How the egghead became a Sandalwood hero: Ondu Motteya Kathe’s Raj B Shetty tells TNM

The hero of ‘OMK’, Janardhan, is so relatable because we all need somebody to accept us, says Raj.
How the egghead became a Sandalwood hero: Ondu Motteya Kathe’s Raj B Shetty tells TNM
How the egghead became a Sandalwood hero: Ondu Motteya Kathe’s Raj B Shetty tells TNM
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A skinny, balding, nervous Kannada professor in sleepy Mangaluru might seem an unlikely hero in star-obsessed Sandalwood. But that hasn’t stopped Ondu Motteya Kathe from winning hearts and striking gold at the box office.

Speaking to TNM, the film’s writer, director and star Raj B Shetty breaks down the success of his unlikely “egg-headed” lead.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Janardhan isn’t exactly a man with a golden heart. His obsession with marrying a “beautiful” woman is troubling. Despite this, the audience sympathizes with him. Why?

That’s because everybody is in the same position as Janardhan. Only great souls do not think like that. Janardhan is weak, but, there’s truth in him. We all go to Facebook and see if we can message somebody. When we’re lonely, we go to Whatsapp and try to chat up with somebody. We need somebody to accept us. But people do not say that out loud. When Janardhan does all these things, people see a reason to identify with him.

How did the film’s script evolve? Did you set out trying to write a comic drama?

If you’re conscious while writing, it won’t become a piece of art. You need to go with the flow. The director is the first audience member for a film. Nothing more than that! He should make the film he wishes to see. If he manipulates the audience, he’ll fail.

For OMK, I didn’t try to manipulate the audience. I didn’t make them feel a certain way. I wrote the emotions as I saw them in my mind.

Just before the interval, when Janardhan realises he’s been taken for a ride, he doesn’t break down or storm off in a filmy manner. But we feel the sadness in him. How did you make sure that OMK doesn’t have any of the regular tropes of a commercial film?

Maybe, that’s what happens in real life. The people of Mangaluru react less. And Janardhan is a Mangalurean, right? Also, if a person is egoistic, he won’t admit that he’s been hurt. I didn’t take the common route and make Janardhan cry, or walk off in the interval scene. He cries inside and the audience can sense it. It isn’t in Janardhan’s behaviour to walk off from such things.

I built the film around Janardhan’s character. That’s probably why Janardhan’s actions don’t look filmy.

Dr Rajkumar is an important character in the film with his pictures, songs and dialogues. How did his presence seep into the story and how did you keep him from becoming a gimmick?

I saw Dr Rajkumar from Janardhan’s perspective alone. Rajkumar isn’t saying anything in the film. It’s just Janardhan’s mind reacting to the things he’s seeing or hearing. When I was writing the film, I needed a character to push Janardhan. For a Kannada lecturer, in my opinion, there cannot be a bigger inspiration than Dr Raj.  

Janardhan is the sort of person who doesn’t have the confidence to take decisions on his own. He calls Sarala (in the climax) after his brother tells him to do so. He needs somebody at every stage of his life; whether it’s for giving a love letter, or going to Sarala’s house. For these reasons, I brought in Rajkumar.

The film speaks entirely in Mangaluru Kannada. This isn’t what we usually see in Sandalwood, except few examples like Ulidavaru Kandante. Did you worry about the reach and appeal of the film?

Bangalore Days, a Malayalam film, ran for 75 days in a multiplex in Mangaluru. Our people have the heart to give good films from another state a chance to do well. Audiences don’t care about what language the film is in. They give importance to the quality.

I know the words that can be avoided in the Mangaluru dialect so that it can be understood by everybody because I’m fluent in Bengaluru, Mangaluru, and Kundapura Kannada. Ulidavaru Kandante had a strong influence of Kundapura Kannada. Not many people could get it. Hence, I stayed away from that experimentation.

There’s not much of a difference in the vocabulary between Mangaluru and Bengaluru Kannada. The difference comes only in the intonation.

How much did the city of Mangaluru come into the telling of Janardhan’s story?

The city has helped me a lot. The people of Mangaluru live far from traffic. We have too much time on our hands. So, the movie, likewise, moves slowly. Some viewers might feel that the second half runs a bit slow. Maybe, they are not used to the slow-paced life of Mangaluru. 

A movie and its characters depend on the city they are set in. The pace of OMK is a replica of the lifestyles of the Mangaluru people. Had Janardhan lived in Bengaluru, he would have taken more time in looking for an auto than a woman.

Few films in Kannada are told with realism. But across the border, realism is very popular in Malayalam cinema. Why is Kannada cinema stuck to a formula?

When it comes to Kannada literature, we’re far ahead of other languages. We’ve won a lot of Jnanpith Awards. Contrarily, we’re a step behind in cinema. The excellence that there is in Kannada literature is missing in Kannada cinema. We blame the audience, saying that they aren’t accepting of new films.

I beg to differ, though. There was a demand for black tickets in one of the theatres in Bengaluru for OMK. If a film reflects the lives of the viewers, then they are ready to watch a film with no star in the lead.

We shouldn’t blame the audience for not watching films. We should first accept the fact that we do not know how to satisfy the audience. Then, we can start making good films.

And we need to work as a collective to move forward. That’s what’s happening in Malayalam cinema. Anjali Menon wrote a film for Anwar Rasheed (Ustad Hotel), and Anwar produced Anjali’s film (Bangalore Days). That sort of collaboration has just begun in Kannada cinema. Huliraya has been picked up by Paramvah Studios (Rakshit Shetty), and OMK was picked up by Pawan Kumar. The quality of work gets better with collaboration. If we stand and work together, then definitely Kannada cinema will produce great work.

Midhun Mukundan’s music brilliantly captures the sea breeze of Mangaluru. What was the brief given to him?

In this film, everything is simple – acting, dialogues, costumes, and colors. Similarly, the music had to be simple. The entry of the English Lecturer is the only place where the music gets heavy. That’s done to show how Janardhan feels at that point. It’s simple and smooth in all the other places. Since the film is told from the point of view of Janardhan, all the sounds would come from his state of mind. Naturally, they are simple.

The buzz around the film grew a lot thanks to Lucia director Pawan Kumar. When did he walk into OMK? And what did he say after he watched the film?

The film was completed by the time he came in. He watched the first cut and liked it. He doesn’t express much normally; but, he kept laughing while watching the movie. He didn’t say anything. He gave a standing ovation. At that moment, we knew we’d win.

In the past year or so, we’re seeing Kannada movies begin to spread more outside the state. Do you feel that language is a significant barrier for films, even with subtitles?

If a film cannot be understood when it’s played on mute, it’s not a good film. Cinema is a visual medium; not an audio medium. There’s no need to understand the language when the viewer understands the emotion. The people of Mangaluru are not the only ones who use Facebook. When Janardhan texts Jaanu on Facebook, it’s not the language that the people are interested in; it’s the theme. Movies should have a local flavor with a universal theme!

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