If mainstream Hindi cinema is the closest India has to a national cinema because it addresses a widely dispersed public across the length and breadth of the country, the regional language popular cinemas may be regarded as addressing local identities largely determined by language. Just as the Hindi film deals with national concerns – like patriotism in war (Border, 1997), pan-Indian agrarian issues as in Mother India (1954) and Upkar (1967), personal advancement in a period of economic growth (Bunty Aur Babli, 2005) – regional language films try to narrativize local issues of importance in any period.

The constituency of regional cinema is largely that of the linguistic state but it could be smaller (as in Kannada cinema) or could even be larger and include the diaspora. Tamil cinema, for instance is consumed by Tamil speakers in countries other than India – like Malaysia, which have large Tamil populations. This understanding of regional cinemas in terms of their language ‘constituencies’ helps us understand many of the characteristic motifs in individual films over long periods of time.

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Kannada cinema began by addressing a public not across all the Kannada-speaking territories but largely in princely Mysore. The princely state was fertile and prosperous and there was some apprehension among its populace to linguistic reorganization of the states in 1956 since the territories with which it was to be integrated (including dry areas like Gulbarga, Raichur, Bellary, etc.) were much poorer. But Kannada cinema went about trying to create a greater/unified Kannada cultural space from 1956 onwards and the role of the star Rajkumar was largely towards this end in the 1960s.

But although Kannada cinema enlarged its constituency notionally, its appeal was still concentrated in former princely Mysore – and continues as such till this day. Popular Kannada cinema is therefore best understood in relation to the role it played/plays in this smaller territory Mysore, once a ‘nation within a nation’.

Kannada cinema has a significant art-house component and this cinema has arisen (like the other Indian art cinemas) mainly out of State intervention in the 1970s under Mrs. Gandhi. It therefore sets its stories across all of present-day Karnataka – from the dry northern districts of Bidar and Raichur to the coastal areas of Dakshina Kannada. The cinema of Girish Kasaravalli (the best known Kannada art film-maker) is testimony to this.

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This is a compilation of write-ups about the ten most important Kannada films (both popular and art-house) based on their cultural importance. Rajkumar features prominently because of his importance to Kannada culture but another factor is the non-availability of many supposedly key films. In order to make the list useful, only films which are available to the public are named. Rajkumar’s films – because of the star’s following – are much more readily available for viewing than those of the other stars. The emphasis in the choice of films as well as the write-ups is more on the cultural significance of each film than its aesthetic value, which is nonetheless undeniable in most of the cases.

Bedara Kannappa (H. L. N. Simha, 1954)

This is the first major film with Rajkumar in the leading role. It is a mythological film around devotion and deals with a tribal legend about an unbelieving hunter who attains god. But what is interesting is that it mythologizes the legend by making it the story of a proud Gandharva prince in heaven cursed with a life on earth and poverty. Dinna and his wife (by her choice) are reborn as humans and suffer privation but Shiva appears to Dinna in disguise and works miracles to induce faith in the divine, when Dinna blinds himself in religious ecstasy (‘Kannappa’).

In time he gathers a community around him through his sacrifice and the film can be read as anticipating princely Mysore similarly gathering a larger community around itself. The film includes motifs similar to those in Damle and Fatehlal’s Sant Tukaram (1936), especially that of the cunning/hypocritical Brahmin representing the hegemony of the priestly caste in society.

School Master (B. R. Panthulu, 1958)

The first important ‘social’ because of the fact that it includes no magical/mythological elements as the earlier socials do. This is about a dedicated schoolteacher Ranganna (B. R. Panthulu) coming into a corrupt village and trying to reform it. In Nehruvian modernism (registered by the Hindi film), the enemy is superstition and ignorance and the agent of good modernity is the doctor who fights against disease (Baazi, 1951, Dil Ek Mandir, 1963).

Mysore had had a technological revolution under the progressive Dewans Sir M. Visvesvaraya and Sir Mirza Ismail and the enemy is corruption, which was endemic in Mysore. This film is also important for another reason – introducing romance (in the state capital Bangalore) as the basis of marriage when endogamy had ruled earlier. This implies a loosening of traditional attachments based on caste – because of the enlargement of the territory of Kannada language subsequent to linguistic reorganization.

Belli Moda (Puttanna Kanagal, 1966)

Puttanna Kanagal is perhaps the most important director thrown up by the Kannada popular film and he specialized in a kind of woman’s melodrama, for which it is difficult to find parallels in Hindi cinema. Belli Moda, based on a novel by Kannada woman novelist Triveni, is set in a Brahmin family which owns coffee estates. Caste figures prominently in the earlier Kannada cinema and is denoted by vocation and connoted indirectly by associations and language dialect spoken.

Professionals (teacher, doctor, engineer and lawyer) are Brahmins, farmers are Vokkaligas and merchants are usually Lingayats, since Vaishya names are usually not distinctive. A progressive farmer and a coffee planter is a Brahmin. In this film Indira (Kalpana) is the rather plain-looking daughter of wealthy parents and her father arranges her marriage to a friend’s son Mohan (Kalyan Kumar) and sponsors his trip to the US.

When he is away her parents have a male child which alters the equations since Indira will no longer be an heiress; this throws the story into crisis. As a parallel there is a comic working class romance in parallel dealing with the daughter of the caretaker (Balakrishna) and a taxi driver (Dwarakish). The two stories are kept strictly apart plot-wise but there is the echo of each in the other.

Samskara (Pattabhirama Reddy, 1970)

The first Kannada art film made with extensive involvement of local cultural figures and litterateurs – U. R. Ananthamurthy (novel), Girish Karnad, P. Lankesh, Snehalata Reddy (actor), Rajeev Taranath (music) and S. G. Vasudev. (production design). The film tells the story of Praneshacharya (Girish Karnad), a Brahmin scholar whose life is driven into crisis on the day of his wife’s death when he has sexual relations with a Dalit woman Chandri (Snehalata Reddy).

Chandri is the mistress of an iconoclastic Brahmin Narayanappa (P. Lankesh), who indulged in every vice and it is Praneshacharya’s duty to sort out the question of whether Narayanappa (who died of plague) is entitled to a Brahmin’s last rites, even as his inner dilemmas need answers. The film is largely taken up by Praneshacharya’s wanderings in search of solutions.

Kasturi Nivasa (B. Dorairaj/S. K. Bhagavan, 1971)

This film belongs to a larger set (which includes the hugely celebrated Bangarada Manushya, 1972) in which Rajkumar plays a good, progressive, generous man who is exploited by others but does not stop giving away. Kasturi Nivasa is the first of them and gives us a clearer understanding of the motif. In this film Ravi Verma (Rajkumar) is an industrialist of the old school and has a match factory (‘Dove Brand’). He, a widower, lives alone in a mansion called Kasturi Nivasa, which may be taken to represent old Mysore and its fading values.

The film is a dirge to the gracious modernity of old Mysore (synonymous with Sir M. Visvesvaraya) which is contrasted with rapacious Nehruvian modernity (‘Eagle Brand’ matches) ushered in around Bangalore in the 1960s through central government investment.

Bhootayyana Maga Ayyu (S. Siddalingaiah, 1974)

This film was made when Mrs. Gandhi’s ‘leftist’ populism was riding high and the Karnataka chief minister D. Devaraj Urs was her lieutenant. The film (based on a novel by Gorur Ramaswamy Iyengar) tells the story of a good Vokkaliga farmer Devayya who is tricked into signing documents by a cruel Brahmin money-lender Bhootayya and loses his land.

But most of the film revolves around the enmity between Devayya’s son Gulla (Vishnuvardhan) and Bhootayya’s son Ayyu (Lokesh) until peace is made. Ayyu who is unlike his father is accepted by the whole village for what he is. The film is important for creating a hybrid of the local Brahmin (known to be docile) and the violent feudal landowner from films like Nishant.

Ghatashraddha (Girish Kasaravalli, 1977)

This film, which like Samskara is also based on a story by U. R. Ananthamurthy, may be taken to be the most important contribution of Kannada cinema to the pan-Indian realist film. Samskara is more of a local cultural artefact. Ghatashraddha tells the story of an orthodox Brahmin family in which a young widow enters into a sexual liaison with a person from a lower caste and becomes pregnant.

The story is told from the viewpoint of a boy from a school for young priests who befriends the girl Yamuna (Meena Kuttappa) and is privy to her terrible fate – when she has an abortion, is subjected to a brutal ritual and cast out. The film is visually striking because of its black and white photography and Kasaravalli experiments with ‘non-acting’, especially in showing the cruelty of the apprentice priests to one another.

Ranganayaki (Puttanna Kanagal, 1981)

This film tells the story of a stage actress Ranganayaki (Aarathi) working in the traveling theatre company who abandons her career to marry a rich man Nagaraj (Ashok) but finds herself losing her freedom. When he refuses to allow her to act again she does so secretly but he finds out and abandons her, taking their son with him.

The film uses the decline of the traveling troupe to comment on the fading of the Mysore ethos. With Shamanna (Rajanand), the owner, growing feeble she leaves the troupe to join the films as Mala and becomes very successful in Bangalore. She now runs into a young man Shekar (Ramakrishna) much younger to her who becomes infatuated and starts courting her. At the end it turns out that Shekar is actually her own son by Nagaraj.

What is the most important aspect of the film is the way in which the traveling troupe becomes a metaphor for a fading community losing its cultural values. The film takes a very ambivalent look at the state’s capital Bangalore, which is shown to be crass and business-minded, and in which the gentility of Mysore has no place.

Mungaru Male (Yogaraj Bhat, 2006)

A romance, and one of the biggest hits ever in Kannada, the film is exceptional in one specific way. It hardly ever happens in Kannada cinema for here to be a romance between someone from erstwhile princely Mysore and someone from outside it. Since Mysore was a ‘nation within a nation’ this is as taboo as an Indian having a romance with a foreigner in Hindi cinema (Rang De Basanti, 2006).

When other territories like Coorg or Dakshina Kannada provide protagonists, the films are exceptions (Rajendra Singh Babu’s Muthina Haara, 1990) or the people in the film culturally correspond to those from Mysore – as in Puttana Kanagal’s Shubhamangala (1975) and it is only the landscape which is from outside.

The romance in Mungaru Male is between a young man Preetham (Ganesh) from Bangalore and a girl Nandini (Pooja Gandhi) from Coorg. film does not end happily for the protagonists and the girl marries someone else after Preetham realizes the impossibility of wedding her. But of special interest is Preetham’s pet rabbit, named ‘Devdas’ by him after the icon of unrequited love.

Thithi (Raam Reddy, 2016)

Raam Reddy studied film-making in Prague and Thithi is unlike anything seen in Indian cinema. It is set in a village on the Bengaluru-Mysuru (formerly Bangalore and Mysore) highway and deals with the ways of villagers, portrayed with unsparing honesty but not unsympathetically. It is different from art-house films in that most of the villagers are involved in underhand dealings like getting false land records or mining sand.

Raam Reddy shot the film in an actual village Nodekoppalu and cast actual villagers from there in key roles, with no professional actors. The film, which is often hilarious, revolves around the death of a foul-mouthed and philandering patriarch ‘Century Gowda’ (thus named because he is a hundred years old), the crisis created when his other-worldly son (who subsists on ‘Tiger Brandy’) refuses to cooperate in transferring the property to his own offspring. Also key to the story are the efforts of Century Gowda’s great-grandson to seduce a girl from a passing tribe of shepherds, from whom he has just stolen a sheep – for the public feast following Century Gowda’s death.

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