While offbeat films of other languages have successful runs in multiplexes, why do Kannada films, mainstream and niche, have such a short shelf life?
Kannada cinema, especially at multiplexes, seems to meet a distinctly harsh fate today. Increasingly, especially in the recent past, Kannada films have had a screen life of about a week and sometimes even less. At the end of five, sometimes six days, they are promptly replaced by another film, which may not even be a Kannada film.
However, this is not the case with other language films. In the last year, many Hindi films such as Queen, NH10, and now the most recent Piku have seen a widespread release across multiplexes. They run for months together and occupy many time slots across the schedule. A Tamil film such as Mani Rathnam’s OK Kanmani, which is now in its fourth week, has secured ample screen space both at the single screens as well as in malls. Telugu films too such as Dohchay or Son of Satyamurthy have managed to occupy prime time slots be it on weekdays or weekends. Why do Kannada films then — both commercial and niche — have such a short shelf life?
When the first crop of multiplexes took root in our cities, it was believed that the plenitude of screens within a theatre, as opposed to the one-screen model, would enable the showcase of many films simultaneously. But, peculiarly, in the case of Kannada, forget niche, even commercial cinema seems to be put through a five-day litmus test of sorts after which it is hastily sent to the gallows. Barring the occasional good run of films such as Oggarane, Mythri or the most recent Krishna Leela and Endendigu, there are umpteen examples of other films that have been sacrificed along the way. A case in point is debutant Manjunatha Somasekhara Reddy’s 2014 film, Harivu. Or B.Suresha’s Puttakkana Highway.
Of course, not all films do well and the reasons for that are varied. But, if the career of the generic Kannada film needs to be traced, it is definitely not as successful as the Hindi or the Tamil film in Karnataka. Why is this so?
“Multiplexes tell us that Kannada films, especially niche cinema, do not make money. In Karnataka, Kannada cinema has to compete with all languages. It’s a cycle, actually. The multiplexes are reluctant because they say that audiences do not come, they then take it out of the screens within a week or do not give it a prime time slot. The movie, therefore, does not make money and then all of this combined, discourages filmmakers from making the next film,” says filmmaker P. Sheshadri. Actor and former president of Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce, Jayamala points out that the middle class and the lower middle class in Karnataka can barely afford to enter the multiplex, forget watch a film because of how expensive it is. “Even those that can come to the mall, need to be given some time. A five-day window is too little time to judge the fate of a film. Take the case of Bangarada Manushya or Premaloka. Both films got off to a slow start but while the former ran for two years, the latter for 50 days. How unfair that judgement on a film is pronounced this fast today,” she says.
The situation at single screen theatres is not very different. They cater to the ‘one star cult’ films. After a week dedicated to one hero, it is another one’s turn the next week. The only saving grace is that each hero has a fixed fan following who will fill up the theatres, at least.
The worst hit, therefore, is niche or parallel cinema in Kannada. “At least at single screens, the admission rates are cheap. So people come to watch. During Rajkumar’s time, he made it mandatory for some niche films to be screened at the single screen for a set number of days before the release of his film. This encouraged the growth of parallel cinema. Today, we do not know any of the distributors by name. They are all sitting in Delhi or Bombay and they are not interested in these small budget Kannada films. For them, all of India is their playing field,” says Girish Kasaravalli.
As recently as early this year, to get out of a similar conundrum, the Maharashtra Government made it mandatory for all multiplexes to reserve one prime time slot for Marathi films. Sheshadri, Kasaravalli and Jayamala argue that Karnataka needs a similar rule. “At least for a couple of years, using that rule, Kannada will get an opportunity to show its audience some serious and good cinema. Once this is put into practice, then all the arguments of business etc. will no longer be valid,” says Sheshadri.
Kasaravalli argues, that additionally, single screen benefits must be brought into the multiplex. “Multiplexes must be convinced to reduce their cost. Today, the operational costs of running a place have come down. Only if the cost is brought down will more and more people be encouraged to watch films,” he argues.
Director Yograj Bhat argues that the situation is not this bleak and that there are examples of Kannada films that have been successful as well. “Take a film such as Lucia for example, it did do good business. Then, one of the best runs a film has had in a multiplex was when Mungaru Maley released. I do not think that Kannada films are lacking. Yes, around Rajkumar’s death, the culture of cinema viewing began to take a back seat. Today, even the Kannada audience is torn between watching a Hindi, Tamil or an English film” he says.
If so far, the argument has been of access and commercial viability, filmmaker and actor, Prakash Raj takes the debate to the content of Kannada cinema. “Change can only happen if the comfort zone is questioned. Audiences have gone away from loud films. If your film is of a certain quality, then it will run. and do business. Yes, the multiplexes and theatre owners must co-operate, audiences must stand by good cinema, but the onus is also equally, if not more, on the filmmakers to make good, meaningful cinema. Where are the new ideas in Kannada cinema? Where are the films for women? We need to introspect. Cinema is not business. It is an identity. The Kannada film industry needs to think about what it wants to be associated with. We need a cinema with a soul,” he says.
The others disagree. “There are good Kannada films. The predicament of some Kannada films is such that until it gets a National Award or some kind of recognition, people do not even hear of it. Most of us niche filmmakers do not have the money to advertise our films on broadcast channels. Some of our films do not even have songs that could be publicised before hand. We have to rely on word of mouth publicity and before that can happen, the films make an exit from screens,” explains Kasaravalli. Jayamala echoes this opinion but offers a distinction. “It is true that Kannada cinema has made some of the best films in the country with many of them centering around the woman. However, “It is also true that today, the Kannada film has slipped out of the director’s control into the hands of the hero,” she adds. Sheshadri asks why popular male actors are reluctant to endorse and act in small budget, serious cinema. “Why do you think Piku has been successful? It is because mainstreampopular actors such as Amitabh Bachchan and Deepika Padukone that have chosen to act in it. They brought their individual fans to the film,” he says.
Is there a solution
After a prolonged wait, B.S. Lingadevaru’s Naanu Avanalla…Avalu might just be released in theatres soon. Lingadevaru who is happy that the film will finally see the light of day feels that niche films need to adopt different strategies to get audiences into the theatres.
“We live in an extremely commercialised, profit-oriented world where there is little space for arguments concerning attachment to a language or that of aesthetics and feelings. If filmmakers need to survive, they have to make more of an effort to invite people to their film. The multiplexes have ruled that around 100 people should be there at each screening. Directors themselves can invite people, be it their friends or family to watch the film. This is one solution,” he says.