Every year, Kannada cinema has that one big release that takes over the film discourse of the year, with the pre-release buzz and post-release conversations. This year, it looked like that slot would be reserved largely for Hemanth M Rao’s Sapta Sagaradache Ello, Side A and Side B, starring Rakshit Shetty, Rukmini Vasanth and Chaithra Achar. However, certain other interesting films triggered a great deal of conversation too, in areas ranging from freedom of speech and secularism to toxic relationships, mental health issues and good old family dramas.
Like 2022, this year too, the quality of Kannada cinema made it very difficult to narrow down the choices to just the Top 5. What, however, set apart 2023 was that most of the small, beautiful, thought-provoking critically-loved films also made a mark at the box office. This is life affirming for a cinema finding new voices and new stories to share, beyond the big banner tentpole films. When they make money and win acclaim, they encourage other creators to come out and tell stories that are rooted, and which depend on craft rather than combinations and calculations.
Year after year, if there’s one angst Kannada filmmakers continue to bear, it is the fact that very few OTT platforms are willing to back realistic cinema that asks uncomfortable questions.
Here’s a list, in no particular order, of important Kannada films that were released in 2023.
Director Mansore always pushes the envelope when it comes to nudging the audience to think. And, this searing saga on the right to freedom, expression, life and liberty is based on what happened to journalist Vittala Malekudiya and his father Lingappa Malekudiya from Dakshina Kannada. Their 2012 arrest and travails were detailed in journalist Naveen Soorinje’s book Kutluru Kathana.
The film is a difficult watch, about how the system can exhaust a person, in this case Manju (played wonderfully stoically by Shrunga). To its credit, it does not take the melodrama route and sticks to fighting out the issue in Court, using the Constitution. The monologue by Balaji Manohar is a lesson for the ages.
19.20.21 also tells you that there definitely is light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
This film is based on a short story written by humanist and littérateur Poornachandra Tejaswi in 1973, but could have well been written for our deeply divisive times. What might happen when a Muslim boy enters a Hindu-majority college in a place called Abachur where there is a history of inter-religious animosity? But it is also a place where no one knows anything about Muslims or how they live. Do they eat biryani all the time or do they also eat curd rice? What work do they do?
The film is directed by Shashank Soghal and backed by actor Dhananjaya, and has a fabulous cast led by Shishir Baikady (Musthafa) and Iyengari (Aditya Ashree).
Musthafa is deeply aware of the chasms and does his best to step up and be counted and considered one among them all. And, the rest of the boys are also aware of their mistakes. It is all so beautifully non-filmi.
And, when the end credits roll, you feel like a small flower in the garden of peace that Tejaswi speaks of. We all need a Musthafa.
After a long gap, this high-energy film by debut director Nithin Krishamurthy saw the audience almost guffawing through its duration.
The storyline of the film can probably be restricted to under a line, but what Nithin crafts with it is something else. The happenings in an engineering college hostel over the course of a night, the organic laughter, the suspense and the thrills, all come together to leave you with a film that’s a nostalgia trigger.
It stars Prajwal BP, Manjunatha Nayaka, Rakesh Rajkumar, Srivatsa and Tejas Jayanna Urs, besides Nithin. The film, which always has a sense of urgency, is also high on technique and the work of cinematographer Arvind Kashyap (777 Charlie and Kantara) came in for deserved praise.
This film by Sindhu Srinivasa Murthy is a nostalgia trip in many ways, but it is also a coming-of-age story of the giggly, entitled girl Suma who grows up to become a woman of substance. Ah, you also get to see yesteryear Bangalore, the one with wide tree-lined roads, great weather and homes with tidy gardens and gates.
Suma is one of seven girls and three boys. And, from dreaming of getting married to someone living abroad, Suma has to redesign her life to begin earning a living when her father dies. Helping her are two brothers Raghu (Harshil Koushik) and Jaggu (a delightful Anirudh Acharya).
More tragedy strikes, and finally it is the humble mango pickle to the rescue. While the film’s colour tone and texture take you back to the 60s, you do wonder about the emotional quotient of the film, which slips in places.
Two women hold together this movie — actor and director Sindhu and music composer Bindumalini. The Bangalore Suprabatham song and the pickle song are delectable.
This film was a breath of fresh air in a world where cinema has traditionally celebrated macho men and toxic traits.
Director Shashank begins with familiar tropes before breaking each one of them. And he does this without judging anyone or being too melodramatic. Darling Krishna is Ram who grows up seeing a docile mother (Sudha Belavadi) beaten by his dad, and tries to control his girlfriend Shivani (Brinda Acharya) who rebels and walks away. When he finds himself married to Muthulakshmi (Milana Nagraj), who is nothing like her name suggests, Ram learns the meaning of life and love. The same mother who he did not really care for becomes his guiding light after her passing.
The tone of the film is refreshing and Shashank deals with issues like parental control, toxic masculinity and alcoholism with sensitivity.
With this emotional magnum opus spread across two parts, Hemanth M Rao proves why he and Gundu Shetty make for one of the more empathetic writer duos. None of Hemanth’s three directorials has been similar to the other — Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu (2016) was a family drama in the thriller space and Kavaludaari (2019) was a thriller set in the backdrop of a busy roadway. SSE Side A is that aching love story that leaves you feeling warm and sad and you eventually bawl your heart out for the star-crossed lovers Manu and Priya. It helps that Rakshit’s eyes carry the grief of a broken love. The cast was pitch perfect as is the tech team. Charan Raj’s music elevated the movie manifold.
Side B is about revenge and retribution and there’s a new person in the mix. Surabhi (the bold yet tender Chaithra Achar) is a conscience keeper and someone who knows she’s fallen deeply in love with a man who has no space for anyone else in his life. And what does one even say about Rukmini Vasanth's portrayal of Priya? You almost understand why Manu pines for her thus.
After the raw, riveting Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana (2021) that Raj B Shetty wrote, acted in and directed, everyone wondered what he would create next. This deeply philosophical film about life, illness, death and loss is what he came up with next. Starring him as Aniket and the dignified Siri Ravikumar as Prerana, the 100-minute film leaves you gutted, but also speaks of acceptance.
The focus shifts between Aniket, who knows he has an expiry date, and Prerana, who is in a marriage that has seen better days. Ironically, someone who is in pain in a palliative care centre gives the counsellor there the strength to face life.
The writing is vintage Raj — there’s a certain simplicity and accessibility, even if the underlying thought is intense.
Vishal Atreya wrote and directed this thriller that was also a comeback of sorts for the lovely Meghana Raj Sarja.
The writing allows you to soak in the world that Vishal has created. You understand the space Arika has created for herself, and you simultaneously decode the film using the details Vishal has given you.
Prajwal Devraj is the cop Arvind Ashwathamma, who loves cooking and eating besides solving cases. And so, at times, the film almost resembles a food show. Arvind is not your swashbuckling cop, and there’s a certain tenderness with which some issues — including sexual preference — are dealt with.
This film plays on in your mind long after the end credits roll, and it plays differently for each person.
This film by Umesh K Krupa and produced by Dhananjaya is probably the underdog of the year. It grew from strength to strength by dint of word of mouth and allowed the audience to experience a beautiful slice of rural life.
A family heads out to sacrifice a ram at their ancestral temple, as thanksgiving for the daughter’s wedding getting fixed. But the ram is not in the mood to say yes to the sacrifice, as it is expected to. And so the family waits by a clearing in the forest, hoping the ram will agree at some point.
The film speaks of food politics, urban migration, the plight of farmers and more, and comes up with a sensible acceptance of their lot. There’s also a love story in between all this, and it’s all very warm and pleasant.
The humour is spot-on, and the performances pitch perfect.
Raj B Shetty might have written and directed Swati Muttina Male Haniya well before this, but Toby, directed by Basil Alchalakkal released before that, showed how he could be a genre-shifter depending on the situation.
Toby is about bristling anger, intense love and all the things in between. The unspoken bond between Jenny (Chaithra Achar) and the mute Toby is deeply moving. She’s his daughter in some ways, but also his mother.
The film slips in some places, but focus enough and you take back enough joy from the writing. It allows you to be a participant in the proceedings. And despite the darkness and sadness, the flashes of macabre humour still leave you chuckling.