Meanings of the City

Kannada cinema has always had an ambivalent relationship with Bangalore—until today, when it views the city with unconcealed loathing

Bright lights along Brigade Road, a busy commercial area of Bengaluru dotted with shops, restaurants and pubs. JON HICKS / CORBIS
01 October, 2011

IN A TYPICAL CONTEMPORARY KANNADA FILM, a Kannada-speaking migrant in Bengaluru tries to find employment, only to encounter difficulties at every step. Forced into the underworld, he becomes a dreaded don, cutting his enemies to bits with a cleaver until the law catches up with him and he dies. Bengaluru, here, is not the glamorous cosmopolis as perceived from afar, but a decidedly seedy city festering with crime and injustice. Why the most prosperous city in South India is portrayed as such in local-language cinema can perhaps only be understood through an enquiry into several connected factors—one which begins with the meaning of the city in Indian popular cinema.

The city has been a crucial motif in Indian popular cinema from 1947 onwards, but its meaning has changed with each significant event in this nation’s history. Bombay, for instance, used by Hindi films to represent ‘The City’, came into great cinematic prominence in the 1950s as a metaphor for the promise of the modern in Nehru’s India.

That uncomplicated optimism, however, did not last very long. By the late 1960s, Indira Gandhi’s brand of populism had unleashed a wave of aspiration across socioeconomic classes that imposed a new cinematic meaning on the city: it became a symbol of opportunity. In films like Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975), in which the iconic Angry Young Man first appeared, a dockyard worker ascends to wealth and power in the city—albeit through unlawful means. While films like Deewaar nominally uphold the law, material advancement by any means is shown as hugely attractive.

The early 1990s saw the end of Nehruvian socialism—after decades of interventionism, the PV Narasimha Rao government liberalised the economy and opened up India to global market forces. Hindi cinema began to reflect this development: the state was shown as withdrawing from its own institutions, with the police therefore behaving like private agencies—most notably in Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998).

One would expect regional cinemas in India to use their major metropolitan centre to represent ‘The City’ in their respective narratives, and for these cities to be portrayed as variants of Bollywood’s Mumbai. One purpose of regional cinema has traditionally been to endorse a strong regional identity, as seen in representations of Chennai in Tamil cinema or Kolkata in Bengali cinema. Yet somehow this is not true for Kannada cinema. It has always had an ambivalent relationship with Bangalore—until today, when it views the city with unconcealed loathing.

Each strain of popular cinema has its own constituency, the expanse of audiences it chooses to address. Mainstream Hindi cinema has traditionally addressed people across India and has therefore given voice to the concerns of a wide population. Kannada cinema defies the expectation of a pan-Kannada reach: earlier, it restricted its vision to princely Mysore (made up of Bangalore, Mysore and the remainder of southern Karnataka) and it continues to exclude Kannada-speaking regions beyond.

Mysore, during its rule by the Wodeyar dynasty, was regarded as a ‘nation within a nation’ and, to a large degree, has retained its exclusive culture ever since the time of British India. Vestiges of this sentiment lingered on in Kannada cinema, which was born in 1930s Mysore, even after linguistic reorganisation. Following the States Reorganisation Act of 1956, which redrew the boundaries of India’s states along linguistic lines, Mysore was enlarged by the addition of Coorg state and the Kannada-speaking districts of southern Bombay and western Hyderabad. The initiative for linguistic reorganisation of the Kannada-speaking areas did not come from Mysore but from other Kannada-speaking locales like Dharwad and Belgaum, whose residents had suffered considerably from speaking a minority language. People from the former Mysore retained memories of the princely state which did not fade, and so they never fully embraced the expanded region. Indeed, they lamented the changing of the name of the enlarged state from Mysore to Karnataka in 1973.

Linguistic reorganisation did not create unity in the way it was anticipated. While Bangalore was part of Old Mysore, it was also seen as the site from where the British governed. And it historically attracted migrants—both during the colonial period, and then later, after it became a hub for public-sector industries.

Jay Chamaraja Wodeyar rides the royal horse in Mysore during the festival of Dasara in 1956. DINODIA PHOTO LIBRARY

Bengaluru, or Bangalore, is an unlikely spot for a prosperous metropolis. Emerging from rather modest origins, it gained importance in 1807 when the British arranged with the government of Mysore for a regiment of European cavalry, and another of infantry, to be based northeast of the town, with administrative offices in the fort to the south. The importance of the Cantonment increased when the British, claiming corruption in administration, intervened to wrest power from the king and his advisors in 1831. The state then came under the purview of British commissioners, and government offices were relocated to Bangalore while the king was relegated to a strictly ritual position in Mysore. The relocation of government offices and the presence of the garrison meant that there was an influx of service providers—especially Urdu-speaking Muslims and Tamil speakers—from all over southern India. The migrant populace was concentrated around the Cantonment area, while the City area remained mostly Kannada-speaking, like the majority of people in Mysore state. A linguistic gulf separated the two since the area housing the garrison was deliberately kept apart from the City by the British.

Following linguistic reorganisation, Bangalore became the capital of Kannada-speaking Karnataka, though it was only a few hours away from Tamil-speaking Tamil Nadu, Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh and Malayalam-speaking Kerala. As the two sections of Bangalore grew into each other, the city came to exhibit an unusual degree of cosmopolitanism.

In the Cantonment area, the British built sprawling bungalows and wide boulevards—along with a glamorous upper-class lifestyle—to distinguish it from the cramped City outside. The first lot of English-medium schools in the state opened in the Cantonment—though over a period of time English-medium private schools mushroomed in the City as well, while classes in government schools were conducted in Kannada. As the older City developed a culture dominated by Kannada, a balance between various languages was achieved in the Cantonment under the dominance of English. As may be expected, Bangalore was and remains deeply divided on the language issue.

In the late 1990s, when the IT industry and IT-enabled services accounted for 60,000 jobs in the city, language became the key to opportunity; the new economy favoured those with an English-medium education. These companies started to recruit from all over India and estimates show that presently only 10 percent of the jobs in the new economy are held by Kannada speakers. Since these companies pay their employees substantially higher wages, the spending power of non-Kannada workers—increasingly visible in new consumption trends—has become a talking point in Bengaluru.

Another reason for the disaffection of Kannada speakers is perhaps the endless expansion of Bengaluru, marked by the entry of private builders. Families that originally owned bungalows, as well as farmers on the periphery, succumbed to the needs of the ever-expanding city. Those now occupying the apartments in the city are new entrants to Bengaluru, with visibly greater purchasing power. Farmers who gave up their land in exchange for the compensation available to them have realised its soaring value too late. Given this troubled history, Bengaluru may be expected to represent more than simply an archetypal ‘city’ for Kannada cinema.

KANNADA CINEMA TOOK ROOTS in the 1930s, but even after Independence, the films kept to mythological themes. Mysore, under indirect rule at the time, experienced Independence less viscerally than did the rest of the country and so the motifs that marked Hindi cinema after 1947 emerged in Kannada films much later. An event possibly more important than Independence was the creation of Karnataka, and the attempt to build a pan-Kannada identity.

One of the first authentic ‘socials’—a domestic melodrama without any mythological motifs—in Kannada cinema was BR Panthulu’s School Master (1958). It marked the first time Bangalore was crucial to a Kannada film’s plot.

School Master introduced the idea of the love marriage to Kannada films at a time when it was a significant subversion of the cultural idiom. Unlike in Hindi cinema, where love is shown to be integral to marriage, Kannada cinema—until fairly recently—favoured endogamy and the arranged marriage. Mysore society was virtually constituted by marriage networks forged by those of the same caste who lived within 20–30 km of each other. With the expansion of the state, Kannada cinema tried to accommodate wider audience sensibilities: in School Master, lovers of different castes and from places separated by as much as 300 km meet in Bangalore.

Kannada cinema associated Bangalore with the Indian nation and Nehruvian modernity in the 1960s, possibly because of the Central government’s investment in the city. The region that fell under Old Mysore took some time to become culturally integrated into the Indian nation. It was only in the 1960s that the process picked up (the belated patriotism finds expression in Panthulu’s Kittur Chennamma (1962), a historical film about the eponymous queen who fought the British).

Kittur Chennamma (1962) was a historical film about the eponymous queen who fought the British.

Among the 1960s-era films, the first one to suggest Bangalore as an important place is MR Vittal’s Nanda-Deepa (1962), told through the perspective of a girl brought up in a village. The man whom she marries represents private enterprise in the city. In the early 1960s, large industry in Bangalore was government-owned, and so, in effect, the man she marries symbolises the first generation of entrepreneurs who owned ancillary units in the public sector. Hers was a viewpoint of the rural person to whom Bangalore was still distant. Ravi’s Bhagyada Bagilu (1968), which identifies with the upwardly mobile resident of Bangalore, and Panthulu’s Beedhi Basavanna (1967) call attention to the opportunities available in the city for material advancement. Other key films from this period, however, depict Bangalore as the moral site in which the Nehruvian modern subject resides.

In a key ‘reformist’ film, Arasukumar’s Bangarada Hoovu (1967), the city serves as a plot element. Told from the viewpoint of a young development officer, Anand, who wants to marry his friend’s sister although his mother has set her heart on him marrying his cousin, the film reaches its climax when Anand’s love interest is diagnosed with leprosy. Anand sees to it that she is cured, and marries her soon after. Anand is from Bangalore and the film begins with a ‘modern dance’ by young women in tight clothes trying to attract his attention in a park. These two indications of the modern—represented by Western dancing and medicine—get due attention in this film, reminiscent of Hindi films like Guru Dutt’s Baazi (1951), which also features the parallel and conflicting motifs of the doctor and the club dancer.

If Kannada cinema portrayed the expanded Mysore region as growing more faithful to India in the 1960s it was because of its important political leverage. While the Congress was perceived to be weakening after Nehru’s death, it continued to remain strong in Mysore. It was this strength that made then Chief Minister S Nijalingappa (1956–58, 1962–68) one of the most powerful people in the Congress, and a member of the group known as the ‘Syndicate’ of influential regional leaders. It was Mysore’s electoral importance that led to Nijalingappa’s elevation to the post of president of the The Indian National Congress in 1968, when his protégé Veerendra Patil replaced him as chief minister.

In Jedara Bale, the first Kannada film inspired from James Bond movies, Rajkumar played a CID police agent with the code-name 999.

The cordiality between the region and the nation as inferred from Kannada cinema reaches its apogee in B Dorairaj-SK Bhagavan’s spy thriller Jedara Bale (1968). In the film, a Bangalore-based secret agent Prakash, aka CID 999 (played by the actor Rajkumar), is after a gang of counterfeiters. Several factors in Jedara Bale point to Mysore’s  sense of self-importance vis-à-vis the nation: among them, the confidence that Bangalore is where the technology is, as well as the sense that the fate of the nation is in local hands. To convince us that Bangalore is ‘international’, the film locates much of its action in the vicinity of Hotel Bangalore International, then an upmarket hotel with floor shows advertised in daily newspapers. The ‘cabarets’ in the film are watched by family men accompanied by women in saris, as if to assert that the ‘modern’ signified by these dances is not in contravention of Mysore tradition.

When Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969, after months of inter-party conflict, it brought an end to the Syndicate. Nijalingappa’s exit from the Congress meant that Mysore was not so close to the nation anymore. Some of the trends in Kannada cinema from 1969 onwards can be seen in sharp contrast to the earlier goodwill. In Siddalingaiah’s Mayor Muthanna (1969), Bangalore is the site of criminal activity and injustice, as it is associated more with the Centre and India than with Mysore. The discord is also visible in the casual and indiscriminate way in which pictures of national leaders are hanging in people’s houses—as though to downplay their significance. In films like Bangarada Hoovu, which came only two years earlier, pictures of national leaders held positive connotations that were impossible to ignore.

During Devaraj Urs’ stints as chief minister (1972–77 1978–80), he was favoured by Indira Gandhi and implemented her programmes in the state. But he was not simply a camp follower; his activities in the political arena were seen as originating from his own initiative. Thus, even after the 1970s, Bangalore in Kannada cinema continued to be portrayed in a negative light. In Nagara Haavu (1972) the small-town hero meets his childhood sweetheart in a Bangalore hotel where she has been brought as a prostitute. In Siddalingaiah’s landmark Bhoothayyana Maga Ayyu (1974), the villagers drawn into futile litigation travel to the courts in Bangalore, but fail to find justice. In Na Ninna Bidalare (1979) the hero’s marriage to his cousin is on the verge of a breakup because of his illicit relationship with a Bangalore-based seductress.

Devaraj Urs (left) with Jagjivan Ram in 1980, two years after he split from the Congress party to form the Congress (Urs). DELHI PRESS IMAGES

In the 1980s and 1990s, several Kannada films tried to use the glamour of Bangalore to their advantage—notably Sunil Kumar Desai’s films, like Utkarsha (1990), Nishkarsha (1994) and Beladingala Baale (1995)—but most stories revolved around people with origins in small towns, yet with occupations in or connections to Bangalore. Films of this category include Nanjundi Kalyana (1989), Ganeshana Maduve (1990), Tarle Nan Maga (1992), Bombat Hendthi (1992) and Nammoora Mandara Hoove (1996). Most of the latter films try to escape from Bangalore at the earliest opportunity, as though it would be improper to remain in a space traditionally inimical to them.

According to the statistics released by the state’s health and family welfare department, the population of Bangalore grew from 1.7 million in 1971 to 5.1 million in 2001 and 6.5 million in 2011—but was roughly estimated at 7.5 million in 2009, an increase of 47 percent in eight years. Between 1991 and 2001, the population of Karnataka grew by 17.5 percent while that of Bangalore grew by 23.5 percent. Perhaps more importantly, the population of Karnataka increased from 53 million to around 64 million between 2001 and 2009, and the share of Bangalore in Karnataka’s population increased from around 9.6 percent in 2001 to roughly 11.72 percent in the same eight-year period, suggesting a sharp upward shift in the economic dependence of the state upon the city. It is apparent that Bangalore’s importance in the region has grown hugely in the new millennium—a fact that is repeatedly reflected in Kannada cinema.

Kannada cinema now seems to have found the community that best represents the region:s Kannada-speaking migrants—those who have no option but to deal with the city and who are trying to fight it, even as they are trapped in its coils. The most popular story model is that of the Kannada gangster film—for example, Majestic (2002), Kitti (2004), Jogi (2005), Duniya (2007). These films do not all correspond to a single pattern but, generally, each film depicts the story of a migrant who tries to eke out an existence in Bengaluru before coming into violent conflict with various forces and becoming a dreaded gangster. In time, the law catches up with him, and he is gunned down. The migrant, even when he is a don, lives in a makeshift dwelling or in temporary quarters. The romantic interest is usually between the migrant and a woman from the city; it never comes to fruition.

Even when the film is a romance, the protagonist does his best to get away from Bengaluru, as in Mungaru Male (2007) and Gaalipata (2008). The common portrayal of Bengaluru in all these films is as an unattainable space, a site marking a defeat or a space best avoided. This is in marked contrast to the way Mumbai is depicted in Hindi cinema.

It is evident that Bengaluru has been consistently viewed by Kannada speakers from neighbouring areas as a treacherous place—but its economic importance now makes it impossible to ignore. The contemporary films reflect this perception in presenting Bengaluru as an evil which must be contended with, although there is little hope of changing it for the better. Interestingly, state authority (usually represented by the police) is portrayed as antagonistic to those from the region.

Rajkumar played a CID police agent with the code-name 999; Rajkumar worked in 200 Kannada movies and was deeply loved by his fans. His death in 2006 led to major unrest in Bengaluru. DELHI PRESS IMAGES

Cinematic evidence aside, film industry-related events cause extreme reactions in Bengaluru among the followers of Kannada cinema. When the hugely popular film star Dr Rajkumar passed away in Bangalore on 12 April 2006 at the age of 78, sorrowful fans went on a rampage. A constable was beaten to death by a frenzied mob and several people were killed in police firing. An old woman was seen on television trying to damage a police vehicle. The death of another major star, Vishnuvardhan, in December 2009 led to the burning of public transport vehicles. The violence does not spill over to the state’s other towns, and so evidently it is Bengaluru, in particular, which creates disaffection in a huge section of the Kannada-speaking public. Outbursts such as these are inexplicable on their own, but perhaps the evidence of Kannada cinema’s take on the city could provide some answers.