Decoding Sandalwood: The Film Industry that Let Rajinikanth Go

Despite having a number of talented actors in its kitty, the Kannada film industry has been abandoned by the critics

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Decoding Sandalwood: The Film Industry that Let Rajinikanth Go

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The anti-dubbing movement, losing Rajnikanth to Tamil Nadu and the autowallahas that produce Kannada films: Karnataka’s film industry, popularly known as Sandalwood, is fraught with unique issues.

Despite having a number of talented actors in its kitty, it is an industry abandoned by the critics. The Quint decodes Sandalwood, the film industry that lacks recognition, despite winning awards.

Shutting doors on non-Kannada films and enforcing ‘Made in Karnataka’ was easier than competing in the market with talent. (Photo Courtesy:

No Phoren-maal Please

The makers of Kannada film Nannu Nanna Preeti recently sought police protection for the film’s release in theatres across Karnataka. The film will flout a 50-year-old ban on dubbed films in Sandalwood.

A lobby of Kannada film directors banned the dubbing of non-Kannada films for release in Karnataka since they ended up doing much better than Kannada films! It was easier to shut doors on ‘phoren-films’ and enforce ‘Made in Kannada’, than to compete in the market.

Nannu Nanna Preeti is the first dubbed film to be released in Karnataka after 1960. No other film industry in India has banned dubbing.

Born into a Marathi family, Rajinikanth worked as bus conductor in Bengaluru before becoming a Tamil super star (Photo Courtesy:

Rajinikanth via Tamil Nadu

In the early years, Sandalwood had an unfortunate habit of letting go of talent. The likes of Girish Karnad, Rajinikanth, Prakash Belawadi and Prakash Raj found their footing in the Kannada film industry, before they went on to achieve global critical acclaim.

Rajinikanth worked as a bus conductor in Bengaluru. Spotted by a Tamil film director, he made his debut in the Tamil film Apoorva Raagangal. He returned to Karnataka, wanting to further his film career in Sandalwood. However, no meaty roles came his way. Meanwhile, the Tamil industry gauged the fire in him, and the rest is history.

Girish Karnad’s groundbreaking plays in Kannada gave language theatre some of its best work. He directed quite a few award-winning films in Kannada, but he received recognition as an actor only in Telugu and Hindi films. It is unlikely that a Kannada film would feature in the repertoire of his most memorable roles.

Kannada actors Prakash Belawadi, Prakash Raj, and Arjun Sarja have also shot to fame thanks to Hindi, Tamil and Telugu films.

More than 400 auto-drivers from Bengaluru grouped to become film producers. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/@ShyamSPrasad)

Autowallahs Turn Film Producers

Sandalwood is probably the only film industry where films are consistently crowd-funded and an autowalaah is a famous producer.

In June this year, more than 400 auto drivers from Bengaluru came together to fund a film. Each of them invested between Rs 1,000 and Rs 2 lakh for the two-crore budget film RG, a dark comedy. Auto Nagaraj, an auto driver who wanted to become an actor, is Karnataka’s most well-known producer and publicist.

The Kannada film Lucia set the trend of crowd-funding in Indian cinema. Director Pawan Kumar generated Rs 51 lakh in less than a month through his blog and Facebook page.

The comedy track in most Kannada films has no link whatsoever with the film. (Photo Courtesy:

Welcome Bullet Prakash, Bank Janardan, Tennis Krishna

Whistling, hooting and howling, an impromptu dance near the screen; Sandalwood’s fandom doesn’t just love Kannada films. Nothing beats the grand welcome Bullet Prakash, Bank Janardan or Tennis Krishna, the famous comedians of the Sandalwood, receive.

They receive a hero’s welcome and more space on the credit rolls than anybody else, with the camera literally zooming in and out on their faces. No film in Sandalwood will ever be complete without a comedian, and audiences howl in anticipation of the first joke.

Kannada films are often a one man show-from action to direction to distribution of the film. (Photo: The Quint/Parul Agrawal)

The War Between ‘Masses’ and ‘Classes’

With eight Gnana Peetha awardees and six National Awards (films); Kannada has a ripe intellectual circuit. But that has been no boon for its cinema.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain it would be the chicken-egg analogy. Kannada film producers avoid taking risks. They believe in repeating tried and tested methods for success. As a result, the audience is fed gimmicky stunts, repetitive dialogues, heroines in limited roles; a dance or two.

Such films continue to pull crowds but the elite classes tend to stay away. Since a lot of them show no interest in regional cinema, producers continue investing in their real audience; the masses.

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Topics:  Kannada Films   Cinema   Culture 

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