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How Tulu cinema came out of shadows to script identity

Y V Rao’s film Sati Sulochana in 1934 marked the emergence of the Kannada film industry, and what followed was discoveries of big stars like Dr Raj Kumar over the next few decades.

However, for a relatively less-spoken Tulu, the wait for a movie in their language was long.

While local folk art and theatre kept them entertained, Kannada movies were their only option on the theatre screen. Until in 1971, when the first Tulu movie ‘Enna Thangadi’ (my sister) was released at Mangaluru’s iconic Jyothi Talkies. This year, even though muted by the pandemic, the Tulu industry celebrates 50 years of existence.

Spoken by over 1.8 million people, Tulu is prevalent in the Tulunadu region consisting of coastal Karnataka and some parts of Kerala. According to the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, published by Unesco, Tulu is now considered a vulnerable language. In the fight for language recognition, the cinema has been a pillar of strength.

The idea of making Tulu cinema was the result of government policy to promote regional movies. The government announced a subsidy of ₹50,000 for those interested in making movies in the late 60s. Producer and director SR Rajan,, who had made Kannada movies in the past, saw this as an opportunity and made the Enna Thangadi.

Veteran artist VG Pal said that even though Enna Thangadi was the first movie to be released in Tulu, another movie – Dareda Budedi — was made before it but was released a month later.

According to Pal, even though colour films were being made in the 1970s since the processing technology was not easily available, initial Tulu movies were made in black and white. ‘In those days, Madras (Chennai) was the hub of film processing and development. For most of the filmmakers travelling to Madras was a costly affair,’ he recollected.

Kariyani Kattandi Kandani, the first Tulu colour film was released in 1985.

Within a year of making the first Tulu movie, recognition came along. In 1972, Bisatti Babu became the first movie to receive a state government award. In the years that followed, several Tulu movies were recognised, not only within the state but nationally as well. Bangar Patler, Koti Chennaya, Gaggara, Madipu and Paddayi have won National Awards. ‘, Amitabh Bachchan had done voice over for the credit title of 1973 movie Kasdaye Kandane,’ Pal added.

Over the years, the Tulu movie got its commercial success, and more films were produced in the language. Devadas Kapikad, one of the prominent Tulu theatre artists and filmmakers, said that the industry has been making more than 10 movies every year.

‘In Tulu speaking regions, there is an increasing demand for good Tulu movies. There are issues with getting theatres whenever a big Kannada movie releases, but people’s response gives us teeth to demand more screens. Many youngsters are now coming with fresh ideas to make good Tulu movies, and it is inspiring,’ Kapikad said.

An example of the commercial success of the Tulu movie was Chali Polilu, which is one of the longest-running regional films in PVR Cinemas. It even surpassed the Kannada movies by running for over 500 days in PVR.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused a big problem to the industry as it resulted in the closure of theatres. However, they soon branched out to the OTT platforms. With a large Tulu speaking population living abroad, the Talkies app, one of the OTT platforms, has gained viewership. By June 2020, the platform uploaded over 100 series and movies.

‘For those living abroad, especially an average worker from Karnataka in Dubai, going to the movies is very expensive. Since they don’t get content in their language at lower cost, many are signing up.’ said Ganesh Kamath, CEO of Talkies App.

He added that they have begun producing original movies and web series for the Tulu audiences.

Kapikad added that on the 50th anniversary, the industry is struggling to find a way back.

‘With the theatres closed for two years, most of the artists are suffering. We don’t have big production houses like Kannada or other industries. We are very small operations; we need to keep working. We hope the industry will rise for ashes in the coming days,’ he said.

The irony remains that the end credit of Tulu movies always rolls out in the Kannada script. Although the script of Tulu is available, it is not very popular, and people continue to write it in the Kannada script. ‘Movies for us is not just about entertainment. For us, it is about persevering our culture. So, we will continue making movies and spreading our word until our language gets the recognition it deserves,’ Kapikad added.

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