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A sensitive story from
the Kannada coast

Munnudi: off-beat effort

Munnudi, based on a story by Boluvaru Mohammed Kunhi, impresses with its simple lyricism, and qualifies for best Kannada film album of the year

Rs 20

Mainstream Kannada cinema's obsession with maudlin patriotic blockbusters continues with big-budget efforts like AK 47, Vande Mataram and Rashtrageete. Most producers still opt for remakes, hoping that hit films in other languages will prove successful in Kannada too. Medium-budget producers are not looking at the best that Kannada writing has to offer either. Kannada has won the largest number of Jnanpith awards, but the film industry takes little notice of what is happening in Kannada writing.

Nine friends have now got together to launch Navachitra, a small production house that plans to explore the world of Kannada literature.

Munnudi is Navachitra's first film. P Seshadri, who worked as one of the four assistant directors of the popular TV serial Mayamruga, makes his debut as film director with this low-budget film. Incidentally, T N Seetharam, who directed Mayamruga, is now directing Mathadana (Voting), a film based on a novel by the much read and widely translated Kannada novelist S L Bhyrappa.

Munnudi is based on a story by Boluvaru Mohammed Kunhi, regarded highly in Kannada literary circles. His short stories about the Byari community (Muslims living on the Karnataka coast) have won him a prominent place in modern Kannada writing, and he is rated among the most sensitive voices to have emerged from communities that had hitherto not ventured into literature. The Byaris live near Mangalore and coastal Karnataka, and in the adjoining parts of Kerala, and speak a dialect all their own. They read and write Kannada and enjoy an emotional affinity with the rest of Karnataka. Their mosque records are maintained in Kannada. Fishing and trade are among their traditional occupations. They occasionally contribute ministers to the Karnataka cabinet. Fakir Mohammad Katpadi and B M Rashid (who used to write a column in Lankesh Patrike) are among the better-known writers from this community.

Boluvaru's story Mutthuchera, on which Munnudi is based, describes the plight of Byari women who marry Arab visitors for three-month stints. The Arab businessmen then give them the 'talaq' and return to their land. The only attraction for the women and their poor families is the bride price the Arabs are willing to pay.

Tara, who won an award for her role in Girish Karnad's Kanuru Heggaditi, plays the lead role in Munnudi. She marries an Arab, and unlike most Arabs, her husband promises to come back and take her to his country. She gives birth to a baby girl. The Arab never returns, and since he hasn't divorced her formally, she refuses to consider marrying again.

The years roll by, but she doesn't give up hope. Meanwhile she rolls beedis for a living and brings up her daughter. Nearly two decades after her husband sails away, she realises the difficulty of having to marry off her daughter. The young men of her community, while being resentful of the rich Arabs, are unwilling to marry a girl whose father is neither around nor dead.

Given her difficult experience, she is determined that her pretty daughter should not be married to an Arab. But she is at the mercy of the man who employs her, who depends on the Arabs to sell his timber. Pressure within the community forces her to agree to give her daughter in marriage to an old Arab (played by G K Govinda Rao).

The opening Arabiya kadalali bandavanu is sung by Ramesh Chandra, who, incidentally, comes from the very region in which Munnudi is set.

The words for all the songs in Munnudi are by Boluvaru. With his authentic, first-hand understanding of the region and its people, he brings a whole new sensibility into Kannada songwriting. He introduces a vocabulary that uses words like 'madarangi' and 'dafan' along with more familiar Kannada words.

The first song in the album describes how the Arab comes from "the land of shining mirages, with flowers spraying from his eyes" and fills his beloved with dreams about his love. Boluvaru juxtaposes images from the Kannada land with those from the Arab world to describe this love:

Kharjura beleva holadalli
mallige balli neduvavanu
kadige kannina gombeyali
madhu premada chitrava bareyuvanu

He plants a jasmine creeper
in fields that grow dates
He paints a picture of honey love
in his kohl-eyed doll's eyes

Boluvaru's lines touch you with their simple lyricism, and sharp irony. In Swagata koruva natyava naliyuva banni, he satirises the sultan of the oil rig who brings "wealth" to our poor land. "Let's dance to welcome him," he writes, and is cutting about the timber-buying sultan who is also a master at buying fresh blossoms.

In Kadalu teregalu, also sung by Ramesh Chandra, Boluvaru writes:

Kadala teregalu marala halageya mele baredive munnudi
Odala novina chitra roopaka tereda manasige kannadi

The sea waves write their foreword on a slate of sand --
a metaphor for the pain within, a mirror to the mind

Munnudi, for all its minimalism -- it uses no big orchestra or big singing names -- is probably V Manohar's best score for 2000, and also the most sensitive among the year's Kannada albums in the words department.

Manohar does try to use some phrases common in Arabian music (the alternating thirds, for instance), but his tunes remain uncomplicated and plain. The banjo and drum sounds are all done on a synth, which is a pity. With at least some natural instruments, this would have been a much richer album.

Sharif Neermunje sings Swagata koruva with a pronounced nasal accent, and he is excellent when he sings those descending Arabian phrases and the baang, a prayer that ends Side A.

Nandita Rao sings a second version of Arabiya kadalali. Side B features four songs from Manohar's earlier films Gejjenada, Tayavva, Ee Hridaya Ninagagi and Bhoomi Tayi Chochchala Maga.

I saw Munnudi, and found the narrative unadorned, focused on telling the story as in a television serial or a realistic novel. I liked the film for its unexaggerated narrative style, especially because this style has become very hard to come by in mainstream cinema. The music is overused in some parts, and the ending, where Tara brandishes a scythe and threatens to finish off the marriage broker Hasanabba, the Arab bridegroom and the other men at the ceremony if they continued the practice of short-tenure marriages, was utterly unconvincing. It turned the film's tone to a false, Vijayashanti-style fury!

People from the Karnataka coast say the short-tenure wedding has almost disappeared, thanks to the spread of education and the availability of jobs.

S R Ramakrishna

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