Here’s a fun exercise: translate the titles of the following releases into chaste Kannada: Operation Alamelamma, Thugs of Malgudi, Silent Sunila and Toss.
This exercise could become a reality for filmmakers in Karnataka if they want government subsidies and other benefits reserved for movies made in the state language. In a letter to Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, the chairperson of Kannada Development Authority, SG Siddaramaiah, has strongly recommended making Kannada titles compulsory for films that apply for government handouts.
SG Siddaramaiah has also demanded that the government should reject Kannada films with other language titles for state awards. “Even the language in which a title is written reflects the culture of a region,” he told Scroll.in. “Words in English and other languages in film titles are distancing our youngsters from the Kannada language. Is this language not self-sufficient in its potential for expression? Let it be clear that we do not hate other languages. But we need more measures like these to protect the Kannada language in cinema.” The recommendation will need the Karnataka state cabinet’s approval before it can be implemented.
Karnataka is hardly the first state to consider protectionist measures for the local film industry. Several non-Hindi film industries have implemented measures that attempt to shield local produce from being gobbled up by the more powerful cinemas of other states. Siddaramaiah gave the example of Karnataka’s neighbour Tamil Nadu, which, in 2009, implemented a similar rule for Tamil films with Tamil titles.
Productions with Tamil titles are exempted from entertainment tax after being reviewed by a government-appointed committee. Telugu films too enjoy substantial relief from entertainment tax, especially if a filmmaker proves that more than 70% of the film was shot in the state.
Maharashtra has protectionist measures in place since 2010. Every multiplex in the state has to screen at least 124 shows of Marathi films in a year. Marathi films must be screened in prime time slots, rather than being relegated to inconvenient shows. The measure is in return for tax breaks given to multiplexes by the state government.
Some rules are meant to step up production of all kinds of films. In 2015, the Punjab government declared that all movies shot in the state will receive a 75% concession on entertainment tax – even if the productions are not in the Punjabi language. In addition, all films produced and shot in the state government’s studio in Mohali get a subsidy of Rs 50,000 each.
Subsidies, tax exemptions, and nominations for awards have the potential to boost local productions if implemented with sincerity. In 2003, a study titled Programme of Subsidy (Incentives) for Value Based Quality Films in Karnataka: An Impact Assessment and conducted by sociologist GK Karanth confirmed that subsidies did increase the output of films and enabled a larger representation of Kannada films at national and international forums.
What happens, however, when protected cinemas begin to compete with each other? Another way of asking the question is, what do we do about Baahubali?
Hindi cinema, with its unmatched money power and reach, is usually the villain of the piece. In Assam, Kenny Basumatray’s Local Kung Fu 2, a sequel to the martial arts comedy from 2013, had to exit theatres despite a successful run to make way for Baahubali 2: The Conclusion. Competition is not restricted to Hindi language films, but exists between all languages. SS Rajamouli’s sequel to his 2015 megaton Baahubali similarly forced out local films across the country.
On April 29, a young man was arrested for torching upto eight bikes in Hosakote in Karnataka after learning that the two week-old Kannada release Chakravarthy was being pulled out for Baahubali 2.
Bengali cinema too faces the predicament of being silenced by the movie that makes more noise. “My issue isn’t against a particular film; it’s against the fact that we don’t have a protection system in Bengal,” said Bengali director Kaushik Ganguly, whose National Film Award winning Bishorjon had a truncated box office run because of Baahubali 2.
“Today Bishorjon is suffering, tomorrow, it will be some other film,” Ganguly told the Times of India. “This has to stop. If stringent rules are not put in place, the programmers at multiplexes won’t be able to help us either. The government has to understand that if Baahubali 2 loses out on six-seven shows, it’ll barely matter to their producers, whereas in the case of a small film like Bishorjon, it’s a big deal. Isn’t it funny that in Bengal, a Bengali film is striving to stay afloat while a Telugu film, dubbed in Hindi, is sweeping all the shows?”
The Baahubali example proves that the dubbed film presents an entirely new set of challenges for advocates of protectionism. Karnataka only recently lost a six-decade-old battle against the industry practice of dubbing films in the local language. The fight began in the late 1950s as a protest against the loss of livelihood of local artists following the flamboyant mythologicals from Tamil and Telugu that were being dubbed in Kannada. In July 2016, the Competition Commission of India ruled that the Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce, along with two other bodies, had unfairly prevented the telecast of dubbed films and serials in the state. The CCI also imposed a penalty on the organisations.
Dubbing might be a cost-effective way of widening audiences for a movie or a television show, but similar protests in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu point to a groundswell of anger against the ceding of hard-won space to outside producers and studios.
The common rationale against protectionist measures is that if an industry makes good films, it needn’t worry about competition. But this assumes that all film industries are on equal terms, say advocates of safeguards. The unanimous cry across film industries seems to be, “We don’t hate other languages but...”