2023 truly seemed to be the year of Kannada cinema. Some well-crafted films such as Daredevil Musthafa, Sapta Sagaradaache Ello (Side A and Side B), Aachar & Co, Hostel Hudugaru Bekkagiddare and Swathi Muthina Male Haniye, made waves at the box office. They got the non-Kannada audience to throng theatres as well. There has definitely been a seismic shift in the last five years in the Kannada film industry in terms of the kind of films being made. While the 2018 pan-Indian hit, KGF: Chapter 1, was made on a huge ₹80 crore budget, these films have been made on much smaller ones, and still gone on to become superhits and win accolades from the audience and critics alike. Also read: 5 Yash films to watch besides KGF
‘Kannada film industry doing better now’
Director BS Pradeep Varma, 42, won awards for his 2017 debut Kannada film Urvi and went on to make Brahmi (short film) and The Fallen. His cinema doesn’t fall into the mass commercial genre and yet, has received tremendous appreciation from the audience.
Ask him about this change and he says, “The Kannada film industry is doing better than what it was a few decades ago. It’s the conviction that’s making filmmakers deliver better content and projects. I’d like to credit the audience for this because of the exposure they have got thanks to the Internet and the kind of films they are watching from across the globe. They don’t want to settle for anything anymore but something that’s good or extraordinary. There’s nothing in between – average films wont work anymore. Kannada film directors have now understood this and are working hard towards this. However, there are also risks – in the goal of doing something different, they shouldn’t destroy Kannada cinema. We need to keep the flag flying high.”
Kannada directors make ‘culturally-rooted stories’
Some Kannada directors credit 41-year-old Pawan Kumar as a trendsetter in the industry in steering the industry towards new age content. In 2013, Pawan Kumar decided to crowdfund his film Lucia as producers didn’t feel the original script would work and asked for changes. This psychological thriller made on a small budget of around ₹50 lakh went on to gross ₹3 crore. Pawan Kumar became an example of how a filmmaker could create the kind of content he wanted while also ensuring box office success.
Director Abhilash Shetty, whose 2021 debut film Koli Taal was lauded at numerous film festivals, is currently working on his second film. The 30-year-old says, “These kinds of Kannada movies have been in the works for a while now. Case in point – Lucia, Ulidavaru Kandanthe, Thithi, Rangitaranaga, Ondu Motteya Kathe. The success of these films is the main motivation for other filmmakers. So, many young Kannada filmmakers are coming out with culturally-rooted stories that will appeal to the people of today. Post Covid-19 (pandemic), the Kannada industry came into the spotlight. Maybe this is one of the other reasons more filmmakers here are trying their hand out in experimental cinema.”
In 2022, 777 Charlie, starring Kannada actor Rakshit Shetty, didn’t have much of a buzz but upon release; the Kannada tale about a man and his dog became a blockbuster. It grossed more than ₹100 crore at the Indian box office and Rakshit Shetty became a known name outside Karnataka.
Cut to 2023, Rakshit Shetty’s Sapta Sagaradaache Ello, which was released in two parts – Side A and Side B – became one of the most talked-about films. Directed by 40-year-old talented screenwriter Hemanth M Rao, this story about love, revenge and retribution has become a cult classic like his previous films. The success of Rao’s previous two directorials, Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu (2016) and Kavaludaari (2019), had made him one of the most notable Kannada directors today.
KGF and Kantara’s global sucess
Now, what does the success of such films mean for the Kannada film industry? “It means a lot. Karnataka is a big hub for other language films as everyone is aware. I don’t think any other state has films from five or six film industries (Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Hindi, Marathi) that have a major release along with their home state. Karnataka is like a secondary market for them. For our own films to do well in the state and find acceptance in other parts of the country bodes well for us. We are getting a presence in other markets and access to their audience. Cinema is a very expensive medium – this expansion in the market allows us to make movies at a higher budget. You can also push the envelope in terms of storytelling,” explains Hemanth Rao, who has also co-produced Humble Politician Nograj.
Other directors credit the focus on the Kannada film industry now to the global success of Hombale Films’ KGF and Kantara. “There were a lot of critically acclaimed films earlier like Ulidavaru Kandanthe, Ragitiranga, or my film Godhi Banna… but they didn’t break out to the general audience. KGF and Kantara broke this door down with a bang – this allowed the non-Kannada speaking audience to see what else was being made in this industry. The pandemic also got people on OTT and the audience could watch content from other languages that were either dubbed or subtitled. The ease of access to the Internet has added more momentum. However, from an insider’s perspective Kannada filmmakers have been making interesting content for a while now. But yes, this content has increased because of the attention we are getting today,” signs off Rao.
With more younger filmmakers venturing into the Kannada film industry, storytelling is not restricted to certain genres not confined to niche audiences. It was in 1934, that the first Kannada talkie, Sati Sulochana, hit theatres. Just as the Kannada film industry turns a century old, it is seeing much-deserved love and appreciation for its cinema, especially its filmmakers and their cultural rootedness.