The two books under review are about Kannada cinema and both brought out by the Karnataka Chalanachitra Academy. The first one by K. Puttaswamy ( Kannada Talkies: 75 Glorious Years ) is the English translation of his Kannada book Cinema Yaana , which won him the Swarna Kamal for Best Writing on Cinema in 2009. Puttaswamy’s book is a history of Kannada cinema, the method he chooses being to look at signposts – key films ranging from the silent film Vasanthasena (1925) to the films of Girish Kasaravalli. Many of the early films are not available today and the author gives us interesting details with regard to each film’s making, including the actors, director and technicians. The involvement of T.P. Kailasm in the role of the comic villain Shakara in Vasanthasena is a fact that most people would be unaware of.
The silent Vasanthasena is not available, but the 1941 talkie by R. Nagendra Rao (which he also touches upon) is, and I was surprised by the line: “RNR, who plays the role of Shakara is said to have delivered a brilliant performance…” implying second hand opinion. Since the author’s approach remains informative even with the films available for viewing the book is not a book of criticism. Still, it is serious and the author does cite critical writing on Kannada cinema. D.R. Nagaraj writing on School Master (1957) described it correctly as a narrative on family disintegration. I myself would extend that to include an observation that the film (coming after Linguistic Reorganization) was the first to actually portray a ‘love marriage’ – not endogamy as marriages in Kannada film were, but contracted between people from different castes and places apart (Malur and Shimoga). Although this would need substantiation there could be an association between the family disintegrating and this secondary aspect. The book hardly commits itself with arguments but there is little doubt that it will remain valuable research material for anyone wanting to study Kannada cinema. The author has been meticulous in picking out key information and one can rely on his judgement in mapping out the body.
The second book Random Reflections: A Kaleidoscopic Musings on Kannada Cinema is a more amorphous but also bolder offering, dealing with issues and taking positions. The authors, Muralidhara Khajane and Subramanyan Viswanath, are senior journalists and its hazier focus may be attributed to its having more than one author. The first aspect of the book one notices is its literariness. Here are, for instance, the titles of two chapters: “Of Remakes and Dubbings: A Hamletian Dilemma” and “Dr Rajkumar: The Ingrained idea of Ubiquitous Nativism.” Given the space it is difficult to say much about a whole book as a literary exercise and I’ll just write about these two chapters. The first one fulfils the literary aspirations of the title but soon moves to plainer prose, evidencing the different hands at work. Unlike Puttaswamy’s book it tries to take a position on the politics in the industry – without of course naming anyone particular – and offers arguments on how the film has suffered on account on of the informal ban on the screening of dubbed films from other languages or remaking them. In 2010 Ernst & Young apparently estimated Kannada cinema’s market to be merely Rs 0.50 billion. This provides evidence of the economic paradox that the less the stakes the more the belligerence over them! Since this book is brought out by the Karnataka Chalanachira Academy, with tangible industry connections, its observations are less bland than one might have anticipated.
Given the sharp approach of the chapter above, the one on Rajkumar is a disappointment since it is not more than a panegyric: “A mega star of his times who shone like a lodestar carrying the dreams, desires, aspirations, ambitions and collective will of the people, Dr. Rajkumar was essentially what he was on screen, as also off it.” This is familiar rhetoric but one wonders at what it means. Rajkumar was a great star and Kannada film history without him is like the freedom struggle without Gandhi. But whatever is generally said about the star is also as lacking in substance as whatever tends to be said about Gandhi.
To conclude, there is not enough documentation of fact with regard to Kannada cinema, its history and the issues it implicates. There is not even a consensus on the facts since the two books say different things about the same silent film Vasanthasena , already cited here. The second book dates it at 1931 (instead of 1925) and attributes it to a play by T.P. Kailasam. Puttaswamy’s book may be factually more reliable since Kailasam was known for his dialogue, not pertinent in a silent film.
After making these small observations it should be added that any addition to scholarship on Kannada cinema is welcome and both efforts are extremely diligent. (The author is an Indian film/literary scholar, theorist, critic and writer who has several books to his credit)