Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Awaiting the Long break /"Did you watch a ‘Kannada’ movie??!!" – Views on contemporary Kannada cinema and ideas for resurgence.

During many day-to-day conversations with various people, if I said ‘I watched this kannada movie last weekend…’, I happen to sense a feeling of amazement and even disgust in the other person. There have been occasions where I have even directly had my sanity questioned. Sadly, this appears to be the image Kannada cinema has created for itself over the years. Movies being one of the most popular and accessible forms of art and entertainment, its audience is understandably large.
The way I see it, this audience, more specifically Indian audience, can be roughly categorized into 3 types: A) I want to be entertained (read time-pass); creativity, technicality or content-quality do not necessarily qualify as parameters. B) I want to be entertained but expect a good story and decent performances; no garish violent/sexual content. C) I need food for thought and want to see something high on creativity and technically sound. This cannot be seen as a rigid structure or framework though. A mix-and-match of these (plus the one’s that swear by the unique types alone) is what more or less, makes up an audience on the whole. What needs to be understood and acknowledged is that type A does not mind something technically good as long as the entertainment quotient is still high; type B could accept a complex subject which has some spirited performances and good songs; an ordinary story handled deftly with a fresh narrative could still be ok for type C. Often what happens is that these get wrongly interpreted as type A: masala/sleaze, type B: family/feel-good and type C:art/award-winners. The effect of this is that the scope for attempting good movies gets badly hampered. This brings us back to where we started - the current state of cinema of Karnataka which seems to be hemorrhaging from such misinterpretations and false notions. For a decade or so now, the average quality of the produce of this industry has been so dismal that it has almost permanently tainted its reputation. ‘What reputation?’ some might ask. For such less informed, it is necessary to explain the glory of the state’s cinema that has produced some of the country’s best movies and is home to several exceptional talents in the field. Sample this for a list of
movies: Tabarana Kathe, Vamsa Vruksha, Hamsageethe, Ondhaondhu kaaladhalli, Dweepa, Ghata shraddha, Adi Shankara, Nagara Havu, Bangarada Manushya, Gejje Pooje, Accident, Belli moda….and this for
technicians/artists: GV Iyer, Puttanna Kangal, Girish Kasarvalli, Girish Karnad, GK Venkatesh, Vijayabhaskar, Shankar Nag, Anant Nag, Rajkumar, Prakash Raj, Atul Kulkarni … a quick lookup would clarify the standards we are referring to here.

In today’s internet age, the culture of movie forums - websites, blogs, film clubs, local film fests, etc - plays a significant role in breeding a healthy film culture. Discussions on movie making, reviews, analyses and the likes can be stumbled upon quite easily on the web, about classics as well as contemporary cinema, prompting enthusiastic participation from critics, movie-goers, film-makers and technicians alike. Discussions on current Hindi cinema are seen covering works of promising film makers like Vishal Bharadway, Anurag Kashyap and Sriram Raghavan with movies like Johnny Gaddar, Black Friday, Dev D, Omkara, No Smoking, Aamir, etc being some of top favourites. Down south (my acquaintance so far with contemporary Malayalam and Telugu cinema is inadequate for me to make any observations in them) though not as fervent as its Hindi counterpart, Thamizh cinema seems to have its share of passionate movie buffs with young directors like Ameer, Mysskin, Raam, Sasikumar and Balaji Shaktivel keeping them excited with movies like Paruthiveeran, Katradhu Thamizh, Anjadhey, Subramanyapuram and Kadhal. These are movies that have not relied on star power or hefty budgets. Their success (not necessarily box office
collection) can be accredited to aspects like newer subjects, unorthodox non-formulaic narration, unique screenplay, thoughtful camera work, interesting editing techniques and inspired performances.
These are not art-house cinema per se (Andrie Tarkovsky, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Adoor Gopalakrishnan,et al) but are mainstream commercial films that have strived to venture beyond run-of-the-mill ideas and methods, blending experimentation with ingredients for entertainment. An item number or a dose of melodrama or a bloody fight sequence could very well feature in them. But they seem 'pardonable'
when compared to several other aspects of the movie that do more than manage to compensate. What pains me is the near absence of Kannada cinema at forums like these (Girish Kasarvalli seems to be the only exception). It is not mandatory that Kannada cinema be present here.
These forums might not bring about any radical changes. Popular mass-driven cinema will thrive by and in itself. What these forums do is encourage alternate cinemas. While the intent or the quality of content in different forums may vary, this culture definitely seems to be helping: in building an audience base beyond language barriers, in understanding thier likes and dislikes, in preparing/setting them up for experimental themes, in communicating a maker's point-of-view of a creation to the viewer ...and in general helping a creator connect better with the audience. Unfortunately for current Kannada cinema, it seems to be an empty house on either side of the screen.

Resurrection of good, meaningful Kannada cinema is the need of the hour for Karnataka's movie industry. These are some ideas, that I think could help in this.
Utilizing literature - the literary culture of Karnataka is very rich and boasts of an array of renowned writers like Kuvempu, SL Bhyrappa, Maasti Venkatesh Iyengar, Shivaram Karanth, DVG, Poornachandra Tejasvi and UR Anantmurthy, among who are many Sahithya Academy and Jnanapith awardees. Despite such wealth in literature, the state's cinema seems to have rarely leveraged from it. Book-to-movie adaptations have never been high in numbers and the last decade has seen this decline further sharply. Again Kasarvalli stands out as alomst the lone exception in this regard, with most of his movies being based on literary works.
There have been a few others like Avva but these have lacked sincerity and conviction in reproducing their source text. Projects need to be undertaken with the view of an honest adaptation of a literary piece.
By honesty, what I mean here is that compromises (for saleability), modifications or alterations in adaptation, should not be at the cost of losing a book’s soul/character. Otherwise it would eventually become a lost cause. I vouch for increased number of adaptations and feel it would make a healthy trend because not only does it ensure for the film a strong backbone in its story, but it could also open new avenues for artists to perform in well written characters. The state government and organizations like Kannada sanghas, could invite film-makers to make adaptations of culturally significant literary works. Benefits like funding and tax concessions could help boost such initiatives.

Burying the clich├ęd - the current cinema scene screams of a drought of fresh ideas and new techniques. The odds of coming across an original, less-crass movie like Aa Dinagalu or Cyanide are too few. The rest can be safely categorized as remakes, either of successful movies from other languages or rehash of formulaic concepts. Remaking, which firstly is not the healthiest of ideas, when attempted, should look at replicating not only the concept but also the sincerity and effort of the original, thereby doing atleast some justice to it. In the current Kannada cinema, one does not see a Drohkaal becoming a Kuruthipunal, or even something like a Don taking the form of a (mildly watchable) Billa. But on the contrary, what one gets to see are movies that are mere carricatures of their original. Karnataka, especially Bangalore, sports a multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan culture. Good cinema made in other languages, Indian or international, has been accepted and endorsed by its people. Given its highly receptive culture, decently strong economy and sufficient spending power of a large portion of its population, it becomes difficult to understand the doubt of whether newer concepts in Kannada cinema will be welcomed. Sometimes it makes me think if it is actually the fire in the belly that’s missing and not just the apprehension. Even guys like Ramesh (Cyanide) and Suri (Inthi ninna preethiya) who have shown signs of being technically strong, have, by pressure or choice, gone on to dwell in the now comfort zone of Kannada cinema of violence, sleaze and melodrama. Its high time that filmmakers trust the audience and help instill in them the belief that their sensibilities will be respected and the belief that they will be provided with entertainment of high quality.
Established production houses, artists and technicians need to shoulder the responsibility of encouraging new talent and supporting fresh ideas and perspectives. Mentoring under veterans like Girish Kasarvalli and Nagabharana could help in nurturing young minds.
Subjects like folk arts, classical arts, war, history, biography, psychedelia, sports, science fiction and many such seldom or never ventured topics provide ample scope for exploration. Bold attempts, made with conviction, sincerity and determination could pave way to a much awaited rise of a new wave in Kannada cinema.

Importing talent – Kannada cinema, in the past, has had the involvement of many artists and technicians from other states. There have been many quality movies by filmmakers like Singeetham Sreenivas Rao, K Balachander, Maniratnam and Balumahendra and several memorable performances by actors like Kamalhassan, Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval and Smitha Patil. To tackle the current slack, it could be an idea to rope in people from outside the state. Not that there is scarcity of local talent, but collaborating with external talent could possibly help enhance the curiosity and appeal within and beyond boundaries, if not for betterment of quality. This practice can be seen deployed in Kannada film music already. After a period of mediocrity, the past few years has seen a gradual rise in the quality of songs with a marked increase in the number of melodies. Talented musicians like like Bombay Jayashree, Sonu Nigam, Shreya Ghosal, Devi Sri Prasad, Kunal Ganjawala, Karthik and Harish Raghavendra, though at times may appear over-used, have definitely aided in unleashing fresh interest in Kannada film music. On similar lines, inviting filmmakers and artists, established or promising, to participate in Kannada cinema could see resulting in good films being made.

Theatre as platform: A look at the theatre scene in Karnataka and it can be easily understood that it stands in much better health in comparison with cinema. It houses and plays host to several top-notch national and international groups of both, traditional and contemporary styles. Artists from theatre background are renowned for making quality actors in cinema and Kannada cinema has already seen this in the form of Shankar Nag, Arundati, Umashree and more recently Rangayana Raghu. Continuation, and hopefully an increase, in this trend could only prove favorable to cinema. Apart from the inflow of artists and technicians, Kannada cinema could benefit from more number of plays transcending and taking form on the silver screen. There have been many highly innovative and radical ideas that have seen light in the form of plays and adapting these into movies, though may pose highly challenging, might prove worthy of attempting.

Role of government: There could be initiatives taken by the state government in the direction of revival of its cinema. Negative approaches like supression of other language cinemas is uncalled for, with the results and statistics so far, clearly suggesting that it has not helped in improvement of Kannada cinema. Instead, it is constructive idelogies and thoughtful measures that are required. Film schools have proved instrumental in moulding several of the industry’s technicians and actors. A premier film institute set up within the state could help in establishing a strong platform for the film industry to build upon. More thought could go into setting up commissions to create schemes to encourage aspiring technicians and actors. An idea is sponsoring education for meritorious candidates (selected based on a standard selection process) in premier Government aided film schools like FTII, Pune and SRFTI, Kolkatta. In a trade-off, on completion of a course, the candidates will compulsorily have to take up a set of projects proposed by the Government, like documentaries, ad-films and feature films that would aim at creating cultural and social awareness. With all the evident issues of bureaucracy and inefficiency, such schemes, for sure are easier said than done. But hope is not to be lost as such initiatives need to planned and executed.

Last and most importantly...spare the macchu for a while. The ‘long’
unquestionably deserves a long break!

Subramanyapuram - A fan review

As i settled down to watch subramanyapuram for the 1st time, the first shot inside the prison immediately drew my attention.I felt the prisoner POV shot was an interesting choice and it made an attractive start.
As the movie unfolded, with the stabbing scene’s culmination and the introduction of Subramanyapuram, man, was I simply stunned.The scene started off with the camera panning downwards from the sky slowly revealing a street in the town with its usual activities, people going about with their daily lives.Then a man walks in and the camera starts following him… first from one side. Ah.. good stuff i felt.Then it shifts to the other side, still following him walking. Just got better!And there it was… no cuts for about a minute… a long take in namma cinema!Whoaaa!!! A tracking shot for an establishing shot… What a fresh approach to introduce to the audience the story’s backdrop.
And then a few more small continuous shots followed… the camera appeared to glide silkily without any abrupt cuts and created a positive impression about the editing.
The main characters sitting inside the cell, their introduction – straight-forward, completely natural without any ‘build-up’ – was a pleasant welcome.
The following set of scenes – beginning from Kanagu kick starting his lambretta to the public bathroom scene – was pure exhilarating stuff.
The regular ‘family -introduction’ is turned into a set of witty, superbly knit scenes with the editing following a chain-like or relay-like pattern, take-off a scene taking cue from the culmination of its previous. The editor seemed to have deliberately (and intelligently) used this only for a short while thereby enhancing its impact and avoiding any monotony.
Just 10mins into the movie and I already felt completely blown away by the technicality of the film.
Kasi’s betrayal and then Parama getting killed (ending with Kasi sitting down on a stone and lighting a beedi… guys take a bow).This scene according to me can feature among the best shot scenes in Indian cinema. Think it shares space with some of the best tracking shots in cinema…like some listed here:http://www.dailyfilmdose.com/2007/05/long-take.html orhttp://www.bspcn.com/2007/05/10/the-long-take-the-greatest-long-tracking-shots-in-cinema/
To me, the movie rises high inspite of it’s flaws (it fair share of ultra-violence and some amounts of melo-drama). The better portions in the movie are just too good leaving behind a great aftertaste to cherish.
To list a few of the stuffs that I admire in the movie:the long takes (kathir… more of this from you please… this is just what the doc ordered!)the relay edited sequence of scenes.tight-framing and good close-ups.the chasing sequence where azhagar and kasi are chased by the other group’s men.the charming ’siru ponmani’ sequences.the ending of the siru ponmani 1st sequence where Parama knocks of the glass of tea from dumka’s hand and the tea splashes across Kasi’s face who’s dozing. Kasi calmly wipes it off and resumes his sleep. I thought this was a superb representation of their state of joblessness, their lazy and we-care-a-damn attitude.
There are many such scenes that I felt were extremely well concieved and executed with the cinematography, screenplay and editing supporting one another so effectively.
I think I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched the movie, as a whole or in parts, but I still enjoy it immensly every single time (shamelessly ripped version).
Katradhu Tamizh, Anjadhey and Subramanyapuram, for me, stand out in tamizh cinema as technical landmarks.