Talang Neer, and the ‘adventure’ that is Kodava cinema

Making films in Kodava is particularly challenging, unlike for other smaller languages in Karnataka
Talang Neer, and the ‘adventure’ that is Kodava cinema
Talang Neer, and the ‘adventure’ that is Kodava cinema
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How does one risk making films in a language that is spoken by a few lakh people, and in a district which barely has any theatres? Both factors are crucial to the survival of a film. “It’s an adventure,” says filmmaker Gopi Peenya, with a laugh.

Despite these odds, Gopi embarked on a venture to make “Talang Neer” (meaning Fresh Water) in Kodava. “I’ve been trekking in the district for the past 25 years, so I’m familiar with every hill and mountain in the district. The place and the people appeal to me a lot,” says Gopi.

But the degradation of forests and explosion of homestays in Kodagu in the past two decades prompted him to make the film along with his co-director Belliyappa Cherumandanda.

“Initially I wasn’t even thinking of making it in Kodava. But when Belliyappa and I began writing the script in Kannada, we realised that the film would lose its nativity,” Gopi says.

Making a film in Kodava is something no director or producer would venture into because finding a market is a challenge. But they went ahead nonetheless. A US-based friend invested in it and they drew up a budget. “We believed that people will definitely watch a film if its good.” But it was more than this conviction that drove the pair to make “Talang Neer”.

Many ethnic Kodavas – mainly a land-owning community – have a tradition of being in the armed forces, first during the British era and now in the Indian military. Although the community’s history is contested and much research is required, the community is considered as a martial community. “When men return home after putting in 18-20 years in service, they have to start from zero,” says Gopi. This is in fact, a line spoken by the protagonist of the film through whose eyes Gopi tells the story of the community. Watch the trailer of the film:

“Many people join up with the armed forces at a young age, sometimes as early as 18, and don’t really have a connect with the community. When they experience the corruption and the cultural disconnect on their return, they often feel ‘Is this what I gave so many years of my life for?’,” Gopi says.

Coupled with this are the insecurities that arise out of migration – both inward and outward – in the district. Many members of the community have stopped cultivating the land, rendering it fallow. “There is a sense that the community is losing its culture (which is tied to the land).”

For this reason, he and Belliyappa want take the film to the people across the district. They plan to organize a special screening for influential members of the community in the state capital through the Bengaluru Kodava Samaja, a community organization. “If they like it, the word will spread. We will then organize screenings in schools and colleges in every panchayat. Forget the awards, we want to take the film to the people.”

Belliyappa and Gopi began shooting in September 2015, and by December the film was completed. “Talang Neer” won the Karnataka State Best Film Award in the regional language category for 2015.

Besides “Talang Neer”, Chiriyapanda Suresh Nanjappa’s 2011 film “Na Puttna Mann” (The Land I was Born In) is probably the only other film to have been so widely appreciated since the first Kodava film “Naada Mann Naada Kool” (My Land, My Rice) in 1972. But “Na Puttna Mann” has achieved something that is rare for Kodava cinema: commercial success.

Suresh told The News Minute that making Kodava films is not viable. “No director or producer would venture into making a Kodava film, except maybe for an award. But there’s no guarantee that you will get an award. And making films and selling them on CDs is not viable,” he says dryly.

He says that financial returns on investment are secondary. “In order to make financial returns, you need to have the space to screen it first.” When Suresh made the film, a couple of more theatres were still functioning. Once, the district had about 25 cinema halls.

This situation affects not just Kodagu, but the whole state, says Sa.Ra. Govindu, President of the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce. Before the advent of television in the 1990s, Karnataka had 1,200 theatres. Today, the number has halved: 650.

Kodava is one of 50 languages spoken in Karnataka, mainly in Kodagu district in the Malnad region of southern Karnataka. The language is primarily spoken by the ethnic Kodava community, Kodava takk and its dialects are also spoken by several smaller communities in the district. At present, Kodagu has just two theatres, one in the district headquarters of Madikeri and the other in Kushalnagar town. “Na Puttna Mann” ran for about 35 days in Madikeri’s sole theatre, enabling the film to make money.  

Although Bengaluru has a sizeable Kodava-speaking community, they cannot really ensure commercial success. Neither can speakers of other languages be counted on to watch a Kodava film. For different reasons, both Suresh and Gopi think that the situation with Kodava films cannot be compared with Marathi film “Sairat”, which has been appreciated across the country.

“Sairat had the whole of Maharashtra (11.24 crore population), where it was screened. Karnataka has just about 6 crore people. Of that, the Kodava community numbers 1.5 lakh people, and has a total of about 2.5 lakh speakers. The situations aren’t comparable,” says Suresh, who is himself a Kodava. (These numbers roughly correspond with Census 2001 data)

Gopi says that there was a country-wide awareness about “Sairat”, whereas Kodava was hardly known. He also said that perhaps if at least the Kannada-speaking population watched Kodava films, it would make a difference.

But he has another interesting observation with regard to Kodava audiences. He drew a comparison with another regional language Tulu, whose speakers, spread in Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts, are an estimated 4 million.

“There is a peculiarity about Kodavas. There is no culture of watching plays and films unlike among Tulu-speakers,” Gopi says. Coastal Karnataka, where Tulu is primarily spoken, has a long tradition of story-telling, both through Yakshagana (folk-theatre) and bhootaradhane (spirit-worship). But even in modern times, Tulu comedies are wildly popular. “For Kodava films, we have to wait for word of mouth,” Gopi says. Hence, the plan to approach community leaders.

Gopi is currently away from Bengaluru. Next week, he and Belliyappa plan to initiate these meetings and hope to organize the screening in September. When they screen it in the villages of Kodagu, they will probably charge a fee.

“If we make money, then we’ll pay our team. Right now, most of them have agreed to work because they’re friends. They said they’ll take remuneration if the film makes money.” 

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