In Hemanth M. Rao’s intense romantic drama Sapta Sagaradaache Ello (Side A), Priya (essayed by Rukmini Vasanth) sings a melody in an empty hall during a practice session. Whistles from her fiance, Manu (Rakshit Shetty), echo loudly in the auditorium as she renders the lines. Later in the movie, when Priya has to perform in front of a packed crowd, she goes silent before walking out of the stage. The camera follows her as we see Priya go backstage. She gives herself a moment. Overwhelmed by sadness, Priya bursts into tears, even as her mother rushes to console her.
The first scene described above establishes Priya as a gifted singer. The second scene, perhaps for another filmmaker, wouldn’t have been as significant as it was for Hemanth because the plot has a stronger conflict than Priya’s struggle to become a noted singer. At that point in time, the biggest question in our minds is, ‘can Priya bring her fiance Manu out of prison?’.
But for Hemanth, creating well-rounded characters has always been a priority, like in his earlier films Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu and Kavaludaari. In SSE (Side A), Priya’s happiness lies in singing for Manu; nothing can change her mindset. Many such emotionally-stimulating scenes make the film an immersive experience. Putting themselves in the shoes of Manu and Priya, people found SSE (Side A) to be a haunting love story.
The beauty of going slow
Despite receiving widespread acclaim, one section of filmgoers found the movie slow, a term dreaded by filmmakers. Incidentally, Raj B. Shetty’s Toby, released exactly a week before SSE (Side A), faced the brunt of the audience for the same reason. What these two films have done is to aptly show the characteristics of slow burners, and their effect on filmgoers.
SSE (Side A) avoided the dismal fate of Toby by doing many things right. The former was in the making for a long time, and it’s apparent that the director has ended up with a lot of footage. The decision to split the film into two was a sensible one. That said, Hemanth doesn’t cram scenes without a breathing space, and he doesn’t cut them abruptly. Be it the portions in prison or the proceedings in court, he is meticulous in fleshing out the sequences. SSE (Side A) also filled the void of a serious love story in Kannada.
Toby felt like a companion piece to Raj’s Garuda Gamana Vrishabha Vahana (GGVV). The familiarity factor worked against the favour of Toby, which was too predictable for its own good. The depth given to the characters in SSE (Side A) was missing in Toby. For instance, the character arc of a coward cop needed better writing, while a sex worker’s character got nipped in the bud after a promising start.
Raj’s films aren’t as much about plotlines as they are about scene-building. He believes in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘ticking time bomb’ theory. He staged great scenes in his gangster drama GGVV by keeping people on tenterhooks. Even if we knew how they would end up, the scenes unfolded with adequate build-up. Raj landed the final blow to those scenes to justify people’s excitement. But in Toby, he made us wait for those moments and ultimately when they arrived, the results were underwhelming.
There is no denying that Raj was gutsy enough to attempt a ‘mass’ film without compromising on his signature style with Toby. It shows that the likes of Raj and Hemanth are among the very few directors who trust in slow-burners. They believe in extracting emotional and intellectual responses from the audience rather than merely entertaining them.
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It’s interesting to observe how both the filmmakers work with their respective cameraman and music composer to aid their unhurried storytelling. Praveen Shriyan’s cinematography in GGVV and Toby focused on the backdrops of the films. The wide frames showed the beauty of the locations (Mangaluru in GGVV and Kumta in Toby). Advaitha Gurumurthy in SSE (Side A) followed the characters closely, and attempted to bring out their deepest emotions with his close-up shots. One common factor in the cinematography of both Praveen and Advaitha is their minimalistic approach.
As for music, Raj used a lot of silence amid conversations in his films. He turned to Midhun Mukundan to elevate the action sequences. However, there is no room for silence in SSE (Side A), as Charan Raj’s versatile scores provoke sadness, scene after scene. It perfectly fits the story’s serious tone, and the film’s indulgent yet stylish nature.
Leisurely-paced yet individualistic films offer scope to analyse, and compliment the efforts of technicians like composers and cinematographers. But not all directors are as firm as Raj and Hemanth to make films true to their style. Does that mean the Kannada audience isn’t yet ready for slow-burners? Maybe, yes.
The need for versatile films
Filmmakers are apprehensive of a generation used to jumping from one tweet to another and from one reel to another. Binge-watching shows on streaming platforms is a norm today. Hence, an average mainstream Kannada film is around two hours. It often feels like commercial filmmakers just join high points of the scripts. This results in jarring tonal shifts, inconsistencies in characters, and abrupt plot turns.
Not everybody can pull of a Prashanth Neel, who gave us the high of watching an entertaining ‘masala’ film, made with a blend of fast cuts and breath-taking visuals with the KGF franchise. But Prashanth himself, in an interview, confessed that he hasn’t made his purest film yet. “Right now, my priority is to make money. I called Raj. B. Shetty after watching GGVV, and told him that ‘one day I want to make a film like you. I want to make a film that represents myself,” said Prashanth.
Shankar Nag’s Accident (1985) and Ondanondu Kaaladali (1979, directed by Girish Karnad) were called “different” films back then. Perhaps today, they would be described as “slow-paced”. That’s how film-viewing has changed over the decades. Rakshit Shetty, who produced SSE (Side A), believes in ‘pure cinema’; He trusted Hemanth’s ability to strike a chord with people and had enough arsenal to take the film to the masses. Kannada cinema needs more such collaborations to witness all kinds of films.