The Karnataka film industry is commonly referred to as Sandalwood. According to the Information Department of the Government of Karnataka, ‘The history of Kannada films is an enthralling saga of ups and downs, successes and failures and a climb to the pinnacle of glory. There was a time when the entire nation looked forward to happenings of the Kannada cinema. That there was a legend that if there is an entry of a Kannada cinema into to the fray of the central annual film awards no other film would get an award, speaks volumes of the phenomenal success of Kannada cinema’. The first Kannada-talking picture “Sati Sulochana” was made in 1934.
When the first two Kannada talking pictures “ Sati Sulochana” and “Bhakta Druva” were made in 1934 their producers had to go to outside places like Bombay and Kolhapur for production. Indeed for many years the Kannada film industry was centered in Madras and only much later the scene of action began to shift away from Madras to its native home. The honour of being the first film was bagged by “Sati Sulochana” directed by Y. V. Rao. Nellore-born Yeragudipatti Varada Rao, hailing from an affluent family began as a stage actor and took off to Kolhapur and Bombay where he played roles in silent films and also learnt the ropes of filmmaking. Late in 1920’s he relocated in Madras and worked as an assistant under pioneer filmmaker Raghupathy Prakash. Y.V.Rao acted as hero in many silent films made by R. Prakash and he also directed some. “Sati Sulochana” was his first talkie.
Rattihalli Nagendra Rao who played Ravana in Sati Sulochana was another legendary personality of Kannada cinema. Curiously, during the period 1935-45 only 13 movies were produced in Kannada and for three years from 1938 no films were made. Sadarame, Vasanthasena, were the two notable productions of the first decade of Kannada cinema, and in a way they were the torch bearers of the future trend of Kannada Cinema.
However the progress of Kannada cinema was slow. During its first 20 years less than 50 films were made mostly at Madras (now Chennai), and content wise, mythology, folk myths and fantasy dominated. Only occasionally contemporary themes were attempted to come to grips with social issues and problems affecting contemporary society and life.
The early stars of Kannada cinema also popular on stage were R. Nagendra Rao and M. V. Subbaiah Naidu and actresses like Lakshmi Bai, Kamala Bai, B.Jayamma, Harini, Pratima Devi and Jayashree. Kemparaju Urs, belonging to the Mysore royal family was another popular hero who produced and directed films in Kannada and Tamil. C. Honna, a Bhagavathar, a trained classical Carnatic musician also played lead roles in Kannada cinema but rather surprisingly he enjoyed better success in Tamil films. Towards the late 1940’s D. Shankar Singh and B.Vittalacharya (later a successful trend-setting filmmaker in Telugu) emerged as a force and made films like “Naga Kannika” and “Jagan Mohini”.
The name of Rajkumar works like magic in Karnataka. He was a phenomenon indeed. For over 40 years Rajkumar acted in scores of pictures doing a variety of roles. One of his films “Bhangarada Manushya” (1972) established new box-office record in Kannada cinema by running uninterruptedly for 75 weeks at a Bangalore city cinema. He acted in over 200 movies and is a recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award.
Other actors who achieved stardom in Kannada cinema are Vishnuvardhan, Ravichandran, Ananth Nag, Shankar Nag, Ambarish, Srinath and Prabhakar. Shankar Nag revealed a versatile range of talents as actor filmmaker and creative person but sadly he died young in 1990 in a tragic car accident. In his untimely death, Indian cinema lost a major talent. Among the actresses of Kannada cinema who have made a mark as stars are M.V. Rajamma, Pandari Bai, B.Saroja Devi, Bharathi, Kalpana, Manjula, Jayanthi, Leelavathi, B.Jayamma, Harini, B.V.Radha, Arthi and Sandhya. Interestingly many non Kannada actresses have made a mark in Kannada cinema.They include Sowkar Janaki, Raja Sulochana, Jamuna, Lakshmi, Saritha, Ambika, Radha and Padmapriya.
Kannada cinema has produced several directors over the decades and many of them attained great success. M.R. Vittal, Siddalingaiah, Shankar Singh, Y.R. Swami, T.V. Singh Takur, Hunsur Krishnamurthy, B.S. Ranga, Vijay Reddy, Ravi, Dorai-Bhagavan, Geethapriya, R . Ramamurthy, A.V. Seshagiri Rao, R .N. Jayagopal, N.Lakshmi Narayana and many others make up the list.
S.R. Puttanna Kanagal, is one of the few Kannada filmakers whose works are known outside Karnataka. Puttanna made films taking his core story from novels and literary works of leading Kannada writers. Indeed he was the first Kannada filmmaker to give Kannada cinema a touch of its own literature and this factor made him different from his fellow filmmakers. In Puttana’s celluloid creation one saw something of Karnataka, its culture, tradition, customs and people. This aspect of his cinema endeared him to the educated, the intelligentsia, and more discerning movie moviegoers of Karnataka. His films like “Gejje Pooje” (1970) “Shara Panjara” (1975), Nagara Havu (1972) are box-office hits hailed as classics of Kannada cinema. Puttanna directed films in Telugu, Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi too. In 1970 the film “Samskara” initiated a new movement in Kannada cinema inspiring filmmakers like Girish Karnad, B.V. Karanth, G.V.Iyer, Girish Kasaravalli, Chandrashekar Kambara, P. Lankesh, T .S.Nagabharana, Bargur Ramachandrappa, M.S. Sathyu, N.Lakshminaryana and other to make off-beat films. Many of these efforts won awards and acclaim.
The Government of Karnataka played an instrumental and unique role in the growth of Kannada cinema. For the first time in the country, the Karnataka State Government announced a scheme of subsidy to films that have been produced in Karnataka. Incidentally, Master Kishan, the kid director who directed the film ‘Care Off Footpath’ entered into the world of Guinness Records as the youngest film director in the world.
This relatively dormant yet influential industry has been dogged with many problems like the stiff competition from the neighbouring language films, video piracy, dubbing menace, lack of theatres, lack of story lines, lack of actresses, TV, and a plethora of other problems. But new directors including Upendra, Yogaraj Bhatt, Suri, Guru Prasad, Prem have in recent years given a new direction to Kannada cinema and the stupendous success of certain films has both upheld the quality and content of Kannada cinema. However, in September 2006, a sombre meeting of Kannada cinema producers was convened in Bangalore . It was decided that production of new Kannada films was to be suspended for one year, starting September 30 2006. This decision took note of the failure of 49 of the 50 movies produced that year. 2012 too was not very fruitful for the industry. Let’s hope the future will have ups rather than downs for the Kannada film industry.