Kannada Cinema Beyond Kantara and KGF
Kannada Cinema Beyond Kantara and KGF

Kannada Cinema Beyond Kantara and KGF: What’s Ailing the Industry?

A sense of unease continues to gradually seep into the Kannada viewer and it's hard to pinpoint where exactly the issue lies

"When I see Malayalam films like 2018 and Manjummel Boys, I wonder why can't we make our own Kannada films based on real-life stories. We have got so many of them," quips MNV Gowda, a data scientist and an avid Kannada film buff living in Germany. His honest reaction comes in response to the question of whether the modern-day Kannada viewer is slightly dismayed with the current state of things. "I don't like comparing Kannada with other industries,” he adds. “If Kannada films can manage to please their fans first, it's more than sufficient for now.”

That Kannada cinema is currently at the crossroads of change and metamorphosis has been a topic of water cooler conversations for a while now. Many like MNV Gowda believe that 2022 was a game-changing period for the industry, which boasted major hits like K.G.F: Chapter 2, Kantara and 777 Charlie. Each of these films, along with a few more, made a name for themselves on the national stage and are credited with putting Kannada cinema on the map. 2022 recorded a whopping 8.1 crores in footfalls and the year's two biggest blockbusters — KGF 2 and Kantara — grossed approximately Rs. 1250 crores and Rs. 410 crores each. These were and still remain unprecedented and almost unattainable feats, but the stage seemed set for the Kannada Film Industry to capitalize and really announce itself. Producers, distributors and marquee stars from other industries were suddenly interested in collaborations and crossovers became a norm overnight.

A still from KGF 2
A still from KGF 2

In 2023, though, the Kannada Film Industry trod a different path and welcomed a wide array of debutant talents who brought their intimate and idiosyncratic stories like Orchestra, Mysuru!, Daredevil Musthafa, Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddare, Aachar & Co. and Tagaru Palya to the fore. In the same vein beckoned the trusted voices of Hemanth M. Rao and Rakshit Shetty with their two-part pining love story Sapta Sagaradaache Ello, whereas a superstar like Darshan stood his ground and countered the pan-India fad with the mass hit Kaatera.

Other important endeavours like 19.20.21, Kousalya Supraja Rama, Ghost and Swathi Mutthina Male Haniye proved that conviction in storytelling is paramount, regardless of the subject a filmmaker picks. The footfalls reportedly dipped to 3.2 crores in 2023 and the box office yield was only a shadow of 2022, but things have remained encouraging nevertheless.

Looking inward

And yet, a sense of unease continues to gradually seep into the Kannada viewer and it's hard to pinpoint where exactly the dilemma lies. A bird's eye view presents multiple shortcomings that range from the need for original storytelling, better (and well-paid) writers, better publicity methods, slashed ticket prices etc. to a substantial increase in the frequency of star-driven films. Theatrical visits for a Kannada film are increasingly becoming sporadic and not more than a handful of titles in a particular calendar year are able to make impressions on audiences, that too with their own set of challenges; 2024 already stands as a strong case in point with two quality films in Blink and Shakhahaari which, despite attracting positive reviews from critics, have had to strive really hard to sell tickets. 

To double down, audiences are disconcerted that the industry isn't as consistent as its counterparts and while the big-ticket releases are seen to be elusive at the box office, the smaller ‘niche’ entertainers remain scattered. The latter kind also fails to realise its full potential due to OTT deals that either don't materialise in the first place or are too impracticable to make profits.

“This is the transition phase,” says filmmaker and producer Roopa Rao. The Gantumoote director asserts that the Kannada Film Industry has to cope with multiple factors at the box office which includes a market that’s smaller in size and ambition compared to other industries. “We need to keep delivering now and we need producers who are willing to risk taking a hit. I know that’s not how commerce works but the order of the day is to keep churning out good stories and not stopping. Audiences will come back.”

A still from Gantumoote
A still from Gantumoote

The fact that audiences are expected to ‘come back’ suggests something very interesting. Well-known film critic and journalist Vivek MV notes that the laurels of the KGFs and the Kantaras are already beginning to seem like a distant memory, meaning that the industry is yet to crack that formula for longevity. “The industry seems keen only on giving a big experience with every movie,” Vivek MV says. “And when some of those big films fail to work, the impact ends up being huge.”

At this point, however, the growing thought of assurance among Kannada film patrons is that the future of the Industry lies not in the blockbusters but the small and mid-budget films, the ones that Malayalam (and Telugu, to an extent) cinema prides itself on. On that front, Kannada cinema isn’t lacklustre by any means and as pointed out already, the past 12-18 months have brought enterprising voices into view. So, what limits these endeavours from scoring at the box office though? Is it just the market size and the lack of sufficient footfalls (the Telugu Film Industry reportedly recorded over 24 crores in 2023)? Or does the problem lie in something more fundamental than that?

"The issue concerns lack of publicity," says producer and distributor Karthik Gowda. "If a film like Blink is reaching audiences after it has been removed from theatres, then there is definitely a problem with the way films are being promoted. We cannot blame audiences because as an industry, we are still using traditional methods of publicity — producers, today, must be ready to invest the right amount of money in promoting their films and that too through the right channels.”

Blink
Blink

Karthik Gowda admits that his own production house KRG Studios has misstepped a couple of times in spreading the word about their films but the bigger concern lies in the lack of exchange of ideas in the Kannada Film Industry. "It seems that everyone's alienated from one another and there's a sense of inhibition in sharing ideas. A lot of producers are misguided about how things work but we must come together and help one another," he says, adding that a strong union framework is required to address all the existing gaps.

Originality, the need of the hour

While peripheral issues like marketing take their own course to ingrain themselves in the ecosystem, what the Kannada film seeks out primarily today is an onus on a solid script. As basic as it sounds, audiences and critics alike have consistently highlighted the fact that good writing will solve a majority of the prevailing issues. Kannada cinema currently awaits a slew of big releases that are expected to bail the Industry out. But is it safe to rely solely on films that carry so much baggage, that carry the risk of destabilising the industry if they fail?

“No one is generating casual entertainers anymore,” points out Vivek MV. “You need films born out of smart writing that make theatrical viewing a fun experience. And that’s what films like Romancham, Premalu or Manjummel Boys are all about...entertainment and fun. Kannada’s own 777 Charlie is a great example of being ambitious but in the right way - we have seen films with animals but here, the makers took that extra step to extract a performance out of the dog.”

A still from Manjummel Boys
A still from Manjummel Boys

Specific genres too, he says, have been underutilised in Kannada cinema. Both Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddare and Daredevil Mustafa, which emerged as two of the best of 2023, could well be classified as ‘vibe movies’ which feature colleges as backdrops and refreshingly young cast ensembles. Strong doses of humour helped these films stand apart from the rest and if anything, their success does suggest that genres like comedy, romance, coming-of-age, etc. have a great scope of making cinema accessible once again. “The general idea is to keep giving the audience something new, original and out of the box, irrespective of the stardom factor”.

But specificities aside, the thumb rule for success as of 2024 shall be originality both in conception and execution, especially when it is about winning back the confidence/faith of the audience. And faith, indeed, is the operative word here. “There was a big backlash in the 1990s against remake films being made in Kannada,” says popular film writer S. Shyam Prasad. “The next 10-15 years produced hits out of these remakes and the industry was happy. What it didn’t recognise though is that the audience was losing faith because of no originality.” 

Roopa Rao concurs by saying that stories rooted in a specific place and time always have the commercial value that a filmmaker looks for. “A bona fide mass film of recent times I liked is Pushpa: The Rise. There’s some authenticity to it, the characters are really rooted,” she says, adding that the very definition of a rooted story doesn’t mean it demands a rural or non-urban setting. “Even a film set in Bengaluru could be rooted if it has an engaging narrative. Characters in cities too have personal struggles — a film like Ganeshana Maduve is a great example. It is set almost entirely between a small set of characters and within the confines of a middle-class ‘Vatara’ housing complex in Bengaluru. It’s been 30 years since I first watched it and I still can’t forget the film.”

Ganeshana Maduve
Ganeshana Maduve

The evolving idea of the hero

If good writing is the fulcrum of a film then a star willing to participate in that creative risk is another need of the hour, adds Roopa Rao. “Superstars are also great brands on their own to attach your story to and help it reach a wider audience.” Malayalam legend Mammootty choosing to star in and also produce Jeo Baby’s Kaathal The Core has become the new benchmark for male superstars across India. The 72-year-old actor’s recent filmography alone has urged many other actors to reinvent themselves and offer a new experience with each different role. 

Rao also underlines just how important it is for stardom or clout to go hand-in-hand with good writing. “So many of our credible female actors have had to shift base to another industry because they just don’t get parts worthy of their talent”. 

Kaathal The Core
Kaathal The Core

MNV Gowda opines that the definition of today’s superstar has changed drastically compared to even a decade or two ago. “Today, Kannada cinema needs more superstars who have mass appeal but also have the penchant to try something new,” he says. Other popular names such as Telugu actor Nani, Malayalam’s Fahadh Faasil and Kannada’s own Rakshit Shetty, among others, are reckoned to be the torchbearers of this evolving idea of a superstar; the present-day star doesn't lure audiences simply with their trademarks — the dance moves, the action, the punchlines — but instead with a kind of gamble that not only enthrals the masses but also satiates the cineastes. Although the synergy is heavily lopsided, female stars like Nayanthara, Samantha Ruth Prabhu, Alia Bhat, Deepika Padukone, Sai Pallavi and several others have matched toe to toe with their male counterparts and proven that all it takes is a good film to elicit interest.

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Another important trait of the present-day star is to spot new talent. Rocking Star Yash, reminds Vivek MV, rose to fame in the 2010s largely because he worked with several new filmmakers who were either making their debuts or were not more than a film or two old. “It’s something similar you spot in all of today’s popular names in South India. Nani is revered for his conscious choice to seek out writers and filmmakers who are not only new-gen but also like-minded.”

The Road Ahead

The solutions seem endless when it comes to understanding what the road ahead for Kannada cinema is, but perhaps what matters is to understand the fundamentals along with the challenges. “It’s extremely difficult today for new actors to establish themselves,” feels Vivek MV because it is that difficult to (re)gain the trust of the audience. Kannada films today compete not just amongst themselves but with practically every other film industry, making it that much more difficult to turn heads towards them. 

One reckons that, as a start, if the big stars should return to the big screens more often and also encourage a new form of storytelling, the change, as it were, could be employed faster and more efficiently. “The idea that a superstar must take lots of time between two films must change because the situation is different here," Vivek MV says. Well, here's manifesting that our cinema halls are back to being at their bustling best in 2024. 

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