Sandalwood stories

Last Updated: Fri, Sep 23, 2011 19:41 hrs

The rot in the Kannada film world runs deep. The Darshan affair is just the tip of the iceberg

In his 2010 hit film Porki (Loafer), Kannada star Darshan beats to pulp and later kills the lecherous police inspector who has the cheek to offend his lady love. This villain-bashing, morals-upholding role — and Darshan has essayed several ones in his 11-year acting career — is clearly at odds with the charge he now faces: assaulting and attempting to murder his wife Vijayalakshmi. Darshan, known to his fans as the “Challenging Star”, is cooling his heels in Bangalore’s central prison at Parappana Agrahara, after his discharge from the hospital he was rushed to within hours of being arrested. The actor’s only hope now lies in the Karnataka High Court granting him bail or in another illness that takes him to the next hospital ward.

What grabbed more headlines than the actor’s arrest, though, was the shocking reaction of the Kannada Film Producers’ Association which blamed actress Nikitha Thukral for the marital discord between Darshan and his wife and promptly banned the actress for three years. Nothing personal, it was just business. Darshan has three big-budget films lined up; so the star’s prolonged imprisonment is very bad news for them. But such was the outrage this provoked that the association had to revoke the ban in no time.

Bizarre as it may sound, this is just another twist in the script of the Kannada film industry, dubbed Sandalwood by the media, a combination of the irrepressible tendency to link the name of all Indian film industries to Hollywood and Karnataka’s association with sandal. The other elements of the plot are chauvinism and insularity.

The narrative of the 77-year-old industry, often in the news for one ban or the other, has much to do with the location of Karnataka. Sharing borders with Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala has meant an influx of people, language and culture from all the neighbouring states, including their cinema. But as Telugu, Tamil and other films began to outnumber Kannada, the film fraternity began to demand more and more protection from the state government, rather than compete and flourish in a free market. A demand was raised that non-Kannada films be released in Karnataka only seven weeks after they have been released elsewhere, and even then only six prints of the films be allowed. The government acceded to this. This rule was later replaced by another rule, still in place, that non-Kannada films should be released only in 24 of the over 600 cinema halls in the state.

Members of the industry defend the norms. “You have to understand that while, say, Malayalam films face competition only from Tamil films, we in Karnataka have to compete with films in six languages, including Hindi and English,” says distributor V H Suresh, sitting in his office in Gandhinagar, the old-time hub of the industry. Suresh, known in the fraternity as “Mars Suresh”, after his company Mars Distributors, is a former vice-president of the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce (KFCC), the apex body of Kannada cinema. These norms, he says, are not laws — these are an agreement between the various stakeholders, from producers and artistes to distributors and exhibitors.

And because it is not law, others know it can be challenged in a court of law and the market addressed to its full potential. Leading the charge is Big Pictures, the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani group company, which has had several run-ins with KFCC. The latest was over the release of the Mani Ratnam-directed Raavan last year. The film chamber tried to ban the screening of the Abhishek Bachchan-Aishwarya Rai-starrer on the grounds that it was being shown in more than the mandated 24 theatres. Big Pictures approached the Competition Commission, which struck down the ban.

The tendency to guard their own turf is not confined to releases. Veteran Malayalam film director Fazil, who has directed films in Tamil and Telugu as well, says shooting in Karnataka is not easy because support staff like drivers need to compulsorily be locals, even though they might not understand any language besides Kannada. “We used to shoot a lot in Bangalore once upon a time, but not anymore,” he says. K C Chandrasekhar, set to take over as president of KFCC, argues that this is the norm if filmmakers go to any other state too.

There are restrictions also on dubbed films; so Kannada movie-goers will never be familiar with other regional cinema actors. And not too many Kannada films are released outside the state, an issue Chandrasekhar hopes to address when he assumes office on Sunday. As a result, the Kannada film industry tends to be viewed as isolated from its regional language peers. “It is perfectly understandable that they want to promote their own industry but one wonders if it is a healthy trend in the long term,” Fazil adds.

Fazil, incidentally, was also the first director to cast Nikitha. The ban on her was lifted in a week, industry sources say, because of its condemnation by Parvathamma Rajkumar, producer and wife of the late Kannada film idol Rajkumar, widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in Sandalwood. The ban on Nikitha and its retraction is not a one-off though. Earlier this year, Basant Kumar Patil, then president of KFCC, announced a one-year ban on Ramya, a top Kannada actress, following a dispute with a producer over money she had lent him. And last year, Patil threatened to expel the chamber’s members, ban its own actors and stop the screening of all non-Kannada films indefinitely if the industry’s demands (which included an undertaking from all Kannada television channels not to telecast any dubbed film or programme) were not met! Just like in Nikitha’s case, neither of these two bans was enforced.

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One of the main defences for protecting the Kannada film industry was that it had a smaller market and that it produced far fewer films compared to its peers in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. But the latter changed dramatically a few years ago, with the number of films produced nearly doubling, fuelled by money from the real estate boom. According to the KFCC, the number of Kannada films certified by the regional censor board leapt from 75 in 2006 to 106 in 2007. But this just meant an increase in the quantity of films, since they were made by people with little or no idea of good cinema and who saw it only as a glamorous option to invest the funds they were flush with, says a member of the film certification board. Last year, 143 Kannada films were certified, the highest number after Tamil (226), Hindi (219) and Telugu (188). Many of these producers also prefer to back projects that are remakes of hit films in other languages, rather than finance original stories, which would be riskier, she says.

This is the reason why 22-year-old Sangeetha Rajan says she prefers to watch Tamil films to those in her mother tongue. “Even if there is one successful hit film in Kannada, many remakes of it will follow,” says the MCom student. The market share of Kannada films, when compared to other South Indian language films, is not large either. According to a Ficci-Ernst & Young report released in 2009, Kannada films contribute a mere Rs 50 crore to the Rs 1,730-crore South Indian film market. Telugu and Tamil cinema contribute around Rs 770 crore each, while Malayalam cinema accounts for Rs 140 crore

And yet many investors are reportedly able to recover costs; most of the films produced, says Suresh, have budgets of less than Rs 1 crore, with just around 10 per cent films made for Rs 5 crore and above. “Everything hinges on the hero; once he gives the dates, the producer can find financing easily and recover his investment by selling satellite and audio rights. That’s why there is always a mad scramble to sign on the top two or three actors, regardless of the storyline and the script,” says a Kannada journalist who has been tracking the local film industry for over two decades.

This is also said to be the reason why the producers, instead of banning Darshan for assaulting his wife, sought to appease him by banning Nikitha since at least three big-budget films featuring him are in various stages of production. Darshan is among the highest paid Kannada stars, charging up to Rs 1.5 crore per film. The only actor commanding more is Puneeth Rajkumar, son of the late Rajkumar, at Rs 2.5 to 3 crore. Darshan’s other peers, like Sudeep, Vijay and Shivrajkumar, all fall in the Rs 1-crore bracket. A film starring Puneet or Darshan typically has a budget of Rs 4 to 5 crore. Their female counterparts, in comparison, lag far behind: Ramya, said to be one of its highest paid actresses, receives around Rs 35 lakh. The dominance of men in mainstream Kannada cinema is evident here too, as it was in the Darshan-Vijayalakshmi-Nikitha episode.

But though other language films might be more popular, mainstream Kannada films are not exactly bereft of fans, as seen in the crowds hoping to get a glimpse of Darshan when his bail hearing was going on, and in the posters of the star stuck behind auto-rickshaws.

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