Many popular notions about Kannada cinema should be undergoing revision with the publication of K. Vittal Rao's new book in Tamil.
Vittal Rao has been on the Tamil and national literary scene for nearly 50 years and many of his novels have been path-breaking. Vittal Rao is an extremely well-informed chronicler of the art movement in India, and he has also written a moving history of book-sellers selling old books and magazines in Chennai.
Another field close to his heart is films. For a Tamil periodical called Nizhal, he wrote a series of articles on Kannada films.
The periodical has been one of the most enlightened and informative publications with exhaustive articles not only of the south Indian films but also monograph-length essays on specific actors and directors of national importance. It has been the first periodical to publish translations of Urdu writer Sadat Hassan Manto, who worked for Hindi and Urdu films made in Bombay during the pre-Partition years.
Imagine a Tamil magazine publishing a special number for Nur Jahan who migrated to Pakistan after Partition! Manto wrote short stories, screenplays and also his experiences with Bombay film actors and directors.
But for Nizhal, Tamils may not have come to know that there was an intelligent mind trying to chronicle the 1940s.
Nizhal (31/48, Rani Annanagar, Chennai 600078) published Vittal Rao, illustrating the piece with suitable stills.
Again, it came as a revelation that Kannada had a lively film industry alongside Tamil films, all along. Perhaps, in Kannada film, there was greater experimentation with themes generally sugar-coated in Indian films of other regional languages.
The Kannada film movement had the benefit of Gubbi Veeranna, who dedicated his entire life to bring into being a band of highly disciplined actors and directors. Raj Kumar was one of Veeranna’s protégés. Jayamma and M.V. Rajamma were among the better known actors whom Veeranna trained to play supporting roles.
Vittal Rao then traces Kannada films through the major directors. He acknowledges the part played by the ‘mainstream’ film makers. He has given a pride of place to ‘Samskara’ but when he discusses ‘Vamsavriksha,’ it becomes clear that the latter was the real milestone.
Having seen both the films, one is tempted to agree with the author. ‘Samskara’ lacked credibility and the story was like swinging a pickaxe while a toothpick would have served the purpose. G.V. Iyer simply swept away the whole of the declared avant-garde and made splendid milestone films with such improbable biopics as ‘Shankaracharya,’ ‘Ramanujacharya’ and ‘Madhvacharya.’ Appropriately, he made them in Sanskrit, Tamil and Kannada, respectively.
The 18 chapters of the book cover nearly 70 years. That it is in the form of a narrative rather than as notes of an encyclopaedia makes it read like a well-written novel.