thread, and in the earliest cinema, he is usually a scheming, conniving type.
Heterosexual relationships in mainstream Hindi cinema take several shapes, and romance is the way to family formation. Kannada cinema, in contrast, treated arranged marriage as the norm for several decades and romance was an anomaly. Arranged marriage was the standard way of denoting heterosexual relationships until the 1970s because of the prevailing endogamy and marriage networks in Mysore. Arranged marriages are between people of the same caste and class background unless specified in the film for specific reasons.
Only two Kannada films from before 1947 are available today. Both of them, Ramaiyer and Shirur’s Vasanthasena (1941) and R. Nagendra Rao’s Harishchandra (1943), subscribe to these conventions, as do most films up to 1970. Both the films valorise the wife’s loyalty to her husband in the face of hardship; the husband responds by being noble and mindful of his responsibilities. Vasanthasena (which is based on Sudraka’s Mrichchakatika) plays down the eroticism in the original and emphasises the loyalty of the courtesan, who is a surrogate wife to the male protagonist Charudatta. A king or a prince is also a key figure in these early films with mythological motifs.
Independence and linguistic reorganisation
Independence registers itself strongly in Hindi cinema’s motifs. The motif of the courtroom scene where the truth is laid bare emerged only after 1947 because the courtroom represents the moral authority of the independent state. Independence has a muted presence in Kannada cinema. A more important historic moment is linguistic reorganisation. The moment is not, however, one with only positive implications. Mysore was a prosperous space, while the other territories that merged with it were poorer. The demand for unification of the Kannada territories was in fact voiced from the regions outside Mysore. Kannada cinema, therefore, waited for linguistic reorganisation with some unease. There were at least three major Kannada films in the two years before linguistic reorganisation —Bedara Kannappa (1954), Mahakavi Kalidasa (1955) and Bhakta Vijaya (1956). Linguistic reorganisation is covertly allegorised as a king or a prince cursed with poverty, suffering great hardship, which is shared by his wife. Eventually, the king does not regain his riches but gains a community because his sacrifices are recognised by the people. In a monarchy, it must be noted, king and country are identical and the king being cursed with poverty can be understood as Mysore’s plight when the poorer Kannada regions are merged with it. The gains of the community can be seen as the promise of a larger Kannada community.
Integration with the Nation
Mythological films do not dominate Kannada cinema after 1956 because of the appearance of the family melodrama (the social) and the historical film. The Kannada social of the period relies on the notion of the modern like the contemporaneous Hindi cinema. The Nehruvian modern is a key notion in the Hindi cinema of the 1950s where it holds out both a promise (freedom from superstition) and a threat (decadence). The Kannada social films deal with the notion of the modern but the epithet does not mean the same thing it does in the Hindi films. In B.R. Panthulu’s School Master (1958), the high-minded schoolteacher Ranganna (B.R. Panthulu), who is apparently Brahmin, returns as headmaster to the primary school in his own native village and proceeds to set it right. But what he sets right here is corruption. This is because modernity had already been ushered in by Sir M. Visvesvaraya, the Dewan of Mysore, in the 1920s through impressive industrialisation measures, but corruption had always been the bane of Mysore. Another important motif in School Master is a romance outside the marriage networks and caste to signify the new affiliations brought about by linguistic reorganisation.
Of equal importance in the 1960s was the historical film. From the late 1950s, Kannada cinema was also actively engaged in constructing a Kannada nation by appealing to the past, especially empires such as the one in Vijayanagar and to heroic kings and queens, and also dealing with the knitting of Kannada territories. A key ploy is for the king to have two wives with the second being a romance, signifying the knitting of Kannada areas outside the traditional marriage networks. Ranadheera Kanteerava (1960) is a story of palace intrigue under the Wodeyars, and important are Kanteerava’s (Rajkumar) deeds against the Tamils. Kitturu Channamma (1962) is another historical film, dealing with the colonial period. It makes an attempt to enlist a national heroine from Belgaum district (Bombay-Karnataka region) on behalf of the Kannada territory. The film makes her speak Mysore Kannada, while her treacherous ministers who betray her to the British speak Belgaum Kannada.
The modernity favoured by Kannada cinema in the 1950s is of a different order from that of Hindi cinema of the same period. But from the mid-1960s onwards, this modernity becomes more Nehruvian, as the region integrates with the nation, because it emphasises issues such as freedom from superstition. Bangalore, which until then had a marginal presence, suddenly gained importance following its association with the Centre, partly because of public sector investment in the city after Independence. In Bangarada Hoovu (1967), a young development officer from Bangalore (Rajkumar as Anand), wants to marry his friend’s sister Seetha (Kalpana) although his mother is keen on his marrying her niece. The crisis in the film occurs when Seetha is diagnosed with leprosy but Anand marries her after she is cured. The film begins with a “modern dance” by young women in tight clothes trying to attract Anand’s attention. The two aspects of the modern, represented by dancing and medicine, get due attention in this film, reminiscent in its thrust of the Hindi films of the late 1950s.
“Modernity” reaches its apogee in the spy thriller Jedara Bale (1968). This film is about a Bangalore-based secret agent, Prakash aka CID 999 (Rajkumar), who is after a gang of counterfeiters. The film combines James Bond’s appeal to women with the traditions of Mysore when CID 999 is approached by well-placed men who want him for a son-in-law. The Indian Airlines Bangalore-Delhi flight is seen carrying personages wearing Mysore turbans, as if to signify Mysore’s importance in the scheme of the Nation. Bangalore, which was once identified with the British and later with Central investment, is seen as closer to India than to Mysore, and the city gains importance when the Mysore state regards itself as close to the Nation. The state owed its “proximity to the Nation” in the mid- to late-1960s to S. Nijalingappa’s rise in the Congress “syndicate” and taking up the assignment of president of the All India Congress Committee. With Nijalingappa’s undoing by Indira Gandhi in 1969, the Nation becomes distant once again. Bangalore now becomes the home of thieves and illicit activity in Mayor Muthanna (1969).
The modern Mysore
One of the most influential motifs in Kannada cinema can be found in the early 1970s. It pertains to a wealthy and generous individual who spurns wealth and gives it away. This motif is exhibited most forcefully by Kasturi Nivasa (1971) but continues in Sakshatkara (1971) and Bangarada Manushya (1972). This protagonist is modern, he runs a match industry in Kasturi Nivasa and is a progressive farmer in Bangarada Manushya, and his kind of modernity is contrasted with a more rapacious kind which is also decadent. There is also a covert signification that the protagonist is Brahmin or has the virtues associated traditionally with the Brahmin caste—education and gentility—and there are usually loyal servants who acknowledge the protagonist’s hierarchical superiority even when he is reduced to penury. Since Bangarada Manushya compares its protagonist to Visvesvaraya, the two modernities find correspondence in the one initiated in Mysore in the 1920s and the one introduced by Nehru after 1947. While this distinction between the two kinds of modernity was avoided by Kannada cinema as long as Mysore was close to the Nation, the developments of 1969 in Delhi may have resulted in “Indian modernity” falling out of favour.
These motifs are striking, but they last for a very brief time. With the rise of Devaraj Urs in Karnataka and his adoption of Indira Gandhi’s brand of populism through land reforms, Kannada cinema introduces other motifs such as the murderous Brahmin moneylender in Bhoothayyana Maga Ayyu (1974). India was a relatively radicalised space around 1974 because of Indira Gandhi’s populist rhetoric. The murderous Brahmin moneylender is perhaps a hybrid composed of the “feudal oppressor” from a north-Indian milieu (as portrayed in Hindi films) and the Brahmin from the local hierarchy. While Hindi films portray the Kshatriya caste as feudal oppressors, Bhoothayyana Maga Ayyu relies on the docile local priestly caste but imparts Kshatriya attributes to it to make it fit the pan-Indian stereotype of the “caste oppressor”.
Several Kannada films of the 1960s and 1970s are based on works of literature, which was not the case in the 1950s and before. While popular cinema found the dramatic novels of Triveni, AaNaKru, M.K. Indira, TaRaSu, Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar and other writers from Mysore most suitable for its storyline, parallel cinema depended on the works of writers such as Shivaram Karanth, U.R. Ananthamurthy and S.L. Bhyrappa, which are more reflective and sometimes from outside Mysore. Drawing loosely from Benedict Anderson’s proposition that the Nation is sustained through the newspaper and the novel, one can say that although royal Mysore became defunct as a political entity in 1956, it may have continued to exist in the place in which it might have existed—in the collective memory of the people of the region, given shape and manifested in the region’s literature.
The Kannada spoken in Kannada cinema is generally of a high order in the 1960s and 1970s, but as we move into the 1980s, there is a significant decline in the quality of the language. The decline of Kannada cinema perhaps began with the youth-oriented films Premaloka (1986), Anand (1986) and Nanjundi Kalyana (1989). The youth film is usually about generational conflict but here it becomes an assertion of love; it is as if Kannada cinema, having forgotten what it once represented, has run out of subject matter. The 1990s is the period in which women are demeaned in Kannada cinema, which reaches its peak in Tarle Nan Mage (1992). A comparison of the aristocratic image valorised by Rajkumar in Kasturi Nivasa and Jaggesh’s low comedy in Tarle Nan Mage reveals Kannada cinema’s cultural decline and the lowering of the self-image of those from old Mysore.
A significant development since the 1990s is the rise of Bangalore largely because of the new economy businesses. There has been a huge amount of migration into the city, and locals have found themselves selling land only to see it appreciating in value. Those who have succeeded in Bangalore have largely been “outsiders”. There is no evidence that Kannada cinema has enlarged its constituency, and people from the former princely Mysore are still its patrons although they have forgotten what “Mysore” once meant. The protagonists of new Kannada cinema are, therefore, migrants to Bangalore from this space but they are homeless in the city and often become lowly gangsters killing one another and being liquidated periodically by the police. Entrenched Bangaloreans are usually seen as despicable, selfish and arrogant. Two blockbusters in this mould are Jogi (2005) and Duniya (2007). Not only do the films identify with the Kannada migrant but they also regard his/her integration with the city as impossible. The migrants’ romances with Bangalore women are usually unfruitful. The protagonists of Durgi (2004) take up residence in Bangalore in a colony named after a woman from a town (‘Mandya Mangamma’) in old Mysore to become part of the small community there.
If Kannada cinema seems to be dealing with a weakening “community”, there is evidence that the non-Mysore parts of Karnataka are yet to be addressed by it. Mungaru Maley (2006), the biggest hit in the past decade, is not a gangster film but a love story as “tragedy” in which a Kannada hero is not allowed to marry a girl from Coorg, who weds a young man speaking the anglicised Kannada of Bangalore. Coorg, not being part of old Mysore, is still outside the “community”. This may be like DJ in Rang De Basanti (2006) not marrying the British girl (whom he loves and who loves him) because she is not Indian—and Rang De Basanti is a patriotic film.
What has been said pertains only to popular cinema. Kannada art cinema, which has only a small local audience, is pan Indian and akin to art films from the rest of India, be it Assam, Maharashtra or Kerala. Art films are, therefore, able to deal with the whole of Karnataka as “Kannada territory” and not restrict themselves to former Mysore.
M.K. Raghavendra is a film critic and scholar. He is the author of Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema, 50 Indian Film Classics and Bipolar Identity: Region, Nation and the Kannada Language Film.