Small films, big heart: Best of Kannada cinema 2019

After a dazzling 2018, in which Kannada cinema shone, bringing to the fore new talent, interesting voices and scripts that pushed the envelope in more ways than one, 2019 was a pretty tepid affair. The one major connecting link between the two years would be the release of two biggies, KGF in 2018 and Avane Srimannarayana in 2019, that could possibly change the way the country perceives Kannada cinema.

KGF went past the goal post and everyone’s waiting for its sequel, while Avane, which released on December 27 (the versions in other languages are releasing soon), is still fresh in the theatres, and it’s too early to predict the level of its reach, across languages.

2019 was also the year Kannada scored high at the National Awards. The industry took home a total of 13 awards, including five for Mansore’s film Nathicharami. However, a Bengaluru court stayed the awards for the film days before the awards ceremony in Delhi, on grounds that one of the jury members was part of the film.

This year, the same five names feature in the list of top five films in the language collated by various people tracking the industry. So, we thought we’d go a little further and speak to the filmmakers concerned and bring you nuggets of why they approached the film the way they did.

Kavaludaari

Director: Hemanth Rao

A retired police inspector with all the wisdom in the world to share. A young, dashing cop who is eager to solve crime, but ends up handling traffic. What if fate throws the two of them together? Slivers of philosophy and a commentary on being human, in the midst of a thriller that’s building up.

National Award-winning screenplay writer (he was part of Andhadhun) and director Hemanth Rao says that the philosophical note wasn't really part of the plan when he started working on the film. “It was just the story of an old case being solved. This angle organically emerged during the writing process, and once that happened, I was even more convinced about making this film,” he adds. “I've watched a lot of thrillers, and the ones that made a lasting impact are the ones where the bad guys get their just desserts, I suppose there is an inherent therapeutic/philosophical element to thrillers in that sense,” he elaborates.

It helped that the leads were played by Anant Nag and Rishi, both Hemanth’s first choices. Hemanth says the camera and music massively contributed to the tone of the film, and “helped realise the treatment I had in mind”.

Gantumoote

Director: Roopa Rao

Roopa Rao’s coming-of-age tale can leave you smiling and holding back salty tears. Forget the nostalgia rush, memories of calf love and the unbridled joy in young hearts blooming in love. Instead, focus on the director and the cast that made you believe in 2019 that some feelings transcend time and space. The intervening decades vanished as an utterly delightful Teju Belawadi made you fall in love with her Meera. Like the reviews said, it’s not often that a girl gets to play protagonist, warts and all, with a certain dignity.

Roopa says it was very organic to arrive at this treatment for the film. “Primarily because, as I explore my storytelling craft, it is becoming clearer that I can say it the way I see it. So, it had to be in a girl's perspective. And yes, I have wondered why are there lesser stories in this gaze. Yes, market dynamics may not yet favour such an attempt, but we have to risk it. If not now, then when?"

Mookajjiya Kanasugalu

Director: P Sheshadri

A wizened old grandmother just has to touch objects to narrate the stories they hold within them. Her companion is her grandson who listens keenly as the grandmother also infuses a commentary on society and its practices when she tells these stories. There’s an element of the supernatural too, and the film flits between these various worlds. It helps that the inimitable B Jayashree plays the grandmother; each wrinkle on her face conveys a hundred emotions! The film is based on a novel by the same name written by K Shivaram Karanth in 1968. It won the Jnanpith in 1977.

Sheshadri was in school in Dandinashivara near Tumkur when news of the novel winning the Jnanpith was read out in the school assembly. Their Kannada master told them to read the “great writer Karanth”. By chance, Sheshadri’s elder brother had a copy and he read it. But when he read it years later, he found so many answers in the novel to questions such as ‘Is there a God?’, ‘What is Indian culture’, ‘What are the vedas’, ‘What is the shape of God?”, and the like.

The most challenging part about filming the novel, says Sheshadri, was “showing a dream”.

"In reality, it can be black-and-white or in colour, it can be clear or hazy...one can write about a dream, but how does one visualise it? I needed to take the help of colour and framing to lend that effect,” says the filmmaker, whose creation was chosen as ‘The Film For National Archives’ in the National Awards for 2018.

Katha Sangama

Seven directors, visualised by Rishab Shetty 

You’ve already read about how Katha Sangama shaped up here , but here’s why this film deserves a slot in the top 5 for 2019. Kiranraj K, Chandrajith Belliappa, Shashi Kumar P, Rahul PK, Jamadagni Manoj, Karan Ananth, and Jayashankar A teamed up for this delightful anthology that encompasses various genres.

From a father’s love for his daughter and a conflict between strangers to a commentary on how we perceive people and how a middle-aged lady lost in her city finds her family, the film mostly strikes all the right chords. The performances are top-class, and the format allows for stories that would have never made it to the big screen otherwise, to be told.

Katha Sangama, at its core, celebrates the small, beautiful moments of life. In an interview to TNM post the release of the anthology, actor-director-producer Rishab said he was clear he would restrict his role to that of a mentor: “I never had any mentors, did not know right from wrong, and learnt on the job. I wish these young filmmakers don’t suffer those 12 years that I did before I found my voice.”

Some of the seven directors are already on to their next features, and the rest are waiting in the wings for their feature break. For the regular Kannada movie-goer, Katha Sangama showcased yet another possibility and facet of cinema.

Bell Bottom

Director: Jayatheertha

When the song 'Yethake' released on YouTube, you knew Bell Bottom was going to be something special. Directed by Jayatheertha (of Beautiful Manasugalu fame), the film stars Rishab Shetty and Hariprriya in the lead. Set in the 1980s, the film is about a constable who yearns to be a detective. And, the song was an indication of how the team would go about making the film. And the love story was beautiful: two people on either side of the law — he’s a detective, she’s a bootlegger — fall for each other, to the accompaniment of a great script and lovely music.

Says Jayatheertha: “There are two kinds of cinema — you can make what people like, and what people need. I tried to fuse both, and I believe in sugarcoating what people need with what they like. The idea of a retro thriller with elements of humour was appealing, and it worked. My message was that those who need help (in this film, the visually impaired) will get justice, but I needed the retro ambience and the other embellishments to take that across to the audience. I also wanted some element of Karnataka folk, and that’s why the song 'Aadhi Jyothi Banyo'. And yes, while we made the film, Rishab helped us reach the audience. He’s a master when it comes to helping a film reach its target audience.” 

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