Interview with M.K. Raghavendra, film critic, researcher and author.
M.K. RAGHAVENDRA is a film critic, researcher, author and a founder-editor of the film journal Deep Focus. He received the National Award (Swarna Kamal) for the best film critic in 1997. He was awarded a two-year Homi Bhabha Fellowship in 2000-01 to research Indian popular film narrative and a Goethe Institut Fellowship in 2000 to study post-War German cinema. His first book, Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema, was published by Oxford University Press in 2008 and his second, 50 Indian Film Classics, by HarperCollins in 2009. His third book, Bipolar Identity: Region, Nation and the Kannada Language Film, has just been published by Oxford University Press.
His essays on Indian cinema have appeared in important anthologies. He has also written extensively on literature and cinema in several journals and newspapers. He has taught cinema in India and abroad and written extensively on world cinema. He is also the founder-editor of Phalanx (www.phalanx.in), a Web journal dedicated to argument and debate.Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline.
Cinema is such a vast medium that there are many ways of interpreting films. I am interested in the methodology you use to interpret films.
When you are dealing with popular cinema, you are engaging with it in a different way. The difference between art cinema and popular cinema is that popular cinema addresses an audience whose concerns and anxieties are understood by the film-maker. If you follow successful films over a period of time, there is some kind of natural Darwinian selection which ensures that only those films that successfully address the concerns of the public at a subliminal level are hits. By studying these popular, successful films, one can understand how the audience addresses its own self in some way. Film-makers are only tools in this exercise of movie-making, and they cannot even articulate sometimes why they make successful films.
Even if you look at a film like Avatar , it almost looks like a spiritual film, but if you unpack its spiritual side, the film has to do with how First World countries are exploiting the resources of Third World nations. So when you look deep within a text, it becomes fairly clear that popular cinema has a huge amount to reveal about the audience. I have gone by this method and I have worked on Hindi cinema like this in my earlier book. I have used the same methods to understand Kannada cinema.
In my interpretation I try to make connections between film and the social history of the audience. I'm also interested in understanding why certain events cause greater anxiety than others, and I see this in films. For example, Independence in 1947 had a huge impact on Hindi cinema. It did not have any impact on Kannada cinema, but the linguistic reorganisation of States in 1956 did. My interpretation of Kannada films shows various anxieties that the audience has had in the past.
You said that the difference between popular cinema and art cinema is that the former addresses an audience, but does not art cinema also have an audience? Art cinema is usually the vision of an auteur and it has a different audience. If it does not have an audience, what is its place in society?
Well, what I meant to say is that hardly anyone sees art cinema. It is seen in small pockets here and there unless it addresses the concerns of a group. The only audience that art cinema regularly addresses is the state because it needs the state's patronage to survive. It depends on forums like the Indian Panorama section at the International Film Festival of India [IFFI] and on national awards and screenings on Doordarshan.
There is also an interesting paradox in art cinema addressing the state. The state cannot guarantee human rights, so it encourages films on human rights. It allows farmers to commit suicide but will encourage a film on farmer's suicides. By instituting awards for art cinema, it emphasises its concern but it does not do enough to deal with the actual problems. It doesn't make a difference whether it is Malayalam art cinema or Assamese art cinema or Kannada art cinema; they are all addressing the state through the same issues.
The basic challenge for art cinema is that it has to be respectable enough to be exhibited to national/international audiences and for that it wants to showcase culture, national concerns, the state of politics, etc. These are all the methods by which it gets public acceptance. While there is a feeling that the distinction between popular and art cinema has reduced, I would argue that it has increased. If you look at the work of Malayalam art cinema directors like Aravindan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who were mavericks, there is no evidence at all that they were addressing the state. They were making art cinema as art, and Aravindan was making cinema as art. It's a very personal vision and genuine auteur cinema.
Coming to your book on Kannada cinema, can you discuss what constitutes the audience for Kannada films?
The target audience for Kannada cinema is the people of the former princely state of Mysore [mainly southern Karnataka]. This does not mean that it is not seen outside this region. Old Mysore includes Bangalore, Mysore, Kolar, Tumkur, Chitradurga, Shimoga and Hassan but not parts like Bellary and Coorg. The subject matter of Kannada films and the heroes of Kannada popular cinema are always people who come from Old Mysore. It is not possible for a Kannada film hero to have a romance with someone from Raichur or Gulbarga. It does not mean that these movies are not seen outside Old Mysore.
What has happened today is that because of the interlinking of regions when the themes of the films are Bangalore-centric, people in Gulbarga will be interested. There is evidence that these films are appreciated in other parts of Karnataka apart from Old Mysore because people living there have connections with Old Mysore, but Kannada cinema does not give enough space for this region.
Does this then mean that Kannada cinema does not endorse a pan-Kannada identity?
I do not think that Kannada cinema has played this role at all. Old Mysore has usurped Kannada cinema, and there is no such pan-Kannada feeling if you look at Kannada cinema. I'll give you a couple of examples to argue my position. Look at Kittur Chennamma , a film about Chennamma, a freedom fighter who led a rebellion against the British in 1824. She came from somewhere near Belgaum, but if you look at the film, you have Chennamma who speaks [the] Mysore [dialect of] Kannada but the treacherous ministers who betray her to the British speak Belgaum Kannada.
Look at a more recent super-hit film, Mungaru Male . I think the Kannada hero does not marry the Kodava heroine simply because Coorg is not part of Old Mysore. There were other reasons given in the film, but they were simply unconvincing. It's very similar to Aamir Khan not marrying the white heroine in Rang De Basanti . You cannot have a romance between somebody from the nation and someone from outside because the nation draws a line around itself.
Similarly, Kannada has to draw a line around the region which is of Old Mysore. Since it draws this line, someone from Coorg will be outside the nation. Look at the word Sandalwood [a popular name for the Kannada film industry], for instance. Where has Sandalwood grown? Has it grown in Gulbarga? No, it has grown in Mysore.
I find it surprising that Kannada cinema has not tried to create a Kannada nation. Has that not been the purpose of regional cinema, to endorse a strong regional identity?
Rather than putting the obligation of creating the nation on Kannada cinema after all Kannada cinema is a commercial proposition I would say that it is a failure of the linguistic reorganisation of States.
Linguistic reorganisation did not create language unity in the way it was anticipated. I think it is fairly evident in Andhra Pradesh as well when you discuss Telangana. This means that language identity is not as stable as it is made out to be. After all, why is a commercial industry obliged to enlarge the territory of the Kannada nation? But linguistic reorganisation did intend to do this. The demand for linguistic reorganisation did not come from Mysore but from other territories that lay outside Mysore.
Look at the political leaders in Karnataka. Most of them come from Old Mysore. And look at the state of development, north Karnataka is backward when compared with Old Mysore. Even a film like Schoolmaster (1958) an early classic which challenged caste identity could not enlarge the Kannada nation.
What about Kannada language chauvinism? Does that derive any support from Kannada cinema?
There is no language chauvinism in Kannada cinema except very briefly. It is only in the 1960s that Kannada cinema includes even a Tamil character. A Kannada-speaking wrestler defeats a Tamil-speaking wrestler. There is Kannada language rhetoric. It is also surprising that with Bangalore being dominated by non-Kannada people there is no anti-outsider sentiment in Kannada cinema at all. There are films which prominently display Kannada flags and celebrate Rajyotsava [November 1, State formation day], but there is no evidence of chauvinism. One explanation for this might be that for Kannada cinema the outsider would be the non-Kannada speaker, but this would necessarily mean that it will have to include the non-Old Mysore regions as a strong part of the Kannada nation. I don't think Kannada cinema is ready to do that.
What about other participants in the Kannada region? How does Kannada cinema treat religious minorities, for instance?
They don't seem to exist at all. You hardly come across Muslims in Kannada cinema. They have a marginal presence in films like Sarvamangala, when in the early years after Indian Independence Mysore tried to get close to India. At that particular time, secular values that Hindi cinema used to uphold were also reflected in Kannada cinema. Communal riots are not discussed in Kannada cinema at all because I don't think it is such a big issue in Old Mysore.
Hindi cinema, right from its early days, has often dabbled with the idea of women's emancipation. Does Kannada cinema explore this issue?
Hindi cinema explored this question because women's emancipation was an idea that was firmly rooted in the concept of Indian modernity, but it was never a big part of Mysore modernity. The emphasis on technological modernity by people like Sir M. Vishvesvaraya was very different from the Indian modernity that had its roots in the Bengal renaissance.
The theme of women's emancipation came into Hindi cinema in the 1930s itself. On the contrary, in Kannada cinema the wife is an obedient devotee of the husband, and this has continued. Even if we look at the strong women in the films of Puttanna Kanagal, they are still operating within the family milieu, and her strength comes from her performance of dharmic duties. Dharma seems to be the key component for women in Kannada cinema when compared with women in Hindi cinema, who seem to be guided more by notions of right and wrong.
You mentioned earlier that many Kannada films are Bangalore-centric. How is this great metropolis seen in Kannada cinema?
Well, it has been dealt with in a nuanced way. While Bangalore was part of Old Mysore, it was also seen as the site where the British governed from. Secondly, it was also the site which has historically attracted migrants both during the colonial period and then later, after it became a hub for public sector industry. There are still parts of Old Bangalore where people do not speak Kannada. Bangalore was seen as something that was closer to the nation than the region [of Old Mysore], and it was a modern Nehruvian space through the 1960s when it first makes its appearance in Kannada cinema.
After the 1990s, Bangalore becomes such an economic powerhouse that its presence cannot be ignored in Kannada cinema, and so it begins to deal with it in an ambivalent way. It has become a monstrous presence in Kannada cinema, and unlike representations of Chennai in Tamil cinema or Mumbai in Hindi cinema, Bangalore has acquired a negative presence. It is being shown in that way because the prosperity of the city is not being shared with the region, and Karnataka seems to be acting for the city's interests rather than the region's.
Another interesting aspect that has emerged from this entire discussion is the burden of addressing two identities which falls on regional cinema. Regional cinema in India has to address the identities and concerns of people in the region as well as the larger nation. How has Kannada cinema dealt with this complicated idea?
You are right because Hindi cinema gets away [with it] easily as it addresses only the national identity, but regional cinemas have to address two identities. I must mention that Hindi cinema has also developed a second variable nowadays, that of the modern Anglophone identity, which it is trying to address separately. In Kannada cinema, the situation is rather strange because it is addressing a fading community [Old Mysore] which has no political locus standi, but this fading community is part of a larger nation. The nation is acknowledged, but the loyalties are local. It is not so much a question of questioning the nation as much as seeing the nation as being far away.
If you look at the early mythological-themed films of the Kannada superstar Rajkumar, there is God and there is a king. The king is a devotee of the God and is acknowledged as a higher authority but the local population is loyal to the king. If we break this down in the context of those times, God can be understood to be the nation (or the centre) and the king is the local government. It is interesting to see that God is not infallible and his fairness is not always guaranteed, but the overall powerfulness of the nation vis-a-vis the region is not questioned. Even contemporary Kannada cinema treats the nation in the same way if you look at the subtext carefully.
Rajkumar also had a very interesting role to play in Kannada cinema?
Yes, absolutely. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Rajkumar was the sole superstar of Kannada cinema. He did not have any rivals at all. Through his films he came to define the region [of Old Mysore], and he always played characters who upheld the Brahmin qualities of Old Mysore even though he was not a Brahmin by birth. He came to represent the self-image of the region and was its embodiment in his mythological films. After his death, the region seems to be losing its self-image.