For Sandalwood, 2016 was the year of strong stories. While the usual suspects like Shivrajkumar, Puneeth Rajkumar and Kichcha Sudeep took top billing at the box office, a handful of low and medium budget films with relatively unknown faces but powerful narratives were the talk of the town. Richly layered stories that tried hard to break away from cliché and present the singular realities of everyday life gave audiences hope for an industry that has struggled with redundancy for some years now.
Here are some of the most interesting experiments that came out of Kannada cinema this year:
Thithi was the one name on everybody’s lips months before the film even released, thanks to its very successful, award-winning run on the international festival circuit. Director Raam Reddy picked up an insignificant village in Karnataka, peopled it with amateur but astoundingly talented performers, and gave urban audiences a world that surprised them with its rural intricacies. Together with co-writer Ere Gowda, Raam Reddy managed a seemingly impossible task – to give us a completely fresh perspective of village life that was new and unpredictable at every turn. The film’s father-son duo of Thammappa (Thammegowda) and Gaddappa (Channegowda), in particular, staged a wonderful generational contradiction in how land, money and mobility are viewed, without falling into predictable patterns.
While Thithi stole the show on the film festival circuit, Pawan Kumar’s U Turn managed the impossible task of catching the eye of civic officials in Bengaluru. Who knew that a film could revolve around so insignificant a subject as traffic violations? Of course, when seen in terms of craft, that most audacious decision of the film’s plotting did leave something to be desired as it meandered into unconvincing terrain in order to hold its central conceit together through the climax. But Pawan, who wowed audiences with his Lucia, managed to pack the rest of the film with enough sound elements of the thriller genre to make it hard to dismiss U Turn as simply a gimmicky message film. And his lead actor Shraddha Srinath is a great find, playing the perfect bewildered centre to a series of events that seem to have little logic or meaning until the end.
Rama Rama Re
Another film that wonderfully nuanced a straightforward story, Rama Rama Re was a treat for its anchorage in the moment. A road film featuring a motley crew of characters forced together into a long journey through an empty landscape on a bus, this film resisted efforts to pack in complicated back stories and kept its conflicts sparsely outlined in the present, leaving room for the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps. The film was visually populated, meticulously capturing a landscape empty of people in ways that concentrated on the existential heart of the film. Rama Rama Re was not without its missteps, particularly in the way it approached its resolutions in predictable ways of the big questions of life, death, love and hate. But despite this, it was a thoroughly gripping ride.
Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu
Disparate worlds collide when an Alzheimer’s patient goes missing in Bengaluru in this warm story about familial relationships. What worked for the film was its straightforward treatment of a universally familiar story – what happens when parents grow old and suddenly need to be cared for. With a superb performance by Anant Nag as the Alzheimer’s patient, and competent support from the rest of the cast, this film was an enjoyable story fairly well told. It could have been edited better, as it sometimes threatened to get lost in its meandering journey, but it managed to keep one fairly engaged throughout.
One might find it odd to find a remake ranked among the best films of the year. But Idolle Ramayana deserves to be experienced and thought about in its own right. At the heart of it is the unusually heartening performances that the film’s lead pair of Prakash Raj and Priyamani, playing a “respectable man” and a sex worker locked up in a popular market area, deliver. The film takes a fairly predictable moral position, where the respectable patriarch who is unduly critical of his daughter’s burgeoning thirst for freedom, realises the value of letting people live without worrying about what society will say. But what director Prakash Raj does is to treat this shift with just the right amount of modesty and lightness it requires.
It was not the most slickly made film to come out of Sandalwood in 2016. But this was certainly one of the most daring experiments this year. Unlike the trend of ensemble narratives that insist on some great cosmic connection underlying our lives, Kahi raised the possibility of accident and chance play a greater role, and asked the question of what to do with meaning making in such a situation. To see a seriously philosophical question of this nature come in popular Kannada cinema was indeed a wonderful surprise. And it wasn’t just that the film had an interesting premise. Visually, with the scripting and with the soundtrack, director Arvind Shastri and his team, pushed this premise further, experimenting with a range of ideas to establish distance between the characters rather than the warm closeness of ensemble films. There was a lot that could have been done to give the film more finesse, but this was one of the most encouraging small films to come out of the Kannada film industry this year.