Friday, August 30, 2013

On Gandhinagar's Place in Kannada cinema: In Open Magazine this Week

Someone I met recently told me this about a byline in a magazine, that it is like tasting blood, that after the first one, you just keep seeking the next and the next. That is true of bylines anywhere actually. That is what makes journalism so dangerously addictive. 

Open is a magazine I have been following and admiring from the time they sold their first issue. The first of the stories I will be writing for them came out today here. I write on the subject of Kannada cinema. It is too vast a topic to cover in 1700 odd words and my article was on just one aspect of the industry, not a comment on Sandalwood in its entirety. 

Read the unedited, very slightly longer version below.

I need not have asked the tender coconut seller standing under the skywalk with his wares tied to the end of a rusty bicycle how to get to Triveni theatre in Bangalore’s Gandhinagar area. The overpowering smell of a long string of crackers that drowned the hoots and shrill whistles of devout fans would have led me right to its front steps. The buntings that flapped furiously above me had the face of the star on each; I hadn’t paid close enough attention earlier. That road, in fact that whole neighbourhood, is one that I only always hurry past. It is not a ‘nice’ area for girls to wander alone after dark, for the streets are crowded and in the jostle and shoving of people getting back home or coming out for a late night, there are many who will ‘accidently’ brush against you ever so often. Most of the lodges have a reputation. Most of the bars with two initials as names seem sleazy; some though supposedly serve excellent rasam. There are fake branded clothes, tiny sample perfume bottles, imported lingerie and cheap electronics without bills for sale at tiny cubicles at old shopping arcades, the predecessors of glitzy malls. Tucked into some of the lanes are Jain temples, Hindu temples, commercial establishments and the odd house. The houses are the sorts that you know hold old world treasures and old Bangalore tales within its walls. In most other neighbourhoods, the houses, its residents might slip into anachronistic mantle pieces, but in Gandhinagar, they fit right in with the rest of the décor.

A stone’s throw away in all directions from these is also where fortunes are made or paupers are born every Friday. Filmdom is fickle that way and Gandhinagar is where they all come to count their new money or rue their fates. For here is the heart of the Kannada film industry, Sandalwood, as they call it. Here is the highest concentration of single screen movie theatres in Bangalore. Here they all have names like Menaka, Santosh, Bhumika, Sagar, Kailash, Sapna, Tribhuvan, Triveni… Not all of them always show only Kannada films anymore, Shah Rukh Khan’s Chennai Express was opening in one. But Gandhinagar, its audiences, these box offices are what matters for a new film. The multiplexes are fancy places for the film to be in but these greasy halls of history are where a film’s, its star’s and its directors’ fates are scripted. That is how it always has been in Sandalwood.

It is Friday and a big banner film is opening this morning at the Triveni theatre. I am there early enough for the roads to be empty, relatively. But then it is also the Eid holiday. Not that it matters for some ardent fans. When their idol’s latest makes an opening, they will take a day off work, park at home their autorickshaws or feign a sudden illness to make it to the first day first show, a phrase as important for the film crew to gauge first reactions as it is for the fan to prove his devotion yet again. For doing that, they will buy a ticket in black. They will pour milk over humungous cut-outs that are draped in thick garlands. They will break several dozen coconuts which will then be swept aside and collected by street urchins. They will dance a few crude steps before the floral décor that announces the star and the film’s name at the entrance in bright yellow marigolds. They will do all that that makes them a classic study in the stereotype that we know frenzied, temple-building South Indian movie fans to be. Not quite ready to commit suicide for their heroes like in other states, but steeped nevertheless in the machinery that allows them a small happy haven that is very distant from their mundane lives.

That Friday, when Tony, a film that stars 23-film old ‘diamond star’ Srinagara Kitty opens, there is all that. All the heroes are assigned monikers; there is a crazy star, there is a rebel star, such like. The promotional posters mostly show Kitty holding a tiger at the end of a leash. The film is a philosophical thriller with three narratives that culminate at a common point; later, reviewers will call it among the better films to be released in recent times. Once the fire crackers are spent and the doors open and a feisty old woman asks me if I want a ticket in black for the next show and the two duty constables there look the other way at this and I walk inside telling he who is ripping the flimsy tickets in half that I am from the media, I see the hero sitting on a faded sofa just outside the main hall. There are hoots that break through the soundproof walls and slightly open door, but Srinagara Kitty hasn’t lost his look of nervousness. Shorn of all makeup, descended from the posters, he looks…common… as I suppose all stars do. He mumbles to me that of course he gets mighty nervous before a film of his releases, then spouts mandatory lines about the love and respect he has for his fans. The show is housefull and the director’s phone doesn’t stop ringing all the while that I am there.

The fans have pushed and shoved each other to go in. They are too busy to tell me too much about themselves, for there is their hero amongst them to adore, crackers, coconuts and activities to do and a news channel’s cameraman’s attention to catch. Shankar, first name only, is an auto driver who isn’t working for half a day that day to watch the first day, first show of Tony. I ask him why and he answers in superlatives, “I am a huge fan of Kitty, he is a great actor, the trailer was fantastic so I came.” His friend Kumar says, “I wanted to watch the first show. I will come back with my family and watch it again.” Not many others stop to talk to me, but there are auto drivers in their khakhi shirts, workers with dirt under their fingernails, some students bunking class from the college nearby, mostly people of a certain working class who buy three hours’ worth of dreams here. The tickets are under Rs 100, even for the best balcony rows. The distributors of the film pay for the coconuts and the crackers, some stars route money to their fan clubs too, I learn later, to organize the hoo-ha. Like with votes, it isn’t too hard to buy fans either.

The management at Triveni isn’t sure about getting me a seat in the hall but tell me to go in and stay as long as I want. I go in. I watch Tony for a bit. I watch the audience chuckling, hooting, glued to the screen, some to their mobile phones. It will be just the film that the audience wants, I see, with a simple enough plot, flimsy songs, drama, tears, laughs and a happy ending. What the audience wants, the audience gets.

Film historians call the 1970s and the 80s the golden age of Kannada films. That was the time Puttanna Kanagal – think Satyajit Ray in this language – was taking popular novels and turning them into women centric films that explored taboo subjects like post natal depression, cougar and Oedipal relationships and defiant girls. That was the time the late thespian Dr Rajkumar – think Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajnikanth even – was at his peak, channelizing a background in theatre to films that were known for their music, his righteousness and slightly over the top dramatics. Natural, subtle acting wasn’t for them. He, and Vishnuvardhan, ruled Sandalwood for decades.

Perhaps it was after the 1980s that films began metamorphosing into the commercial stereotypes of today. With Ravichandran, who discovered the likes of Juhi Chawla, came the lover boy films. There was then a period of extremely violent films, then some tame rom-coms. Now I suppose it is a wider mix of themes, some unusual, some experimental.

A good actor friend of mine who had a major hit in the last few months nods his head when I complain about Kannada films being the way they are. He tells me not to write his name here. I am, he says, part of what he calls the class audience, educated, exposed to films in other languages, from other countries even, who might find the films of today crass and sub-standard. He agrees that there are less than a handful of films that the class audience might even consider watching. Reason why even mediocre films like the older Mungaru Male and the newer Mynaa become such hits with all levels of audiences, I tell myself.

My actor friend says that we, the class audience, are not a section anyone is interested in. Films will never be made for us, for we are apparently too fickle, too unpredictable. He tells me that the moneybags that produce and distribute these films have usually risen from the ranks of the working class, watching these sorts of films. For them it is the glamour of making, of being part of a film that their friends will enjoy. For them, it is never about the aesthetics, the legacy or the history of cinema. Also, making ‘good’ films is just not worth it, monetarily. It always boils down to that. The audiences that bring back the money to the filmmakers are ones that demand a good fight, an item song, straight plots, a simple, commercial film in a nutshell, he tells me sagely. How will the audience like different films unless they are made, I try to argue. We are talking of a commercial industry and if these commercial films are what work, why fix something that isn’t broken, my actor friend points out.

Will the Kannada film industry get better, I wonder. But then, what defines ‘better’, I wonder next. Commercial cinema nowhere prophesizes a study in cinema aesthetics now, does it? The audiences at Gandhinagar don’t look for it. They seek only to take pictures of the visiting star with their cheap mobile phones to show friends later. They seek only to create a festival on opening day. They seek only some validation for their routine lives from some public acts, like their fan frenzy. If the news camera captures two seconds of them doing that, they are happy. If the film they are here for is entertaining, their day is made. Gandhinagar is their Wonderland. Shankar, the auto driver fan, sums it up, “I come to forget my troubles. I know I can never have that life, but for those two-odd hours in the film hall, I get to have beautiful things and a happy ending.” A film has served its purpose.

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