Classic Film Kannada Review

Kittur Chennamma

The Natya Shastra, the ancient Indian treatise on theatre, refers to a prototype character that needs to be present in a play called as a ‘sutradhara’ or the ‘holder of the strings’. He normally is the one narrating the story, his existence providing a sense of detachment to the events unfolding on the stage. Made in 1961, BR Panthulu’s well-known Kannada film, Kittur Chennamma, starts in present times as a prologue with a similar character. A school teacher (director BR Panthulu himself) and his wards sing a school prayer, the same one that was popularised by Pantulu’s earlier film, School Master (1958). As the prayer ends, a boy comes running in. He is late because his family was involved in a dispute with their neighbour over a common wall. The teacher rues about the inter-squabbling rut that the country has got itself into. He pleads that the political freedom attainted from the British and those who played a role in the freedom struggle be respected. He then narrates the story of Queen Chennamma, (B Saroja Devi in what is considered to be one of her greatest roles), a historical figure in Karnataka who lived from 1778 – 1829 and rebelled against the British empire. The camera then shows us the town of present day Kittur, a small town in North Karnataka before moving on to a flashback to the enacted story of Chennamma.

Kittur was once a princely state in the district of Belgaum in Karnataka. Though it came under the powerful Peshawa kingdom situated to its North, it was ruled by the ferociously independent local Sardesai clan of its time. When it fell to the British Empire in 1824, it was one of the last bastions of rebellion against the British to fall in southern India. The story of Chennamma and that of her lieutenant, Sangolli Rayanna, has been very popular in the folk lore of North Karnataka – in its ballads and folk songs. Plays have also been written and enacted on Chennamma. BR Panthulu has been one of the doyens of Kannada theatre and cinema. Little wonder then that this ace actor-producer-director was interested in filming such a popular story, which he knew had immense potential to touch the hearts of his audience. In this endeavour, Panthulu was more than successful as not only was Kittur Chennamma a huge success at the box-office, but it also garnered major critical acclaim, winning the National Award for Best Kananda Film at the 9th National Awards held in 1962 honouring the best of Indian cinema 1961. In fact, Panthulu was a two-time National winner that year with his Tamil film, Kappalottiya Thamizhan, winning the award for Best Tamil Film!

Coming back to the film, once the prologue, set in contemporary times, is over, the enacted narrative of Chennamma’s story starts. Though not with her but with her to-be husband, King Mallasarja played by the most popular Kananda actor of all time, Dr Rajkumar. The structure of Kittur Chennamma somewhat resembles the 5-act play structure that we know of today. The German playwright, Gustav Freytag, had theorised that the 5 Acts would have a prologue, a conflict, a rising action that would lead to a climax, a falling action and a denouement. The Natyashastra describes the ‘Nataka’ as a dramatic form whose subject matter should be a well known story and its protagonist a notable person. It should have anything between 5 to 10 Acts. It mentions five elements that an ideal plot should have – the seed, the prominent point, the episode, the episodical incident  and the dénouement. The 5 acts in Panthulu’s film have no compelling direct cause and effect chain between them – the kind we see in the plays of Shakespeare (16th century Britain) or in Sanskrit historical plays like Mudrarakshasa, written by Vishakadatta. Instead, Kittur Chennamma is episodic in nature. Its parts are quite independent of each other that manage to work as standalone episodes.

The first act of the film is about how king Mallasarja, held captive by the king of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, escapes from his clutches with the help of his wife, Rudrambe (MV Rajamma), and his religious guru (KS Ashwath). This act could have well been the climax of another film that deals with the Mallasarja – Tipu territorial conflict that arose when the former declined to pay taxes to the latter. But in this film, it is the prologue where the stage is set as we are introduced to Mallasarja’s love for his territorial  independence and self-pride. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjLjJRflQtw)

Act 2 sees Mallasarja, in his quest to garner allies to strengthen himself against Tipu, meeting a fearless Chennamma, a  friendly neighbouring chieftain’s daughter. He marries her, thus consolidating the political bonding with her father. Tipu Sulatan is slowly forgotten in this act that deals more with how Mallasarja and Chennamma get married with the active blessings of Rudrambe. Though the point of view of the film is still very much that of Mallasarja, we do learn more about Chennamma – that she is proficient in the arts and well-versed with politics, governance and warfare, her loyalty unflinching. She teaches  the young Sivalinga Rudrasarja (son of Mallasarja and Rudrambe) sword fighting and what’s more, raises him up as her own son.

Act 3 has Mallasarja leaving Kittur to meet Peshawa Bajirao, under whom the Kittur kingdom exists, to participate in an inquiry over a territorial dispute that involves him. After his exit, the point of view of the film now shifts to the grown-up Sivalinga, who disguises himself as a poet and befriends Veravva (Leelavathi), the daughter of a reputed religious bard. Following Natya Shastra’s ‘codes’, the film takes a lighter tone here, with comic interludes introduced through the two ‘vidushaks’ (jesters), played by TN Balakrishna and TR Narasimha Raju. In the interim, the political establishment of Kittur is worried that the Peshawa has jailed Mallasarja because of his refusal to pay taxes. As Chennamma efficiently deals with the day-to-day governance of Kittur in her husband’s absence, romance blossoms between Sivalinga and Veeravva. Meanwhile, Mallasarja’s health deteriorates in captivity. Kittur works out a deal with the Peshawa to get their king released but sadly, Mallasarja dies on the way to his home town. Yet the time is still not ripe for Chennamma to take over the film. The end of this act sees coronation of Sivalinga as the king, after his marriage to Veravva.

Act 4 takes the point of view of King Sivalinga, who despite opposition from his own family and the political council, is adamant that they have a tie up with the British in the latter’s war against the Peshawas. He wants revenge on the Peshawas for causing his father’s death. His mother, who over the years had acquired a spiritual bent of mind, dies out of sorrow, being unable to rein in her wayward son. Chennamma’s own son, a young boy, dies for reasons that are not clear at least in the version I saw that is 2 hours 44 minutes long while Encyclopaedia Of Indian Cinema pegs the length as 187 minutes. Disturbed by these events, Shivalinga finally repents but it is too late as he falls seriously ill.

In fact, it takes a lot of deaths and illnesses for Chennamma to take charge in the film – as late as Act 5.  By now, the British have already defeated Tipu Sultan and are planning to use the Kittur army to defeat the powerful Peshawas. Unfortunately for them, King  Shivalinga dies of TB. Knowing of the Doctrine of Lapse rule that the British had formulated giving power to the British Queen to take over kingdoms whose rulers did not any successors, Shivalinga adopts a boy before his death. The young minor is crowned and the management reign of the kingdom is officially given to Chennamma. War is declared against the British but after the initial successes, the brave army of Kittur is beaten by a large contingent of British forces that is aided by treachery by some of Chennamma’s own men. She is jailed and after a few years, dies in captivity.

The last act, where Chennamma finally is at the centre stage of the film, lasts till the end for about an hour. Could the screenplay have  started at this point? Even if so, writer GV Iyer and the ‘sutradhara’ or ‘the puller of strings’, director Panthulu, choose not to. To question this is akin to complaining about the overbearing music in Robert Wise’s Sound of Music or fussing about excess dialogues in a film like My Dinner With Andre, directed by Louis Malle, which is about two people conversing in a cafe. What we can do at best is to try and understand why is it so.

In my opinion, a seasoned mainstream filmmaker like Panthulu has deliberately chosen to do this – pandering to tried and trusted box office patterns and making sure that the film has the mandatory ‘male’ point of view. Initially, the film is all about King Mallasarja, highlighting just how idealistic, brave, patriotic and caring he is. It therefore is ironic that such a righteous character and an image that Rajkumar judiciously cultivated in his films, is actually shown manhandling Chennamma during their first encounter. But then the subjugation of the female lover by her male counterpart has always been a necessary virtue in mainstream cinema. Such ‘virtues’ exists even today in contemporary films like Baahubali. And then, there is a song used in the film – the one which Chennamma sings to her husband to prove her artistic capabilities. The said song is written by 12th century Bhakthi poet, Akkamahadevi, and is basically a praise of the formless divine whom the poet spiritually longs for; an address to ‘him’. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-Y-6b6xAMk) Chennamma sings this song looking ‘divinely’ at her husband, Mallasarja. Most times in the song, when the divine is addressed, Panthulu and his editor, R Devarajan, show us shots of Mallasarja, who is now an avid music connoisseur. The sub text is loud and clear – the formless ‘divine’ embedded in the Akka’s song is brought down on to the earth and is associated with a person whom we saw a few scenes back as an alpha male. Later with Mallasarja’s death, the film then becomes the story of King Shivlinga – his love affair, marriage and his quest for revenge that will eventually bring about his downfall.  It is only after his death, at the very last stage, that the film actively becomes the story of Chennamma, almost reluctantly when left with no choice and when there are no other male characters alive whose ‘worthy’ stories needs to be told.

The male point of views aside, hardcore lovers of the tight dramatic-narrative form of screenplays like Vikram Bhatt’s Ghulam for instance, could harp on how loose Panthulu’s film is, in terms of its cause and effect chain. But there is more to cinema than simple cause and effect.  In that sense, I have no issues with the looseness of Kittur Chennamma, which, in fact, is its strength. The question to be asked here though is to what end is this form used.

Notwithstanding the overt acting style that the film consciously adopts – a mixture of the ‘codes’ mentioned in the Natya Shastra, the typical tropes of Parsi theatre and the once popular professional ‘company theatres’ suited for the proscenium – the immense popularity of the film made Panthulu release its Tamil and Telugu versions too. Needless to say after Chennamma’s death, the film, in its epilogue, comes back to the present day to the school. The learned teacher, now having finished his tale, prays for the soul of the ‘great mother’ who lost her life fighting the British. So, the film ends where sure, we can pray all we want for her, but we will not give her the screen time that would aptly befit her and her achievements!

Kannada, Historical, Patriotic, Black & White

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