Located in the state of Karnataka with over 40 million people and 1200 cinema halls (in 1993), Kannada cinema was to a large extent under the shadow of the neighbouring Tamil and Telugu film industries for a long time. Unlike Assamese cinema, the vast majority of the films produced in Kannada are of the popular variety - sentimental, melodramatic, escapist, full of songs and dance. However, a few filmmakers are keen to create a serious cinema that addresses significant social issues.
Mohan Bhavanami, the Chief Producer of the Film Division of the Government of India, made the first Kannada silent film, Mricchakatika, in 1929. In 1932 came two talkies, Bhaktha Dhruva and Sati Sulochana. At first the theatre provided the inspiration and artistic resources for the filmmakers, but cinema evolved somewhat sporadically until the 1950s. There were several reasons for this: the absence of sponsorship, lack of adequate technical facilities and the contentment of the audiences with seeing Hindi, Tamil and Telugu films. However, by the 1960s, the State Government decided to introduce subsidies for film production and to recognize good filmmaking by instituting an award system.
Samskara (Funeral Rites, 1970) by Telugu poet Pattabhi Rama Reddy has been discussed. A number of highly talented filmmakers followed Reddy: B.Y. Karanth, Girish Karnad, G.Y. Iyer and Girish Kasaravalli deserve special mention. Active reforms and influencing moments of truth are landmarks of the Kannada cinema. The mentioned Kannada film makers like Karanth, Karnad, Kanagal, Kasaravalli and Pattabhi Rama Reddy bequeathed powerful films that demand compassion and soul-searching.
1934 - Bhakta Dhruva: Directed by P.Y. Altekar, the film starred Master Muthu, T. Dwarkanath, H.S. Krishnamurthy Iyengar and G. Ganesh. In honour of A.V. Varadachar - of Ratnavali Theatre Company - the film had his grandson in the title role and other company artistes as well. The story is from the Puranas - of Dhruva who ultimately becomes a star in the skies. This was the first Kannada film but was released after Sati Sulochana.
Sati Sulochana: Directed by Y.V. Rao, the film starred R. Nagendra Rao, M.V. Subbaiah Naidu, Lakshmibai, and Y.V. Rao. The defeat of Ravana by Lord Rama, and the killing of Inderjit (Ravana`s son) is viewed through the eyes of Sulochana, Inderjit`s wife.The war scenes were filmed with 2 cameras!
1936 - Samsara Nauka: Directed by H. L. Simha, the film starred B.R. Panthulu, M.V. Rajamma, Dikki Madhava Rao, S.K. Padmadevi, and M.S. Madhava Rao. The hero marries against his grandfather`s wishes and is cast out. His troubles do not end here - he finds no favour with his in-laws, loses his job, and finds himself accused of murdering the bride his grandfather had chosen for him.The film was adapted from a play by the Chadrakala Natak Mandali, and remained true to the original`s reformist ideal.
1954 - Bedara Kannappa: Directed by H.I.N. Simha, the film starred Rajkumar, G.V. Iyer, Pandharibai, and Narasimhraju. Based on folklore, the film is about a god and goddess exiled to Earth. They are reincarnated as the children of hunters, and the god-human has to endure a host of tribulations.This was the first film of Kannada superstar Rajkumar. The theme itself is originally of the ragales (couplets) of the thirteenth century poet-saint Harihara.
1954 - Natashekhara: Directed by C.V. Raju, the film starred Kalyana Kumar, Sandhya, Vidya, and H.R. Sastry - A story about a young man running away from home to be a film star. This was the debut film of Kalyana Kumar who, too, had run from home with stars in his eyes. - A very successful film.
1968 - Hannele Chiguridaga: Directed by M.R. Vittal, the film starred R. Nagendra Rao, Raj Kumar, Kalpana, Arun Kumar, and B.V. Radha. The social issues of widow remarriage and a suitable bride were tackled but the film was careful to not weaken patriarchal authority. The patriarch as played by R. Nagendra Rao remains a memorable character and is widely regarded as among the actor`s best performances. The film included the hit song Hoovu chaluvela endendithu.
1970 - Gejje Pooje: Directed by S.R. Puttana Kanagal, the film starred Kalpana, Gangadhar, Leelavathi, Arathi, and Pandharibai. A woman brought up by a brothel owner leaves for another city to protect her daughter. The past catches up when the mother`s former paramour reappears - the daughter`s engagement is called off, compelling a return to the mother`s past profession. The director made a strong statement about the tragic turn a woman`s life often takes. The camerawork differed for the depiction of the two worlds - the shallow respectability of the middle-classes and the exploitative spirit of brothels.
1971 - Vamsha Vriksha: Directed by B.V. Karanth and Girish Karnad, the film starred Venkata Rao Talegiri, L.V. Sharada Rao, B.V. Karanth, Girish Karnad, Chandrasekhar, and G.V. Iyer - A Brahmin patriarch permits the remarriage of his widowed daughter-in-law, but compels her to surrender custody of her child. Her son is later her willing student but refuses to accept her as a mother. Finally, the patriarch asks her forgiveness upon learning of his own illegitimacy. The film was careful not to hurt prevalent attitudes, despite the strength of its theme. As in most films, the woman protagonist is vindicated after paying a heavy price - here, she is dying.
1973 - Kaadu: Directed by Girish Karnad, the film starred Amrish Puri, Nandini, Lokesh, G.K. Govinda Rao, G.S. Nataraj and T.S. Nagabharana. set in the past and exploring the nature of violence that characterized feudal societies. In this film the analysis of the socio-economic causes of feudal violence and decay is enriched by minutely observed details of village life and superstitions. A boy is unable to distinguish between the web of human violence and the mystery of the forest that is home to a killer bird that lures its victims by name. At the end, he believes he hears the bird calling him by name and responds. This was Girish Karnad`s first independent direction - a surrealistic film that was gripping and thought-provoking.
1975 - Chomana Dudi: Directed by B.V. Karanth, the film starred M.V. Vasudeva Rao, Jayaran, Honnaiah, Padma Kumtha, Nagaraja, and Sarojini. - A masterpiece of a film for the intensity of its characterization and direction. It highlights the strengths of the artistic cinema in Karnataka. Set in the 1930s, it concerns an old man, Chomana, who is filled with rage and despair over the poverty and social injustices he has daily to encounter. Only by playing his drum can he give expression to his pent-up feelings. He is perturbed by the humiliations that his children have to put up with. He dies an unhappy man, but the sound of his drum continues to arouse his fellow citizens.
1977 - Nagarhole: Directed by S.V. Rajendra Singh, the film starred Vishnuvardhan, Bharati, Shivaram, Ambarish, B.V. Radha, Uma Sivakumar, and Sundarkrishna Urs. Set in the Nagarhole Wildlife Sanctuary, the film is about a woman, her child and four other children - her son is killed by a tiger but her husband, presumed dead, reappears and saves the other four. This was a very popular children`s film.
1986 - Maraya Marutha: Directed by Lalitha Ravi, the film starred Vishnuvardhan, Madhavi, Saritha, N. Shivaram, Dinesh, Kodai Lakshminarayana, and Jari Venkatram. The soul of a dead musical guru enters a mediocre musician who suddenly becomes capable of artistic heights that were not for him. He falls in love with the guru`s daughter but is loved by another woman. The latter donates all her funds to the music college he establishes; but when he loses his voice, it is the guru`s daughter who helps him sing again. Eventually, he marries the woman who had loved him all the while. Since the relationship with the guru`s daughter has incestuous implications, the film suggests that is in reality a divine being.
1989 - Mane: Dirrected by Girish Kasaravalli, the film starred Naseeruddin Shah, Deepti Naval, Rohini Hattangadi, Mico Chandru, and B.S. Achar. - The travails of a young couple as they seek suitable accomodation in the city. Noise and pests are their constant companions. They finally move into a slum, and sometime later, face a slum-clearance drive. The husband works in a factory manufacturing earth-moving machines - these very vehicles are in use to destroy their home. This was Kasaravalli`s first unabashedly urban film.
Directors Girish Kasaravelli and G. V. Iyer. Kasaravalli have always made films that have been concerned with the stifling Brahminical orthodoxy that cloaks itself in `puritanical ritual` and explores this theme in Ghattashraddha. Iyer`s Adi Shankaracharya (1983), which won him the Golden Lotus, was the first feature film to be made in Sanskrit and is a tribute to the eighth century sage Shankara who, expounded the Advaita (non dualist) philosophy.
Of the handful of women film directors in India who have gained national recognition, Prema Karanth is from Karnataka. Her touching account of a child-widow, Phaniyamma (1982), poignantly illustrates the problem of young widowhood. However, despite the outstanding success of such film directors, Kannada artistic cinema has yet to achieve its international repute or to produce filmmakers of the caliber of those working in Malayalam cinema.