My relationship with Kannada has been a long and painful one. For years the language meant terrible exams and teachers who couldn’t wait to be rid of me. I was a strange child whose sway over Kannada got weaker every time a person pointed out it was getting weaker.
Eventually the language ceased to make sense to me. A cousin of mine nicknamed me English Babu. That was a long time ago. A line from one of Marquez’s novels, Chronicles of a Death Foretold, keeps repeating in my head every time I consider my poor hold over native Indian languages- “their parents inquired in Arabic and their children replied in Spanish.” I worry that being merely mono or bilingual in India is sort of delayed colonialism; a symptom of one cultural becoming far more important than another, and squashing it.
“Their parents inquired in Arabic and their children replied in Spanish.”
Perhaps I overestimated the power of people who think that knowing the English language means you’re educated or advanced. Or maybe that’s my guilt about having been one of those people. I still wouldn’t go so far as to claim I understand the nuances of mainstream regional movies but I find their continued existence comforting. I turned on the TV the other day, for the first time in months, and realized that mainstream English movies are just as brain clawing dumb as I though Indian movies were. Even if regional movies don’t try to be intelligent, at least they’re being uniquely unintelligent. You can only go so long before the internet educated cultural chauvinists who complain Hollywood has used all the good ideas get to you.
Kannada both as a language and a film medium has always had this alien allure about it. Whenever my family talks about the Kannada film industry they are ‘those people’. They might be neighbors to Tulunadu culture but they aren’t Tulunaduians. In my family the Kannada film industry doesn’t command a lot of respect. This is why I was so surprised when my mother who prefers Hollywood comedies that are never critically well received, my grandmother who hates the excess and colorful flare of Indian movies (but loves Indian TV dramas), and my grandfather who only likes obscure unnamed movies that he alone has watched had favorable opinions about Gulabi Talkies.
I heard of the movie a long while ago when in typical family tradition, my mother told my grandmother about the story. She always narrates any interesting stories that TV throws her way when she’s out of town. Also in typical family tradition, my mother described and laughed about a witty line and they both laughed about it again when they re-discussed the movie the next day.
When I asked my mother a good five years later about good Kannada films, I still remembered the discussion of that movie which I had overheard. I also remembered how she was disappointed when over enthusiastic Kannada movie fans asked her what her favorite Kannada movie was and had never heard of Gulabi Talkies. I expected her to name a few movies, not explode and name just about every Kannada art movie, directory and story arch in that last fifty years. Clearly the Kannada art scene had won itself a fan.
Gulabai Talkies was the first movie from the long list she gave me that I decided to watch. I couldn’t have made a better choice. Gulabi Talkies follows Gulnabi or Gulabi as the residents of her village call her. She lives in a small fishing village. It could easily be any small fishing village on the south-western coast but it oozes character and life. I wouldn’t be surprised if they just got a village to appear on camera. The village is filled with these memorable faces that would fit right in at any fish market or coastal town you visit. No fair skin, white teeth, Photoshop business here.
Gulabi, to put it simply, is kind of a bad-ass maid. She’s a movie lover. People rush into a theater and ask her to help deliver a baby but Gulabi won’t till she’s watched the movie. People tell her she can watch stuff on TV but she isn’t interested in the dead bodies in Doordarshan. Gulabi doesn’t care about thematic or worry about what a movie means. ‘What song?’, ‘What dance?’ she asks. She has her laugh and goes home.
This little art movie defends the existence of every unintelligent mainstream movie in just a few frames. This is just one of the many things that Gulabi Talkies does. I hesitate to discuss the plot of movies I like because that might ruin all the fun, but this feels so fresh that I could explain every frame and joke in painstaking detail and the movie would still have you grinning. It about a woman and her TV. It’s also about over-fishing and how traditional fishermen can’t compete with the fancy new motor boats. It’s about a young woman who wants to go away. It’s about a man who has two wives and one of the wives loves the other one’s son. It’s about husband across seas, it’s about loves, misogyny, poverty, eloping, and most importantly it’s about religion.
It’s not one that Arnab Goswami and friends shout about at night.
The Kargil war rages while the movie happens and there’s a growing communal divide. It’s not an ideological divide, it’s not a manufactured one and it’s not one that Arnab Goswami and friends shout about at night. It’s realer than all of those. It’s a divide that sort of always existed but wasn’t important because they always thought of themselves as the same. It’s the one that just watches as some news station shouts about the border. Suddenly it explodes and people are carried away. There isn’t hate but a helpless stare as the insanity unfolds before you.
Gulabli Talkies ends with two toothless old women entering Gulabi’s decimated shack and smiling while they watch the empty TV screen and a skinny kitten on top of it. There’s a ton of symbolism here and I think it’s one of the greatest endings ever despite how sad it is. Girish Kasaravali has easily made of the best movies in India that’s funny, thought provocative, real and intelligent.