It is the 90s. A middle class girl named Meera is studying in the tenth standard in a regular high school. She is obsessed with mainstream cinema and is smitten by Salman Khan after watching Hum Aapke Hain Kaun..! with her parents. One day, during the break, she notices that Madhu, a classmate of hers, has the same flop of hair as Salman Khan. Her voiceover declares – On one such Wednesday, while wearing white uniform and while on periods, I fell in love for the first time. This is one of the many poignant sequences in debut feature filmmaker Roopa Rao's 2019 Kannada Gantumoote (Baggage), streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Rao unabashedly turns on the female gaze in this coming-of-age drama and delivers a memorable film.
The early decades of Kannada cinema were an extension of the theatre scene in the old Mysore region. It was spearheaded by theatre veterans Gubbi Veeranna who produced and acted in many of the Kannada movies in the 1930s and 1940s. Most of the movies made during this period retold popular mythological, historical and devotional stories that had ruled the stage in the beginning of the 20th Century. BR Panthulu's School Master (1958) – widely believed to be based on the 1937 Hollywood superhit Make Way For Tomorrow – heralded a new era of cinema that adopted the wave of neo-realism sweeping the country, albeit with a heavy tinge of melodrama. School Master was later remade in many languages (even the 2000s Bollywood Super Hit Baghban has scenes inspired by this cult film). The 1950s was also the time Rajkumar made his debut in Bedara Kannappa and went on to become the most-successful Kannada film star ever.
The Modernist Navya literary movement in Kannada brought in a new wave that first influenced Kannada theatre and, subsequently, cinema. Pattabhirama Reddy's cinematic adaptation of UR Ananthamurthy's Samskaara (1969) is regarded as the first cinema of the Kannada new wave. While the Kannada new wave with Pattabhi Rama Reddy, Girish Karnad, BV Karanth and Girish Kasaravalli at the helm made thought-provoking cinema that questioned oppressive practices and religious traditions, the modern ideas of progress and development, and the position of women in the Kannada society, mainstream Kannada cinema focussed on middle-class family dramas, love stories and cop dramas till the early 1990s. One exception to this was Putanna Kanagal, who blended powerful narratives with melodramatic aesthetics of mainstream cinema to make cult classics such as Sharapanjara and Nagarahaavu in the early 1970s. Kanagal's cinema, albeit still employing commercial ingredients such as song and fight sequences, challenged the audience with portrayal of women's choices and desires.
But in more than 85 years of its history, there have been very few experiments in the genre of coming-of-age romantic dramas in Kannada cinema, leave alone narratives with female perspectives. In the recent past, there was one unsuccessful attempt to celebrate the female voice in this genre with a story of the college experiences of four girlfriends in Moggina Manasu (2008). Often, coming-of-age dramas in Kannada focussed on the hero, were mostly set in college, and either ended up as a romantic comedy built on the nostalgia of college life, a crime drama or a family drama. Ravichandran's directorial debut Premaloka (1987) and the recent Rakshit Shetty superhit Kirik Party (2016) are great examples of such narratives.
Many a time, the college romance is a prelude to the hero going on to save the world, or the narrative progressing into a family drama. Gantumoote successfully deviates from all these precedents. While in a regular mainstream movie the camera would have attempted to highlight the female protagonist's beauty, here, it acts as Meera's gaze. So, instead of shots highlighting the heroine's navel or her bare legs, we are shown Madhu's floppy hair, the back of his neck and his Adam's apple. Instead of a scene where the shy heroine is changing out of her wet clothes and the hero is staring at her, Rao adds in a sensuous scene of Meera teasing a bare-chested Madhu when he is changing. Unlike the hero in a regular college romance who breaks into a celebratory song of excitement after realising he is in love, Meera tells us "I could hear my heartbeat. I felt feverish, my stomach was churning, I felt as if I was going to vomit and suffer from loose motions". The only time the camera shifts to and follows Madhu is when he breaks down after failing the exams for the second time, thus suggesting impending doom. Most importantly, Rao's treatment does not resort to titillating song sequences and sexual innuendos and, instead, lends sensuality and poetry to a sensitive love story.
The opening of Gantumoote with the voiceover of Meera is reminiscent of P Lankesh's 1976 directorial debut Pallavi – another rare Kannada movie that dared to tell the story through the female protagonist's voice, though the plot of Pallavi spans beyond college life. Another similarity between the two films is the failure of the male protagonist – Chandru in Pallavi fails to get a job and Madhu fails to clear his tenth board exams in Rao's film. Gantumoote begins with young Meera's life in a small town where, driven by her love for cinema, she decides to go to the theatre by herself only to be harassed by a lecherous old man's touch. In a poignant moment, Meera refuses to let this encounter rob her of the movie experience, and goes back into the theatre to complete watching the film. Later, when Madhu places his hand on her thigh while watching DDLJ, the childhood trauma resurfaces, only to be won over by Meera's trust in Madhu. Rao's sensitive and, at times, poetic screenplay takes us into the mind of a 16-year-old middle-class girl like never before and lets us experience her world.
Unfortunately, the intimate scenes, albeit sensitively shot, between two high school students was too much to take for the Censor Board which deprived teenagers of watching a film that is entirely about them, in theatres, by awarding it an 'A' certificate.
Since the turn of the century, on an average, more than 100 movies are produced every year in the Kannada film industry. The digital boom has only boosted this output further and made it possible for newcomers with little or no industry connections to make films of their choice. In recent years, a number of new voices such as Pawan Kumar (Lucia, U-Turn), Adarsh Ramachandra (Shuddhi), Hemanth Rao (Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, Kavaludaari) and Mansore (Harivu, Nathicharami) have emerged that are termed 'indie'. Even though these new movies generated substantial interest amongst the general public, many of them did not seem to be rooted in the Kannada milieu. It felt that some of these Hollywood-esque thrillers could have been set in any city and made in any language.
With Gantumoote, Roopa Rao has also joined the group of independent filmmakers. But, hers is probably the most authentic, rooted voice. She does not allow herself any easy choices. There are no overly dramatic and strict parents or any needless demonising of teachers. On the contrary, the mathematics teacher is quite understanding of Meera and Madhu's relationship and provides timely advice. The mise-en-scène reminds us of a more innocent and less polarised time in our world — the landline phone is the only source of communication for the young lovers, cable television makes its advent and there's a diverse set of students at school. In one instance, Meera and her friends are being stalked by three young men in an autorickshaw, but when the neighboring uncle intervenes to enquire, Meera responds that all is well. Rao depicts the insecurity teenage girls feel even while reporting harassment to family members or known people, lest they are blamed for it, and their freedom further curtailed.
At the same time, in the much-secure company of her lover and friends, Meera does not hesitate to try smoking a cigarette. Contrary to Meera's filmy imaginations of a man, Madhu does not beat up the boys teasing her at a bus stop. She accepts this reality of her lover and learns to deal with the situation in her own way. She emerges as the stronger person in the relationship, dealing effectively with the failings of Madhu while battling her own dilemmas. Teju Belawadi convincingly portrays Meera's vulnerability, excitement, love, confusion and grief in what could be termed as a stellar debut and is ably supported by the understated Nischith Korodi as Madhu.
Gantumoote should be seen as a milestone in Kannada cinema, a film that will hopefully change the way stories of young women will be told. Also, Rao is the latest and an important addition to the very short list of women filmmakers in the history of Kannada cinema; this should inspire more women filmmakers and more women-driven narratives.