How Kannada cinema debunked the pan-India theory

Small-scale films with fresh concepts focused on niche audiences have adopted unique promotional strategies to succeed at the box office, unlike the big-budget films earlier this year, finds The Hindu

Updated - October 12, 2023 12:31 pm IST

Published - September 14, 2023 09:10 pm IST

Aachar & Co, Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddare, and Kousalya Supraja Rama.

Aachar & Co, Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddare, and Kousalya Supraja Rama. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“The wait was nerve-wracking,” says first-time filmmaker Sindhu Sreenivasa Murthy, talking about the days that led up to the premiere of her film Aachar & CoHer anxiety soon made way for happiness when she saw the crowd embrace the film when it hit screens on July 28, in Bengaluru.

The film’s premiere was unusual in many ways. The makers invited journalists and people from the film fraternity to a single-screen viewing instead of a multiplex. The Cauvery theatre in the city was lit up with LED serial lights, and the movie hall’s entrance was decorated with flowers. There was even a traditional lamp at the centre of the decoration. Women graced the red carpet in sarees. The carefully planned event exuded the vibe of a family get-together, the kind of experience the makers wanted people to have while watching Aachar & Co.

Watch | How Kannada cinema debunked the pan-India theory | Video essay

The film, which attempted to cash in on the power of nostalgia, told the story of a big, conservative family in Bengaluru in the 1960s and 70s. Co-written by Murthy and stand-up comedian Kanan Gill, Aachar & Co tried to entice middle-aged women — who don’t often go to the cinemas for various reasons — to experience the magic of the big screen again.

Age no bar

“Our oldest viewer was a 99-year-old woman. She had come to watch the film on a multiplex screen in Koramangala with her grandchildren. It thrilled and moved me in equal measure,” says Sindhu. “Our target audience was women aged between 30 and 35 years, but we saw women over 70 and 80, who could barely walk, come to see our movie. People sent me pictures of families with 15 to 20 members watching the show together.”

Fruitful second half

The performance of Kannada films in the first and second half of 2023 is a study of contrasts. Big-budget films, such as Kranti and Kabzaaturned out to be damp squibs. However, the second half of the year saw a consistent flow of quality releases such as Daredevil Musthafa, Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddare, Aachar & Co, and Kousalya Supraja Rama.

Kousalya Supraja Rama was made by Shashank, an experienced filmmaker, whereas Aachar & Co, Daredevil Musthafa and Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddare, were directed by debutants. These films, made with moderate budgets, told relatable stories to the Kannada-speaking audience without the intention of pandering to a pan-India audience.

Shashank Soghal’s Daredevil Musthafabased on the famous story of Poornachandra Tejaswi, spurred a change in industry trends. “We made a film that everyone could enjoy, and the story was the real hero,” says Shashank Soghal about his college drama that highlights the importance of different communities coexisting in harmony.

Sindhu Sreenivasa Murthy in Aachar & Co

Sindhu Sreenivasa Murthy in Aachar & Co | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Aachar & Co focused on the small joys of living in much simpler times than now. “We gave a modern touch to the M.S. Subbalakshmi’s Suprabhatha song, and it went viral. I am a big fan of the pre-technology era. A lot of us are in a constant race, and we are overloaded with information. We desperately want to go back to those beautiful times. The film even showed that women made something of themselves while also taking family responsibilities back then,” Sindhu says.

WATCH | How a Kannada film broke filmmaking rules: ‘Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddare’

Meanwhile, Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddareby Nithin Krishnamurthy, was an unconventional film that broke several filmmaking rules. A college comedy, the film was shot in a cinema verite style. The dialogues felt spontaneous, and the hand-held camera remained in observational mode throughout to give a fly-on-the-wall effect to the viewers. The result? Youngsters thronged to cinema halls multiple times, cheering up the struggling theatre owners.

A still from Hostel Hudugaru Bekaggidare

A still from Hostel Hudugaru Bekaggidare | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Of course, they loved the humour, chaotic drama, and the raw energy of the film, but people also appreciated the technical nuances, points out Nithin. “The OTT boom has improved people’s knowledge of films. They were impressed with the film’s editing and cinematography. Apart from college students, those in the age group of 40, now working in the IT field, reminisced their hostel days,” says Nithin.

Shashank’s Kousalya Supraja Ramastarring Darling Krishna, Milana Nagaraj, and Brinda Acharya, explored the male ego, a less-discussed topic in Kannada cinema. For most of the film, the director dealt with the important subject in a sensitive manner.

“Kannada audiences are quite reserved. But once you bring them to the theatres, they appreciate sensible content,” observes Shashank. “After watching the film, mature and honest married men accepted the presence of deep-seated patriarchy in society, while youngsters vowed not to take their mothers for granted.”

Shashank drew on his years of experience to make Kousalya Supraja Rama a visually-engrossing movie, which was a decent package of laughs and emotionally-engaging moments. “We invested time and money on the music and the background score to enhance the drama. I believe that visual narration is always better than verbal narration. If you close your eyes and still understand a film, then it is a failure according to me,” he explains.

Darling Krishna and Brinda Acharya in Kousalya Supraja Rama

Darling Krishna and Brinda Acharya in Kousalya Supraja Rama | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“Pan-India is overhyped”

The success of these films debunks the pan-India theory upheld by several people in the fraternity. It shows how there need not always be a spectacle on screen for people to be convinced to come to the theatres. These results offer confidence to aspiring filmmakers who harbour a similar intent of making quality films for the local audience.

“Investors in the industry are creating a messy situation and brainwashing our heroes to do only pan-Indian films. I am struggling to finish my indie movie, and I have no idea of the outcome of the film’s business amongst the growing pan-India narrative in the industry,” says a one-film director on the condition of anonymity.

The term ‘pan-India’ is overhyped, feels experienced film writer S. Shyam Prasad. “When the Baahubali franchise happened, filmmakers saw it as a standalone development. Only when the KGF franchise repeated the success of Baahubali, producers scrambled to announce a flurry of projects as pan-India.”

“Earlier, a director had to convince a producer by talking about the benefits from the audio and satellite rights. Today, a producer is excited about a pan-India release without knowing the ground realities. The fact remains that they couldn’t create another KGF-like result,” observes Shyam.

Shyam also speaks about the perils of jumping onto the pan-India bandwagon without a plan. “Nobody asked the KGF makers Hombale Films about the pain of making their franchise a national or global success. Producers just saw the result, dubbed their films with ₹4 lakh to ₹5 lakh, and released them outside Karnataka ... but none of them made a mark. You need to do exceptional marketing to make people across the country watch your product. That’s what Hombale did.”

“And they were smart enough to release Kantara’s dubbed versions in other states only after it created a huge buzz. That’s the way to go about it,” he adds.

Watch | Kannada cinema in 2023 so far: Over 100 films, zero blockbusters

Marketing, the biggest weapon

As they tend to stand out in a crowded market, promotion is a crucial tool for small-scale, content-oriented films. “I believe word-of-mouth is the best promotion for a movie. However, today, you have to promote a film extensively. That requires smart planning,” says Shashank.

Kousalya Supraja Rama was made on a budget of ₹5 crore, and I reserved 25% of the amount for marketing. I was scared as my previous film Love 360 received rave reviews from critics, but it didn’t collect as much as we expected at the box office, mainly because people weren’t convinced by its pre-release buzz.”

Shashank still isn’t a fan of going out of the way to promote his films. Yet he had to follow the trend. “I finished my script in three months but designed the film’s promotions for five months,” he says with a laugh. The film team made quirky announcement videos, regularly visited theatres across the state, and even organised special shows dedicated to mothers.

Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddare, again made on a budget of ₹5 crore, garnered hype thanks to interesting promotional videos featuring stalwarts such as the late Puneeth Rajkumar, music director Ajaneesh Loknath, actors Ramya and Rakshit Shetty, who went on to distribute the film. “You have to think beyond the usual ideas to stay relevant,” says Nithin.

Being in a creative field, it’s not difficult to plan a feasible marketing strategy based on the available budget, feels Sindhu. Daredevil Musthafa, a crowd-funded film, is a fine example to bolster that argument.

The makers banked on a series of off-beat ideas to reach the masses. Shashank Soghal first grabbed the attention of the fans of Tejaswi with a three-part title announcement video in the lead-up to the legendary writer’s birthday. The team then offered a tribute to matinee idol Dr. Rajkumar with an animated song. “Call it madness or whatever, we worked for eight months on the song,” reveals Shashank Soghal.

A still from ‘Daredevil Musthafa’

A still from ‘Daredevil Musthafa’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

It was a masterstroke from the team to get the popular YouTuber Gagan Srinivas, famously known as Dr. Bro, to voice the film’s trailer. The team even gave cashback offers to those who watched the film in the first week. “These were risky yet unique decisions that paid off.”

In Aachar & Co, the protagonist Suma (Sindhu) finds a purpose in life when she becomes an entrepreneur by selling pickles. “We tied up with a pickle company and gave out Aachar & Co-branded pickle jars for people after the show. They were thrilled. It was like a souvenir for them,” says Sindhu.

Three films (Daredevil Musthafa, Hostel Hudugaru Bekagiddare, Kousalya Supraja Rama) completed 50 days in theatres. Even as they celebrate their much-deserved success, they have also offered a lesson on how deciding on a target audience, coming up with quality script and adopting a smart marketing plan can help small-scale films to flourish on the big screen.

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