To the dispassionate eye, the 1973 super-hit Naagarahaavu (‘Cobra’ to non-Kannada speakers) is inordinately lengthy, going well past the three hour mark. Its supporting characters are caricatures, and its main characters, persons of extreme ideals, are prone to OTT sentimentality. Things end badly for all three angles of its love triangle. It is about the relationship between a teacher and student; think To Sir, With Love, but a hundred times more tragic.
But if you have a dispassionate eye, what are you doing at the movies anyway?
Some movies go beyond the story they tell and seep into the land and language that they came from. Maya Bazaar did it in Telugu. Sholay did it in Hindi. Naagarahaavu, restored and re-released this weekend, is about how the attempt to bridge the chasm between generations can sometimes literally mean a plunge off a cliff. It’s one of Kannada’s most iconic films.
Naagarahaavu first came out in 1973, the year in which Mysore was renamed Karnataka. In a way, this relocated Kannada’s own centre of gravity away from Mysore and Bangalore, which fall to the far-south of the land. The movie clubbed three novels by TR Subbarao, better known as TaRaSu, into a single storyline. Like the books, it was set in the ancient town of Chitradurga, quite close to the geographical centre of the state of Karnataka, and a town that had been unabashedly Kannada for centuries.
The filmmaker Puttanna Kanagal, clearly sensing the zeitgeist, played the Kannada sentiment up, all the way to eleven. In a soundtrack full of hits, the fist-pumping “Kannada Naadina” became our alternate anthem. Puttana even managed to recruit someone as important to the Kannada film industry as the actor Jayanthi, to play a tiny cameo in the song. (She appeared as the 18th-century heroine Onake Obavva, whom the song is about.) This Kannada-First approach, arguably, forms a solid reason for why this movie became such a cultural touchstone.
As it happens, I first encountered Naagarahaavu through its songs, to which virtually every Kannadiga will hum along. As a southpaw, I had two idols: Wasim Akram and Vishnuvardhan. Vishnuvardhan got there on the back of one song, “Haavina Dhwesha,” in which he’s filmed pumping his left fist throughout. It looks decisive rather than awkward, as I thought I was at the time.
In “Baare Baare”, Kannada film songs attained the heights of romantic dreaminess that Bollywood had to wait until “Pehla Nasha” for: I have a favourite childhood memory of a beloved uncle serenading my aunt with a heartfelt rendition at a family get-together. When people in their fifties do this, the credit goes as much to the song as to their romance.
I watched the movie itself for the first of many times on state-run television, then on private satellite television, then on a pirated VCD, then on an original VCD, then even on various streaming services online, legal and illegal. So when news broke that the movie, restored and with a brand new 7.1 surround sound soundtrack, was getting a second theatrical release, I booked a ticket immediately.
But Naagarahaavu was not made for any old multiplex. For a sense of the pomp of its release in 1973, I went to Navarang, the Art Deco beast at the heart of Kannadiga-concentrated Bangalore. Navarang is so vast that it will not ever see full houses any time soon. When I watched Naagarahaavu last Saturday, the crowd that filled at best a quarter of the seats.
The noise, however, suggested that the hall was overflowing beyond capacity. There were whistles, hoots and dances in front of the screen, like it was still 1973 and not 2018. Ever so frequently, shouts of “Jai Vishnu Sene,” -- hailing Vishnuvardhan, of course -- went up. And all this exuberance was balanced by the ajji in the row behind me delighted to see “namm Shankra” when MP Shankar came on. Navarang this weekend has been fuller, not necessarily in numbers, than it has in years.
It was clear that a lot of people in the hall that Saturday were not watching the movie on a big screen for the first time. I was, and I think the restoration work definitely merits the spectacle, as does the restored soundtrack, which sounds like they hired a modern-day Kannada Rajyotsava orchestra to play in the background. (If that sounds unsettling, it is, in a good way.) TR Subbarao, the novelist, was not a fan of this movie when it came out. He felt that Kanagal had converted the cobra of a protagonist into a rat snake. But the rat snake has, perhaps, bitten deeper than any cobra ever could.
Getting there: See showtimes for Naagarahaavu this week here.
Thejaswi Udupa is a tech entrepreneur, writer, and very Bangalorean. He's currently working on a book about the city.
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