‘Naagarahaavu’ vs ‘KGF’: What a comparison of the cult hits reveals about Kannada cinema

Both the films trace the journey of a flawed male protagonist but the treatment is very different.
‘Naagarahaavu’ vs ‘KGF’: What a comparison of the cult hits reveals about Kannada cinema
‘Naagarahaavu’ vs ‘KGF’: What a comparison of the cult hits reveals about Kannada cinema
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The Kannada film industry has been around for 85 years. In the last eight decades, the industry has notched up numerous achievements, won critical acclaim, and received awards from across the world. But, it began to slowly wither and crumble since the 2000s.

The industry’s fall was marked by a decline in the quality of movies made, money invested, and the number of screens playing Kannada movies also shrank. But then, things changed a little somewhere in the middle of the last decade. The 2006 hit Mungaru Male brought the Kannada audience back to theatres in large numbers. In 2013, India’s nomination for the Academy Awards was the Kannada movie Lucia, and a steady but shaky growth was noticeable. In 2016, to borrow Nisha Susan’s words, Kannada cinema was “having something of a moment”. Eleven Kannada movies released weeks apart and were running successfully in theatres, a new wave of Kannada Cinema had begun, and when KGF released in 2018, everybody took notice.

In the last 85 years, many themes in the Kannada cinema industry have seen revival, reworking and sometimes, they’ve just been regurgitated to the screen. How a theme, plot device or a social issue was addressed in a movie back then as compared to now, can be considered a measure of the industry’s growth.

Puttana Kanagal’s Naagarahaavu is a cult classic Kannada movie. It had an innovative plot, a flawed protagonist, and performances that kick-started careers for Kannada’s biggest actors Vishnuvardhan and Ambareesh. The movie was re-released in 2018 in colour and a 7.1 surround sound.

KGF, which brought the country’s attention to Kannada cinema, also has a flawed protagonist journey. Juxtaposing these two movies will help us understand if the industry has witnessed any growth in the films that become successful.

Boys’ club 

Puttanna Kanagal SR is a Kannada filmmaker who has attained cult status, and is recognised as one of the best filmmakers from south India. Naagarahaavu, based on TR Subba Rao’s trilogy novels Naagarahaavu, is a bildungsroman and a coming-of-age story about a young Ramachari, his life and eventual death.

Ramachari, played by Dr Vishnuvardhan, finds his life changing between the two women he falls in love with at two different junctures of his life, and the mentor whom he loves and hates in his masculine heteronormative way (read daddy issues, not necessarily the Freudian kind). 

KGF is a period action drama (no, I did not make it up!) that revolves around a man in a book titled El-Dorado (Yes, don’t ask). That man is Raja Krishnappa alias “Rocky” played by Yash. He was born in the 1950s, on the same day gold was discovered in the Kolar Gold Fields (KGF), destiny was very subtle like that back then. The same old “poor, bad boy who is rough around the edges because he grew up in the cruel and real world” introduction is made.

He’s a rowdy climbing the ranks till he ends up as the left-hand man of an important political outfit. But, the politician is worried about Rocky’s loyalty and sees him as a threat to his position. The politician gets Rocky a contract to kill the man behind the KGF mines. Rocky sneaks in as a slave, and he bonds with the poor peoples enslaved in the mine. He kisses a newborn and therefore feels obliged to help them. So, his plans expand to killing the man in the mine and saving those enslaved. He wants to take advantage of the chaos he creates to free the people, and kill his target. But, you need to wait for part 2 to find out what happened with the plan.

Both movies are set around the same period but about two different kinds of men in two different parts of the country. These are coming of age tales, a bildungsroman about men against whom the odds are stacked and what they do to beat them.

The role of women

Both movies were a magnum opus in the careers of the actors playing the lead and the directors. Stories of troubled men, their personal growth and how they overcome their shortcomings, are always the choice for such large-scale movies. Kodi Ramakrishna made another Nagarahavu (2016) with Ramya, a female actor in the lead, and that’s probably why it bombed at the box office too.

In Naagarahaavu (1972), Ramachari is the problem child with a short temper and is considered to be useless. But, he matures into a better person with each experience life throws at him. Alamelu, played by Aarathi, and Margaret, played by Shubha, are the two women he falls in love with. Days, maybe a week, after Alamelu gets married, he starts falling for Margaret who was already in love with him. Alamelu is the one that got away because of his personality, and the way society looked at him. He changes to be a better person for Margaret’s sake and for their relationship to work.

The women aren’t binaries for good and bad women, and they don’t have deeply misogynistic undertones in their characterisation. Their roles are far more progressive, with Alamelu choosing to not be saved by Ramachari, which triggers melancholia and rage in him that takes a destructive turn.

Margaret and Ramachari fighting for an inter-religious marriage in the 1970s, and making compromises for their faiths, is interesting despite being a problematic relationship (Margaret supposedly falls for him after he forces himself on her and kisses her).

KGF has Reena Desai, played by Srinidhi Shetty, falling in love with Rocky and waiting for him in Mumbai to be saved. Both movies are set in the 1970s, but Naagarahaavu was made in the 1970s, and it still has women with more agency. The women aren’t flat characters like Rocky’s mother Shantamma played by Archana Jois, who is just the primary caregiver. She gets a lot of screen time, and yet no attempt was made at developing her character or personality.

Malavika Avinash plays the role of Deepa Hegde, a news channel editor whose personality ends at being a loud and angry journalist in the little screen time she gets. Achyuth Kumar plays the role of Guru Pandian, a politician, and he gets both time and opportunity to establish himself as the cunning and conniving politician. Another opportunity was lost by limiting the women in the slave camp as triggers for Rocky’s passion against injustice. There’s no space for the women characters to grow, and they were either reduced to an invisible hand or a mere aid.  

Plots don’t tend to change

Both movies are about one man’s journey in life. Naagarahaavu, despite being made and set in the 1970s, sees women as individuals with lives and choices of their own. While KGF, set across three different periods, has the women limited to either gender or professional roles despite being made in 2017-18.

Men who are social outcasts, and their journey to become socially acceptable, is the plot in both films. Ramachari is a flawed, arrogant and impulsive man. He isn’t valorised for this behaviour but punished for his shortcomings. However, in KGF, Rocky grows leaps and bounds as a henchman and leader of a gang. All his flaws are pardoned by using his mother’s words on survival as an excuse and the regularly placed amma (mother) sentiment.

Ramachari in Naagarahaavu is a Brahmin, and his problems are that he isn’t Brahmin enough. His arrogance is rooted in his social status and gender privilege, and that pushes him off the cliff. While Rocky wasn’t a Brahmin, he also wasn’t a Dalit. A narrative of social mobility without any hints at caste is reason enough to assume he’s not upper caste. A 2018 movie still has trouble acknowledging caste but does not think twice about exploiting the narrative of a marginalised man from the streets of Mumbai.

Kannada cinema is still struggling, the success, awards and critical acclaim over the last few years have only been momentary. The new wave Kannada cinema is yet to gain momentum strong enough to give the filmmakers a platform. Maybe the success of women’s narrative (Nathicharami and Gantumoote), 13 National Awards among many other awards from film festivals, and commercial viability because of streaming platforms might just bring new stories, voices and genres in 2020.

Vinay Kumar is a Bengaluru based freelance photographer and writer who drinks too much coffee.

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