Setting a new benchmark

The first director to receive eight consecutive National Awards for his films, P Sheshadri created a record of sorts in the eight-decade-old history of Kannada cinema. He is one of the few directors in the country making films on contemporary issues and has received both national and international acclaim. He rejuvenated the cooperative film making movement and showed that the model still works if the stakeholders are sincere. His debut film Munnudi, based on Muttuchera – a short story by Kendra Sahitya Akademi writer Bolwar Mahamad Kunhi got the national award as Best Film on Social Issues and actor H G Dattatreya won the Best Supporting Actor award, besides bringing the 10th Aravindan Puraskaram–2001 to Sheshadri. The director talks about his experiences:

My father Pattabhiramaiah, a primary school teacher, wanted me to become an engineer. I am the youngest of four siblings. I was an average student. For some time I studied art from renowned art guru MTV Acharya, who later got me a job at Navakarnataka Prakashana, a publishing house. I was designing cover pages for the publication. Later, I started working for a Kannada weekly ‘Suddi Sangaati’ edited by Indudhara Honnapura. There I wrote film reviews and features on films. This provided me an opportunity to understand the Kannada film industry. When the weekly closed down, I started writing scripts for films and assisting stalwarts of Kannada cinema like T N Seetharam, Nagabharana and others.

I was exposed to world cinema during the International Film Festival of India in Bengaluru in 1992. After that, it became a habit to attend the festival and watch films along with Seetharam and Nagendra Shah like a pilgrimage for 10 days. The films I watched for eight years inspired me to make some meaningful ones. By this time, my experience in the film industry taught me one thing – choosing film making as a career to satisfy my creative urge is one thing, earning livelihood from that is another thing altogether. I was in a dilemma, whether to make a commercial film to eke out my living or a parallel film to satisfy my creative urge. Doordarshan had a strong base back then and I was getting remuneration for the work done which was sufficient to make a decent living at that time.

My desire to make a film to quench my creativity grew and I got a window, after watching Malayalam film Karunam by Jayaraj at the IFFI in New Delhi in 2000. During a conversation, Jayaraj said that the film was made on a shoestring budget of ₹10 lakh. The film got the Golden Peacock Award as Best Film. It is a simple story that explores the loneliness of an old couple. This experiment gave me the confidence that a film could be made with little money.

In the journey from Delhi to Bengaluru, I was meditating over the film and I asked myself why I shouldn’t also experiment. At that time Muttuchera started rolling in the form of visuals. I read the short story in 1885–86. It was one of the stories published in Devarugala Rajyadalli, a collection of short stories by Bolwar. In fact I corrected the proof of the collection during my days in Navakarnataka publications and was moved by its strength. I again read Muttuchera in 1996, during the making of the Kathegara series of Doordarshan in association with Seetharam and Nagendra. We have visualised 200 classic Kannada short stories for Doordarshan at that time from Kamalapurada Hotel of Panje Mangesharaya to Halu Kudida Huduga of Abdul Rasheed. Though we wanted to visualise Muttuchera at that time, we dropped the idea because of its canvas. I decided to make Muttuchera as my debut film before reaching Bengaluru from Delhi.

I told the story to many producers and assured them of making the film with just ₹10 lakh, at a time when a commercial film was costing a minimum of a crore. Most of them laughed at me. One producer told me, no body will watch Munnudi as it is film with only Muslim characters and on the misuse of Shariat by opportunistic men as well as the manipulation of the testaments on Nikah and Talaaq. As there are no Hindu characters, no Hindu will watch the film and Muslims will keep away as it is against their beliefs.

It is at this juncture that the idea of producing the film in a cooperative model struck me, though similar attempts during the making of Ranadheera Kanteerava and Dashami had failed earlier. I learnt the technique of budgeting during the making of Kathegara. I asked myself, when it is possible to make one episode of 30 minutes in ₹25,000, why it is not possible to make a 120-minute film in a budget of ₹10 lakh. I shared the idea with my friends from the film industry, including technicians such as Manohar, actor Shashikumar, editor Kemparaju and Dattanna and every one agreed to invest ₹1 lakh each. This was how ‘Nava Chitra’, nine friends joined hands to make Munnudi.

As the script was ready, we decided to shoot the film in coastal locations of Mangaluru during the beginning of the Monsoon. Many people advised me against taking the risk. But, I was determined. Rain did not pose any problem during the shoot. It started raining only on the last day, before our crew packed up.

One incident hinted at the success of the film in the beginning. When we did the muhurta at the Ganapathi Temple in Suratkal, the priest refused to give flowers to one woman actor, presuming her as to be a Muslim woman. He could not recognise Tara Anuradha, the noted Kannada actor. This made me to realise that the film will be a hit. I have to recall the support extended by the Beary community of Mangaluru, who helped me in completing the film, by even allowing shooting in the mosque and parting with Beary costumes. The entire crew stayed in a hotel and from the light boy to the director shared rooms in the two floors occupied. We even shot a few scenes there without the knowledge of the hotel management.

Of course, the film faced some problems in the Central Board of Film Certification, as I dealt with a religiously sensitive subject. We broke the tradition by releasing in Mangaluru first. The film picked up in Prabhat Theatre after three days and completed almost 90 days and then we released in Bengaluru and the response was overwhelming. My calculation did not fail. In the end, the film made a total profit of ₹10 lakh. With that money, we made our next film Athithi the following year. We have made four films in the cooperative model so far. I am again opting for the same model for my eleventh film Mukkajjiya Kanasugalu, based on the novel of Shivarama Karantha.

As told to Muralidhara Khajane

This column chronicles film makers’ first efforts

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2020 1:18:33 AM |

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