Sandalwood
Artistes, filmmakers and technicians who worked in the award-winning films speak to TNM about their journey.

It’s been four days since the National Film Awards were announced, and the Kannada film industry seems overwhelmed by the bounty it received this year — 13 awards in all, including 11 for feature films. For an industry that topped the number of films made in the country in 2018-19 — 243, this was a bonanza.

Predictably, the team of Nathicharami, a haunting tale of grief, desire and longing, is on Cloud 9, with five awards — Best Kannada Film (Director: Mansore), Best Singer (female) for Bindhumalini, Best Editing for Nagendra Ujjani, Best Lyrics for director Mansore, and a Special Mention Award from the Jury for lead actor Sruthi Hariharan. The film did not do well in the theatrical circuit, releasing as it did on the heels of Sruthi’s complaint against Arjun Sarja as part of the 'Me Too' movement. There seemed to have been a concerted effort to run the film down, with fake reviews clogging websites and trolls supporting Arjun Sarja out in full force, targeting Sruthi and the film. The team was heartbroken. And, the awards are a much-needed shot in the arm for a team that worked hard to make a sensitive, non-voyeuristic film.

Sruthi, who is busy bonding with her fortnight-old daughter Janaki, says that the words the jury used, “complex and nuanced portrayal of a new-age Indian woman” elated her, because both Mansore and she were sure the film never should get dramatic, even though there was a lot of drama. “The minute it stopped being real, it would take away from the relatability of Gauri, a complex character. To be real and maintain that complexity took work. All credit to the director and editor, who played with silence, and the music composer who respected that silence,” she adds.

Sruthi says the film helped her come to terms with her father’s demise, and converse things with her mother that she had never spoken about. “I saw her struggle with the process of letting go of my father, both tangibly and intangibly. When the script came, I told myself, ‘Hey, I know Gauri up close, I live with her.” The film, feels Sruthi, is reflective of changing times and shows that we have started accepting flawed, real women on screen.

And no, while many have told her the awards are a slap on the faces of those who questioned her integrity, she says it is merely validation for the film, and is not related to the 'Me Too' movement in any way.

Barring one award that was restricted to the region (Best Kannada film), the rest saw Kannada films compete with films from the rest of India. Which is what delighted actor-writer-director-producer Rishab Shetty the most when his Sarkari Hi Pra Shaale, Kasargodu; Koduge: Ramanna Rai was awarded the Golden Lotus for Best Children’s film. “I studied in a similar school in Keradi, near Kundapura. The film was my attempt at nostalgia, while focussing on politics over language. The citation was a validation of why I made the movie.” Rishab chose to make the film entertaining, because he wanted it to reach people. And, he hopes that one day basic education will be delivered in the mother tongue, so that children grow up with knowledge of their history and culture.

For this film, Rishab went back to the time when well-made, entertaining films also bagged awards. “It was only later that films got defined as parallel and mainstream. I always try and balance each film so that we find an audience, and get a chance to explore good content.” He believes that recognition for a new wave of Kannada cinema began with Rakshit Shetty’s Ulidavaru Kandanthe (in which Rishab acted), which broke many concepts. “We now explore dialects… there’s Mangaluru Kannada, Hubbali Kannada, Kundapura Kannada… that roots a film well and helps reach it universally. In fact, I’d say that Sarkari was made thanks to the path paved by Ulidavaru.”

Another film that reaped the benefit of being made with all heart is D Satya Prakash’s Ondalla Eradalla that bagged two awards — The Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film On National Integration and Best Child Actor for Rohith Pandavapura, who plays Sameera, a Muslim boy who loves his pet cow Banu. The film traces wide-eyed Sameera’s journey as he sets out in search of a missing Banu, and the people he meets. He also goes to a temple in his quest and calls the priest, Maulvi Saheb. The priest is initially shocked, but recognises the child’s faith, and prays that he finds his cow.

“Rohith was the last boy we auditioned. He is from near Mysuru, and stayed with us during pre-production and is a natural. He took permission from school during class 3 for shooting. I was hoping he gets some recognition. The award for the film is a double bonanza,” says Satya, who adds that the team tried very hard to not make the film preachy. Luckily for Satya, he found a generous producer (Umapathy Srinivas Gowda) who understood what the team was trying to achieve. “His sensibility matched ours, and he’s delighted about the awards. We now hope to re-release the film during Children’s Day,” says Satya who is scripting for a Puneeth Rajkumar production. In fact, he is the only second Kannada director to win the National Integration award after his guru TS Nagabharana, who won it thrice, most recently for Kallarali Hoovagi in 2006.

At home in Pandavapura, Rohith, now in Class 4, is busy finishing his Kannada copy writing. His mother requests him to answer the phone, but he wants to complete his homework. “Our relative from Bengaluru called to tell us the news, but I thought it was a joke. Then, I saw it on my mother’s phone, and thumba excitement aaythu (was very excited). When I shot the hulivesha scenes, maja banthu… (felt overjoyed)," he says.

Prashant Neel’s KGF, starring Yash as don Rocky Bhai, and which broke all box-office records for a Kannada movie, collecting close to Rs. 250 crore across languages, bagged two awards — Best Action Direction (Anbariv and Vikram Mor) and Best Special Effects (Unifi Media). The film had a lot of action sequences, and the connecting thread among all was that they scored high on grace.

“Our brief was that the fight sequences should have a ‘heavy’ beginning, and be interesting. It called for a lot of rehearsal, and the artistes’ cooperation, and that’s why it got the reception it did,” say Anbariv, siblings who like to be quoted as a single entity. They say they learnt to infuse grace and a storyline into their stunts from their master FEFSI Vijayan. “That way, people will always remember the story. We usually draw up a storyboard for the fights,” say the siblings, whose claim to fame was Madras. “In fact, we’d consider this award as an award for all our work till now, for what we showcased in KGF was the result of all that learning,” they say.

Vikram Mor, the third person named in the award, says the film was all about joint effort. “If Prashant would want six episodes, I would give him 12. We (he and Anbariv) worked as separate teams, but there were stunt sequences where one took over where the other left,” says Vikram. KGF is his 45th film as stunt choreographer. All of them say that the award has encouraged them to do better for KGF 2.

For Udayaravi Hegde, managing partner or Unifi Media, the biggest stamp of approval was when people wondered why the film was given an award for special effects. “That shows we did our job well. The team will, after the sequel releases, speak about our work. We don’t want to reveal the magic,” he says. A team of 150 people worked across Bengaluru, Mumbai and Chennai to lend the film classy special effects. “KGF is a big film for our cinema, and it was gratifying that Prashant bucked the trend of looking for experts elsewhere and trusted a local company with the job,” says Hegde, who has been in the industry since 2006 and whose company works on 50-60 Kannada films a year.

For Mansore, whose debut Harivu won the National Award For Best Kannada Film in 2014, making and marketing Nathicharami was a struggle as was getting it to play in theatres.

“The film taught me a lot, especially how important overall support is. The film has educated me about the factors that we don’t learn about otherwise. I was particular I did not want the film to look like what is popularly classified as ‘parallel cinema’. I was not making it just for awards and wanted to see if we could discuss a sensitive topic in a film. I’m glad the jury liked that. The film had a poor run in theatres, but has been receiving tremendous traction on Netflix,” says Mansore, who also won for Best Lyricist for the evocative "Mayavi Manave". The song is set like a conversation between Gauri's body and turbulent mind, and is filled with metaphors. The lyrics go thus: “Oh enchanting mind, Please don’t stop this body. The body has suffered in the angst of separation…quench that thirst.”

When composer Bindhumalini, who won the award for Best Female Singer for this song, listened to the first set of lyrics that came in, she was not very impressed. Later, Mansore came up with the lines that were finally used. They were translated into English by Sandhya Rani, who is also credited with the story of Nathicharami. Bindhumalini joins the ranks of the very few singers who have also composed their award-winning song. “For 'Maayavi Manave', which is about stepping out of one’s conditioning, I wanted a ghana raga, something like Varali or at least the essence of it. I imagined it as Gauri going back to her primordial feminine force, something like Dikshithar praying to his Devi. Through the song, I wanted Gauri to access her higher self and find the courage to do what she wanted, without being judged,” says Bindhu, who has also composed for the pathbreaking Aruvi in Tamil.

If there’s one more reason Nathicharami reached an audience unfamiliar in Kannada, credit should go to young Pranati AS, 25; this was her first subtitling project. She is a part of Bengaluru-based Rally For Subtitles, and offered to do it for Mansore, a family friend. “I used indirect translations for the film, and did a fair bit of research before taking on the project, to study women’s different emotions. The most difficult part to translate was the one featuring the therapist Carvalho,” she says.

For editor Nagendra, Nathicharami presented an interesting opportunity to showcase the various emotions of the protagonists. And that was something the jury observed too. “We had to balance the many characters and their characterisations with smooth transitions. Our rough cut was 3 hours 30 minutes. After 45-60 days at the edit table, it came down to 1 hour 43 minutes.” What Nagendra did was allow scenes to breathe and celebrate silence, too. He says the climax was the most difficult, because it had three components — Gauri's face, Suresh (Sanchari Vijay)’s realisation, his leaving her house and breaking down in his. I believe that transition carried the essence of that film,” says Nagendra, 30. This is his sophomore film after Nanu Avanalla Avalu, which won two National Film awards, including one for Sanchari Vijay (Best Actor). He’s now working with Mansore on his third film.

The other awardees include Ere Gowda for his non-feature Sarala Virala, which won the Best Educational Film. It is about organic famer Narayana Reddy, called the Fukuoka of Karnataka. Ere Gowda, the scriptwriter of Thithi, had been named in the 'Me Too' movement, and his Bale Kempu was subsequently dropped from festivals.

The Film For National Archives went to P Sheshadri’s Mookajjiya Kanasugalu, starring veteran actor Jayashree, and is based on the Jnanapith award-winning book with the same title by K. Shivaram Karanth.

The other non-feature that won is Mahan Hutatma, a film on Bhagat Singh by Sagar Puranik. It won the Jury Special Mention.