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In the realm of the status quo-the films of Puttanna Kanagal by Ramchandra P N

Ramchandra P N

I have been harboring this theory for quite some time now that in the Indian mainstream film industry unless a movie has a distinct regressive flavor to it, it never even gets made. Quite often mainstream movies outwardly look progressive and modern but scratch them a bit and what is beneath can easily be revealed. In fact, the retrograded nature of the movies - often referred to as its 'Indianization' - is many times seen as a necessary virtue to have, mainly in their box office evaluations.

Puttanna Kanagal was a prolific film writer-director extremely active in the South Indian Film Industry between 1964 and 1985. He was a towering figure of the Kannada Film Industry who had a unique cinematic sense. He is said to have influenced a whole lot of film makers, including the likes of Bharathiraja and K. Balachandra. Among others he made his films like 'Belli Moda (Silver Cloud)' (1967), Gejje Puje (Anklet Worship)' (1969), Sharapanjara (The Cage of Arrows)' (1971), 'Nagarahavu (Cobra)', 'Edakallu Guddada Mele (Atop Yegakallu Hill) 1973, Upasane (Worship)' (1974), Paduvaaru Halliya Pandavaru (The Pandavas of Village Paduvara) 1978, Ranganayaki (The Drama Heroine) 1981 etc...

By and large, his films are based on popular fiction novels written by writers who were widely read by the middle-class bourgeoisie, whose concerns they invariably reflected. Most of his film were not only highly profitable but they also seemingly had progressive themes like subjugation of women, extra-marital relationships, inter-religious marriages, discrimination of the differently abled, feudal oppression, etc. I say 'seemingly' because, although like never before in Kannada Cinema such themes were so passionately dealt with, Puttanna's films could be seen as reactionary in nature as they glorify a defeatist attitude that invariably help maintain the status quo.

'Katha Sangama (A confluence of Stories)' a film he made in 1976 can elucidate this aspect. This is an anthology film that contains three stories based on published literary short stories. It is in fact a tribute film to the literary world of Karnataka whose influence can be seen both in mainstream and the new wave films of its times. Puttanna himself comes on screen in the beginning of 'Katha Sangama' as he talks about the richness of the Kannada literary world. He then introduces the writers of the short stories, who briefly explain what their works are about, before their respective short films begin.

The first film in the compilation is called 'Hangu' or 'Obligation'. It is about an upright University Professor constrained by his limited financial means is unable to fulfill the essential needs of his near and dear ones. He gets into a dilemma when he is lured into accepting a bribe from a father of an undeserving student in lieu of providing some grace marks. The most compact of the three shorts, as is customary in any Puttanna film, is overly dramatic in its idiom. Puttanna effectively ups the ante when he morphs the on-screen exaggeration that he has crafted into a realm of the surreal, when in the climax the answer sheet of the student to whom he is supposed to be unethically providing the grace marks is flying and chasing him all over the place.

The film does not let us know if Professor succumbed to the obligation or not. The writer of the short story tells us in the beginning of the film that it is the subtle predicament of the protagonist that he was interested in capturing while writing the short story, although there is nothing subtle in Puttanna's craft - in these short films or in the many others that he created over the years. The Professor's wife in the film turns out to be a level-headed character as she is quick in trying to arrange the cash needed from a neighbor for the treatment of her sick daughter or when she advises her husband to grant the grace marks to the student whose father has been already helping them in the treatment. The presence of mind that this minor character looks promising, but then the other two short films in this anthology predictably get messy.

'Athithi' or 'Guest' is the second film in this anthology. It has a fiery, independent spirited woman lecturer and a strict hostel warden as the protagonist who is out to prove to the world that she can live a life without the obligation of any male. By the end of this short her students, her brother and even the man who had once unsuccessfully proposed to her overtly or otherwise rub it on to her about the so called 'fallacies' of her thoughts - until she herself believes that her life has been an utter failure. The hypothesis clearly is that a fiercely self-determined woman successful in her career is invariably punished or must be punished or is wished to be punished by her society that isolates her because her radical views don't match theirs.

Puttanna's take on this design is crucial for the film. The film uses a series of flashbacks to make its point. The protagonist, sitting in her dimly lit dark room, ponders over the past when she had confidently rejected her suitor because he had held a rather restrictive view of women. During her reflective bouts in the present, the camera by and large looks down on her and is aligned to an appropriate music that heightens her fear, dilemma, anxiety, and doom. The imagery itself in such sequences are in low key / high contrast, where the entire frame is painted dark and somber, as if reflecting the doom. This is distinct from the imagery of the flashback sequences which are in high key / low contrast; brightly lit, well exposed and having various shades of grey as if mimicking the cheery mood of its times.

Puttanna Kanagal

Poignant is the composition in a frame that is repeated twice in the film. The frame consists of an empty long corridor of the hostel that is decked by a photographic perspective, a space often inhabited by the girls of the hostel who make fun of the warden for what she is. Squeezed out at one extreme edge of this frame is a portion of a waiting room where we see the warden sitting patiently expecting the entry of an 'errant' inmate, quite late in the night. Her positioning in the frame in this manner is exclusive in nature and insignificant in size when seen in relation to the vast and long corridor that almost fills the screen. It almost seems like she is shunted away onto the edge of the frame and by its natural extension, in the general scheme of things. This is in direct contrast with her positioning in the flashbacks, where she is prominently framed and where her views are overtly communicated, to whomsoever it would matter.

The second time we see this frame is right at the end of the film when the 'errant' girl arrives quite late at the hostel, beyond the time permitted, only to break the news of her engagement with her longstanding lover to her warden. After blessing the girl with an emphasized defeatist attitude, the warden walks away from her in the corridor. The camera stays in front of the warden and moves along with her, leaving the girl to recede into the background. At some point we expect the warden to exit the frame for us to see the corridor; so that the film ends. But instead, Puttanna cuts to the opposite angle, where we take the static position of the hostel inmates and see the lady walk away into the photographic vanishing point of the frame, insignificantly far away. In the end, Puttanna literally makes the camera and thus the audience take up the conservative position of the regressive naysayers. By directorial design, that is what we end up becoming in 'Athithi'. So, the cinematic language of Puttanna too is aligned to the plot's traditionalistic stand.

The third short film, 'Munitaayi (Mother Muni)' gets messier by the minute. Munitaayi is a blind young woman living with her poor grandfather in a quintessential village that seems to be unadulterated by the evil influences of any nearby city. A sense of community living displayed by the village sees its members organically support the family in need. When a benevolent man marries her despite her blindness, she treats him as a god - singing the same song that she had sung at her village temple, for him - in utter devotion and deep gratitude. But then after marriage she must shift to her husband's house situated in another village. This village embodies the perversions of the city that it has an easy access to, but which is never shown on screen.

Taking advantage of her blindness, the blind lady is raped by the local weirdo who is heavily into gambling, drinking, and enjoying sensual movies that he sees in the nearby city. After a bit of pondering, the husband in the end unsparingly declares that within the given circumstances Munitayi is not at fault, although his upbringing is mired with patriarchal mythological stories like that of Ahalya being turned into a stone by her angry husband Sage Gautama, when he sees her make love to the celestial Lord Indra who had cleverly disguised himself as Sage Gautama at that time. The insinuation is that the act of 'accepting' a lady who has been raped is anti patriarchal in nature as against the mythological story where the woman is punished for no fault of her own.

Whereas the reality in 'Munitayi' would be that the man here is looked upon as a divine benevolent god who is prayed to in utter devotion as a savior- first for charitably marrying the blind woman and then magnanimously 'accepting' her despite the 'adulterous implications' of the event that she has undergone. The process of healing for such a traumatic violent infringement on the body and mind is based on the obligation that she has on the male. This film, as well as the second one, could as well have been named as 'Hangu' or 'Obligation'!

'Munitayi' weaves a facade of progressiveness to it when it comes to defining its position on women, but in actual effect it is in sync with the customary view held by the society that eulogizes a husband as a 'patideva', or the good lord himself. In fact, Munitayi literally says so in the last dialogue in the film. The most practical character in the first film 'Hangu' - the wife - is insignificantly relegated to the background, the warden in the second film 'Athithi' a single woman with an independent worldview is proved to be a failure in life and in 'Munitayi' the blind female survives solely on the basis on the patronage that is provided by her husband.

This could well be one of the most prominent features that encompasses the films of Puttanna Kanagal - that most of his films look as if they are breaking away from the traditional values embedded in our society, but in effect in the end they wimp out only to endorse the status quo. The society during which his films were made was probably going through a similar process. The post Indian independence modern world was firmly entrenched by the 1970s but was perhaps finding it difficult to break away from the old world, in its totality. That his films reflected this reality could be a major reason as to why Puttanna Kanagal's films were extremely successful at the box office.

Ramchandra PN is a Mumbai based, award winning independent filmmaker.

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Ahana Srivastava
Ahana Srivastava
Jun 23, 2021

What lurks beneath the so called progressive. That it was as much there in the mainstream of the south as in the films of the North.

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