Classic, Film, Kannada, Review


Though hot headed youth Ramachari (Vishnuvardhan) is considered as a rebel by society, one person he still listens to his idealist school teacher Chamaiya (KS Ashwath). After some initial conflict, Ramachari’s classmate, Margaret (Shobha), falls in love with him. But Ramachari wants to marry Alumelu (Arathi) whose disapproving parents take the help of Chamaiya to convince Ramachari to forget Alumelu. She is married off elsewhere. A hopeful Margaret befriends Ramachari and slowly wins his love. To his shock, Ramachari finds out that Alumelu has been forced into the flesh trade. A helpless Ramachari finds solace in Margaret. But again, there is strong parental disapproval to their relationship. And yet again, Chamaiya’s intervention is sought. But this time, instead of complying, Ramachari jumps off the cliff along with Margaret…

Nagarahavu, directed by Puttana Kanagal became a cult film at the time of its release – and not just in terms of its box office collection and the number of weeks it ran in theatres. What captured the imagination of its young audience was the then ‘new generation rebellious protagonist’ played by newcomer Vishnuvardhan. The essence of Nagarahavu is the character of its protagonist, Ramachari. It is, in a sense, also the content of the film.

Till Nagarahavu came along, the hero of a Kannada mainstream film, as popularized by Rajkumar, was generally a pious do-gooder who was extremely dutiful to his family and who would never harm to the innocent. But in Nagarahavu, Ramachari, described as a useless vagabond by society, draws his own moral lines. He has no qualms in copying in his college exams and when he is caught, in tying the principal to a light pole. He is clear – he copies because he knows that acquiring bookish knowledge is not his forte. At the same time, Ramachari is straight forward and always tells the truth. Eve teasing is morally wrong for him. When his girl friend comes to him at the middle of the night with an intention to elope, he takes her back to her house. But when another girl falsely accuses him of an attempt to rape her, he finds it morally right to kiss her in brute retaliation right in front of her mother. In fact, Ramachari has many shades of grey in him and contradictions galore. He is therefore easily identifiable. What is wrong and what is right for him, is decided by him alone. The society around him, through his teacher, tries to rein him into following its rules. That is the essence of Nagarahavu – the conflict between individual freedom and time tested societal norms.

If there is one man Ramachari does obey and respect, it is his teacher Chamaiya who always asks him to give up some thing or the other – at times because he feels that if Ramachari makes those sacrifices it will be good for both – himself and to everyone around. But most times it is also because Chamaiya has given his word to someone or the other that he would convince Ramachari to fall in line. And each time, Ramachari does follow his respected teacher’s instructions, no matter however heart-breaking it might be. Yet, when he loses his temper, he does not hesitate in picking up a stone to throw it at his teacher. Of course, he regrets it later.

The film is rooted in one place and not set in an ‘anywhere anytime’ scenario as it happens with many films of mainstream cinema. The fact that the film is based on a novel written by a well-known Kannada writer also helps. The story is set in a small town in central Karnataka called Chitradurga, known for its vast expanse of boulder-ridden hills and ancient fort ruins. These boulders almost assume the role of an independent character right through the film. A disturbed Ramachari finds solace amidst these ruins. Chamaiya knows that if he can’t find his student anywhere, he has to look between the boulders. It is also an ideal place for Ramachari to have a rendezvous with his girlfriend. Confessions, declarations, gentle blackmail, romantic songs – all happen here. And finally, Ramachari even kills himself by jumping down from one of these boulders. Nagarahavu cannot be separated from the boulders and ruins of Chitradurga.

A special mention of a technique used in the climax – A few shots just before the hero and the heroine jump off the cliff, there is a dialogue between Ramachari and his teacher. Suddenly, as Ramachari comes a step or two forward, we see a dramatic red light that appears on his face. After a few shots, all of a sudden the whole frame turns red and the two characters jump down the cliff! It might sound contrived and even kitchy today, but the director seems totally convinced and pulls it off. In fact, such loudness was the signature of Puttana Kanagal, not just in Nagarahavu but all his other films as well. And people were impressed! Sweeping track shots, the use of the wide angle lens to captures the panoramic view of the boulders, a very identifiable theme music associated with the main character, acting bordering into the territory of melodrama and a script with a lot of shock values and twist and turns are the hallmark of Nagarahavu.

But there is a question and it’s a disturbing one. In most of his films, before and after Nagarahavu, Puttana Kanagal gives us an impression that he is dealing with the new and the progressive. Even Nagarahavu seems to question oppressive societal norms that the individual initially fights against. But how does he ultimately respond in the end? Confused and unable to find a resolution, he tragically kills himself. So, the man who dares to question or rebel against conventional society morals has to die, his death being his so called ‘punishment’. This, in my view, is a highly regressive view. The film, therefore, ends up confirming existing norms as the best solution and that, I think, is also one of the main reasons for the popularity of the film as people are comfortable with status quo. So, is Ramachari and hence Puttana, an ultimate rebel or an ultimate escapist? It is anybody’s guess.

Kannada, Drama, Action, Color

A scene from the film –

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  1. Can’t speak on this as haven’t seen it but can make a comment on Kanagal’s Hindi remake, Zehreela Insaan (1974), with Rishi Kapoor and Pran in the Vishnuvardhan and KS Ashwath roles and which I have seen.

    While no doubt, the issues raised by you are problematic and find their way into the Hindi remake as well, I was also disturbed by Pran’s character of the teacher. Supposedly, he is the one man who understands the rebel and his good points and whom the troubled lad looks up to but yet he repeatedly emotionally blackmails him to do what he wants even if it’s downright unfair to the young man. Little wonder his ‘inteference’ leads to Moushumi Chatterjee’s tragic fate and the death of Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh in the end. It is he (Pran) who precipitates these tragedies even if he meant well with his (regressive) morality…

    1. True that, the teacher is a ‘pivotal’ character causing things to happen to the plot and the protagonist. He is an integral part of the package.
      The more I see mainstream cinema, the more I tend to believe that the repressiveness in them are by deliberate choice. What we find problematic in them, could as well be considered as a virtue by the makers.

    2. I recall seeing “Zehreela Insan” when it released in theatres (1973 or 1974 I think). I recall the scene where Maushmi’s husband throws alcohol on her face. As a child, I felt that Rishi Kapoor had acted in a double role. The Hindi movie failed miserably at the box office. Maushmi was pregnant with her first daughter (Payal, who passed away a few years ago, so tragic!) and the producer had a merciless attitude (I have paid you your remuneration- so you have to act). It was Kapoor who supported her. How can Rishi Kapoor play a role that was played by Vishnuvardhan? I simply cannot understand this. Neetu Singh played the part of the 2nd heroine as she was Kapoor’s steady girl friend then. I even saw “Khel Khel Mein” and “Rafoo Chakar”…. they were terrible save for the songs. These were the movies that were signed by Kapoor in the wake of the stupendous success of Bobby. But his choice of films was terrible indeed. I simply couldn’t sit through Rafoo Chakkar. I pity the audiences …who to sit through such inane stuff.

      Mr Ramchandra, I just don’t understand the plot of this movie. Perhaps, it was a big hit due to its bohemian theme. But the values espoused are confusing. What was the writer hinting at? The teacher, apparently, took advantage of the student’s respect for him. This is wrong.

      Aarti was Puttana’s girl friend I guess and Shubha (Rekha’s cousin) eventually metamorphosed as a character artiste in Malayalam films despite doing some good films in Tamil (K Balanchander’s Sollathan Ninaikiren). Shubha’s father was a director in Telugu films and her mother was sister of Pushpavalli (Rekha’s mother).

      Nagarhavu also introduced Rebel Star Ambareesh in a small role.

      Karan, I also wish to write reviews. How do I approach you?

  2. Rishi Kapoor with his chocolate boy looks was the wrong choice for the Hindi remake. The Chitradurga ambience can’t be created for a Hindi film. Balachander’s Arangetram (1973) was a huge box office success but the theme didn’t click with Hindi audiences (Aaina, 1974) because the sensibilities of audiences across various regions in India may not be the same.

    Vishnuvardhan with his rugged looks was ideal as “Ramachari”. May be like what happened with Shahrukh Khan’s anti-hero character in “Darr” and “Baazigar”, Ramachari’s portrayal as a rebel was a welcome change for Kannada audiences. Puttanna Kanagal was a competent director who knew the pulse of the audience. One question though – How could the film have ended? Both Ramachari and Margaret defying the teacher and walking into the sunset? Directors during those days relied on shock value. Think of Balachander’s Arangetram where the protagonist loses her mental stability or Ek Duje Ke Liye where the lead pair jump to their death. So, Puttanna must have also relied on creating the shock value to enlist audience’s emotional engagement with the film. I think the film’s highlight was it was able to strike an emotional chord with the audience. Ramachari was someone with whom the audiences could empathise with. The climax was the highlight of “Nagarhavu”.

  3. Ms Vydehi, thank you for reading and responding so elaborately. Yes, I agree that Puttanna knew how to catch the pulse of his audience, through his craft and unique cinematic language. One way I feel that mainstream cinema finds its large base is to directy or indirectly confirm to the morals that exists at that particular time. The article hints that despite the obvious rebellious streak in his films, Putanna too conforms. In this film, the teacher’s character is the means through which such a confirmation is sought from the protagonist. Regards.

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