The whimsical world that encompasses author KP Poornachandra Tejaswi’s stories have been embraced by not just the bibliophiles of Karnataka, but also the general public. His works are accessible, as they deal with simple stories that are set in simple worlds inhabited by simple people (in every sense of the word ‘simple’). He writes the way we speak, his language includes slangs, abuses, small bits of English thrown around and so much personality. These characters are people we have seen and possibly, have been.
Novel adaptations in general have the distinct quality of being the most expected and profitable piece of IP while also being the most hated. Every fan of a literary piece knows how to make the film better than the director. However, KP Poornachandra Tejaswi’s stories have always been made into creatively accurate films. Five of his works have been adapted till date, which include Abachurina Post Office (1973), Tabarana Kathe (1986), Kubi Mattu Iyala (1992), Kiragoorina Gayyaligalu (2016) and Daredevil Musthafa (2023), the latter of which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Each of the adaptations have been by different directors, who bring in their unique perspective and visual grammar without compromising the overall vibe of Poo Chan Te’s ‘Prapancha’.
Depicting Fictional Towns
Poornachandra Tejaswi’s works mostly originate from rural stories, usually set in the Malenadu region of Karnataka. The Western Ghats and the rain forests are an important part of his stories, with many of them featuring fictional towns, the most popular of which is Abachuru.
We are introduced to the small town of Abachuru in the short story collection ‘Abachurina Post Office’, which is the first adaptation of Tejaswi’s works. Director N Laksminarayan’s Abachurina Post Office (1973) tells the story of Bobanna, the town’s first postmaster, brilliantly played by Naani. It shows the various people who interact with Bobanna as he becomes their sole source of communication to the outside world. The director shows Abachuru between the rounds of Bobanna, captured in stunning black and white.
Abachuru makes a comeback again in Shashank Soghal’s Daredevil Musthafa (2023) but this time we spend most of the time in the Abachuru First Grade Government College. We see Abachuru through the eyes of two characters: Ramanuja Iyengari (played by Aditya Ashree) and Jamal Abdula Musthafa Hussain (played by Shishir Baikady), getting a sense of both familiarity as well as novelty. The former is a localite who is entitled to every trophy that is available, be it sports, territory or romance, while the latter is an outsider who intends to assimilate himself into the space without compromising his personality. We get a sense of the town’s geography and prominent spots through animated sequences. We get an idea of the prevailing communal tensions in the town, which becomes the basis to the main conflict between Ayangari and Musthafa.
Kiragooru is another village we are introduced to in Kiragoorina Gayyaligalu (2016). The film adaptation by Sumana Kittoor tells the story of a group of women in Kiraguru and how they navigate the silly politics of ego created by the men of the village. The gang is headed by Daanamma (played by Shwetha Srivastava), a newcomer to the village through marriage who is usually seen as the one who has influenced the women to be much more vocal about the village's issues.
The director here shows us two spaces: the women’s spaces such as the fields and the lakes, and the men’s space, which is primarily the toddy shop. Kiragooru is vibrant, with highly saturated colours that depict the village that is run by the women of its town. This adds to the burning rage that encompasses the final act of the film, with the toddy shop engulfing in bright orange flames.
The characters of Tejaswi really are one of the highlights of his works. We see people from various walks of life in these towns. He takes the words of his father, Rashtrakavi Kuvempu’s ‘Sarvajanangada Shanthiya Thota’ (A Garden of Diverse Communities) very seriously. He also portrays the people with satire and a sense of amusement.
Daredevil Musthafa treats its characters with this satirical view by creating multidimensional stereotypes. Let’s take the ex-military PT teacher Kusumakar (played to perfection by Vijay Shobharaj Pavoor) and the empathetic headmaster Seebayya (Mandya Ramesh) for instance. They utter phrases that are parodies in itself, lines that we have all seen our own principals and teachers say. The fact that the PT teacher ends up sharing a romance with the English teacher is itself such a stereotype. Yet, the way it transpires makes it very organic. Director Shashank Soghal deserves appreciation for the perfect casting and chemistry building between these characters. Tejaswi's universe has never looked so alive before.
With Sadhanand Suvarna's Kubi Mattu Iyala (1992), we see this satirical view through the eyes of its protagonist, the sceptical Dr Kubera (played by Charuhasan). Coming from an urban space, he sees the people of the village with amusement, as a species which is yet to be civilised. He hopes to cure them of their physical illness as well as their superstitions.
Gayyaligalu again, sees it as parody. The officer who visits the village and is verbally abused out of the village by the protagonist Danamma, is a cliched Government officer who demands respect by virtue of his position. Prakash Belawadi as the officer, chooses to play him that way.
In Abachurina Post Office, we see all of these characters as they are. The era in which the film came out makes it realistic. We see the ageing school teacher waiting for a single letter from his family, the town wastrels hanging out and smoking beedies in front of the post office, the rich farmer who also employs Bobanna as a manager in his estate, a son who uses the post office to hide erotic magazines, and more. We may not see these people now, but their portrayal makes it believable.
With Tabarana Kathe however, we enter not just Tejaswi's world, but also the world of director Girish Kasaravalli. He sees characters as ganging up on one man. The people in Tabarana Kathe are mostly manipulative and make the protagonist Tabara (played by Charuhasan) the scapegoat so they can keep their hands clean. They represent a bureaucracy which is flawed, rotten and beyond repair. The office clerks are lazy crooks who use the system’s flaws to skip work, the officials are strict but useless dictators and the politicians are just looking for opportunities to be favoured during the elections. They all push Tabara around until he breaks and loses everything (including his sanity). They are one-dimensional, but with a purpose.
The Angry Protagonist
Tejaswi is known as one of the most important authors in Kannada literature’s Bandaya Sahitya movement. This form of protest literature featured voices from marginalised communities as protagonists, showing the various atrocities faced by them on a daily basis. Tejaswi’s works almost always feature a marginalised protagonist and the events that follow.
In the author’s adaptations, the angriest protagonist by far is Danamma in Kiragoorina Gayyaligalu. She is a short-tempered woman by nature and director Sumana Kittoor lets her be unfiltered. Danamma speaks in abuses, mollycoddles her husband, fights for him and then fights him. After seeing the men who had allowed petty differences to strain her friendships, pass judgement on her dear friend, she leads the team of women to burn the toddy shop which created the rift in the first place. The ending shot of her fuming as the shop burns is a haunting image.
Mustafa in Daredevil Mustafa is a mystery in the beginning. Director Shashank Soghal treats him like an urban legend. He is the sole Muslim student in the college and he is new to the town. He faces discrimination by Iyengari and his associates, and his anger is not allowed to be expressed as the headmaster encourages him to put his head down and avoid clashes. Iyengari, too, is angry at a community as he comes with family baggage — his sister elopes with a Muslim man, breaking the family apart. He is angry at being denied chances in football as Mustafa is a better player, and angry that a girl he loves prefers Mustafa instead. Coupled with teenage angst and personal tragedy, Soghal gives dimensions to his anger, embracing stereotypes whilst also humanising them.
On the other hand, in Tabarana Kathe, director Girish Kasaravalli depicts his protagonist Tabara as a man who never gets angry. Performed by Charuhasan, Tabara is a dutiful government employee who is chosen as a scapegoat by superior officers, revolutionary activists and politicians to further their interests. They push him around as he moves from pillar to post to get his pension after retirement. They punish him for doing his duty and taking pride in his loyalty. Initially, we do not agree with his views — he believes the British knew how to run a country and is surprised that agitations are still staged even when the Government is run by his own people. But his lack of anger is not met positively by the world. He loses his salary to politics, his wife to illness, his son to the scary metropolitan city that is Bengaluru and he finally loses his sanity to bureaucracy. Kasaravalli frames the final scene on Tabara, moments after he finally gets his money, having lost everything. He finally gets angry as the powers that be mock him with yet another stupid task. He vents and screams and curses them, storming out of the office as everyone looks at him as a mentally ill person. Tabara then gives a chilling Kubrick-esque stare into the camera, which is coupled with the image of three bald old men, waiting for their pensions outside a rusty government office.
Poornachandra Tejaswi’s works will forever be a treasure chest filled with amazing stories that represent nature, people and unfortunately, still prevailing systemic flaws. We hope that stories which previously would have been a logistical nightmare could be brought to life with the technology present right now. The perfect film to receive an adaptation now would be Tejaswi's beloved classic 'Carvalho'. Awarded the "Most Creative Novel of the Year'' by the Sahitya Academy in 1980, 'Carvalho' is a story which features Tejaswi himself as a character who goes on an adventure within the Malenadu forests with a middle aged scientist and a naturalist local in search of a rare 'flying lizard'.
With the success of Daredevil Mustafa, we may see a market for more such adaptations of Tejaswi's works in the mainstream, introducing his work to new generations.