A stellar performance by actor-director Rishab Shetty combined with the technical mastery of the crew produces a stunning climax in Kantara. But, an earlier simple conversation in the much-celebrated ecological drama is as powerful as its many visually appealing sequences.
In the film’s last act, the protagonist Shiva, a carefree and feisty young tribal man, enters the house of a feudal landlord (Achyuth Kumar) with confidence. You hear a piercing screech as Shiva, belonging to a ‘lower’ caste, drags a chair to sit across the dining table from the treacherous zamindar. The landlord’s annoyance is apparent when he sees Shiva serving himself food as an equal. “You have entered our house. Then, why can’t we?” Shiva questions the landlord, who is scheming to grab the land from the natives.
This scene is a fine example of the ‘plant and payoff’ technique in screenwriting. Anirudh Mahesh, one of the writers of Kantara, explains the idea.
“In an earlier scene, the landlord slaps a tribal trying to enter his house. Naturally, his oppressive mindset is shocked to see Shiva being on a par with him later,” he says. “If you want to stand up to someone, you need not get physical. A small gesture can convey your intention. That’s the power of writing in cinema. We can subtly convey a strong point,” he adds.
Kantara is filled with such clever writing, just like other blockbusters of 2022 from the Kannada film industry, such as KGF: Chapter 2 and 777 Charlie. The industry has always blown hot and cold with its form. After a terrific 2022, it’s facing a content crisis with only a few quality films to boast of in 2023 so far.
Anchored in moments and not whole
Lack of quality writing — even in much-hyped latest films like Kranti and Kabzaa — is one of the biggest reasons behind the poor show of recent mainstream Kannada films. “I feel popular Kannada films work on moments and not as a whole,” says screenwriting teacher and author Samvartha Sahil. “They start with one point and end with something else. There is no coherence. You feel a sense of dailiness that you can relate to in stories of Malayalam films. Kannada films lack in that aspect,” he points out.
While teaching screenwriting to students of the Film and Television Institute of India, Samvartha follows a method. “I make the students write a reverse screenplay. I make them watch a film, and then ask them to break down each scene, from start to finish,” says the writer from Manipal, who grew up admiring the films of Shankar Nag.
Arul Mani, writer, and English professor at St Joseph’s College of Arts and Science, Bengaluru, also talks highly of Shankar Nag. “Two interestingly scripted Kannada films of the 1980s were Accident and Nodi Swamy Naavirodu Heege. While the former exuded an arthouse sensibility, the latter was a well-made mainstream film. Both films boasted writerly craft,” he observes.
It’s important to note that even the great Shankar Nag didn’t hesitate to collaborate with writers for both Accident (written by Vasanth Mukashi) and Nodi Swamy Naavirodu Heege (written by Manohar Katadare).
Era of novel-based films
Unlike most of the present Kannada filmmakers, prominent yesteryear directors believed in adapting popular novels. The likes of T.V. Singh Thakur (Chandavalliya Thota based on Ta.Ra.Su‘s novel), Puttanna Kanagal (Belli Moda adapted from Triveni’s novel, Nagarahavu adapted from three books of T.R. Subba Rao), S. Siddalingaiah (Bhootayyana Maga Ayyu from Goruru Ramaswamy Iyengar’s short story), and Dorai-Bhagavan (Eradu Kanasu from Vani’s novel) delivered classic book-to-screen translations.
“Apart from literary adaptations, directors banked on stories of writers from Tamil Nadu, like G. Balasubramaniam, or ripped off concepts and scenes from major Hollywood films,” informs film historian K. Puttaswamy.
“Kannada didn’t have screenwriters back then except during one interesting phase. Popular lyricist Chi Udayashankar teamed up with Tamil writer Sundar to write stories. The story goes that the Shankar-Sundar duo would meet prominent filmmakers with a suitcase full of scripts to sell,” he recollects.
A slew of remakes
From buying stories from writers of neighbouring states, Kannada filmmakers moved on to remaking hit films. The early 2000s witnessed a flurry of tasteless remakes in Kannada cinema. After two decades, the industry has more or less moved beyond this approach, but writing interesting original films remains a challenge for directors who hesitate to collaborate with writers.
Well-known author Vasudhendra feels current directors must get inspired from their famous predecessors and look for solid literary works to write their movie plots.
“Take Ta.Ra.Su‘s Chadurangada Mane for instance. It’s about two kings playing chess in a huge space using women as pieces. There is much to be explored here, like how women suffer the pain of standing for long hours in the boxes or how they learn to walk, like the different chess pieces (horse, camel, queen, and king). I find the story fascinating as it gives a chance to showcase all the nine rasas, and the director has enough room to add commercial elements in the plot,” he reasons.
“Another example would be one of Masti Venkatesh Iyengar’s short stories Venkatigana Hendathi. It’s about a pretty woman married to an ordinary man. One day, she is taken away from him by the village’s rich landlord. After many years, the landlord sends her back to her husband, who accepts her. It’s a fantastic story that reflects many faces of our society. It has juicy conflicts, like the woman’s plight. Malayalam cinema loves to explore such dark themes. Kannada must do it as well,” he says.
The poster boys of new-age Kannada cinema, though few, believe in scouting gifted writers. Rakshit Shetty built a writing team called The Seven Odds that co-wrote the blockbuster Kirik Party. Eight years since the film, and having worked with him in the well-mounted Avane Srimannarayana, many writers from The Seven Odds have turned into individual filmmakers. The idea behind forming a writing team was to make good films, Rakshit has often said. He intended to turn Seven Odds into a brand that people can trust.
Pawan Kumar (of Lucia and U-Turn fame) co-wrote Yogaraj Bhat’s Manasaare and Pancharangi before turning director. In one of his podcasts, he says how Bhat listened to his feedback and made changes in the scripts according to his suggestions. Pawan says the best way to enhance writing in cinema is by respecting writers.
Giving writers credit they deserve
Hemanth Rao (Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, Kavaludaari) vouches for giving writers the credit they deserve.
“I have always advocated for good pay for screenwriters. In the Kannada industry, there is no separate fee for the story. Sadly, makers judge writers by their appearance rather than their content. It’s extremely flawed thinking. If a big hero accepts a story, you need to put a price on it,” says Hemanth, who has co-written his films with Gundu Shetty.
“In the industry, no director is being paid for his story first. He is only paid for his ability to direct. So, writers who don’t have the technical knowledge end up becoming directors,” he says.
Hemanth has another big grouse. “It’s high time Karnataka had a writer’s association. We register our scripts at the Screen Writer’s Association in Mumbai. We need a similar organisation locally to safeguard our ideas,” he states.
Leaving an indelible mark
Imagination is the beginning of quality writing. Upendra, Guruprasad and Yogaraj Bhat have one thing in common. They try to be original with every attempt. Before the new-gen phase, these directors pulled the crowd to cinema halls.
Their unique offerings are a rage on social media. Meme creators use material from their films to create hilarious reels and memes for almost all situations. Upendra’s films (A, Upendra) might court controversies if released today, and there is no denying that his content cared less for sensitivity. Yet, his idiosyncratic ideas were a huge hit with film buffs, making him the most popular hero of Kannada cinema in the late 90s.
“Upendra is a contrarian. He always does films contrary to people’s expectations,” observes senior film writer S. Shyam Prasad. “To his credit, you can’t compare his stories to any other works. Perhaps, his only inspiration, though not sure, is from a character in French writer Jean-Paul Sartre’s collection of stories, The Wall. The character of an angry protagonist shooting random people on the road in the book was re-created by Upendra in A.
Guruprasad’s dialogues from Matha and Eddelu Manjuntha — both excellent dark comedies — always keep content creators on social media occupied. “Guruprasad is a poultry scientist who turned director for the love of films. He has watched thousands of films across languages,” says Shyam.
“Yet, like Upendra, Guruprasad strives to be different,” says Shyam. “As for Yogaraj Bhat, be it in his songs or dialogues, he remains updated with the latest vocabulary of college-goers. No wonder his romantic comedies are popular among youngsters,” adds Shyam.
Writing for women
Mainstream Kannada films, for a long time, haven’t written solid characters for women. “If stories aren’t blatantly driven by market demands, then it’s possible to see more sensible female characters in Kannada films,” opines Roopa Rao.
The filmmaker made the excellent Gantumoote, a coming-of-age drama from a female perspective. Her writing prowess was evident in how well she balanced a relevant subject set in a much simpler time. “Even if one isn’t interested in writing women-centric films, at least he or she should ensure a balance between the representation of the male and female characters,” she says.