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The Art and Craft of Sunil Kumar Desai
- Sreesha Belakvaadi

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Click here Kannada Movie section in English.
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Click here to read more articles from Sreesha.

Among the titans of Film Makers, many strode the path of the so-called Art Cinema and the so-called commercial cinema. But very few showed-up a combination of Art and Commercial cinema. One such living colossus is Sunil Kumar Desai. 

In most of his movies, Desai has been a perfect blend of Art and Commercial cinema. His treatment to ‘concepts’ has been phenomenal. The subjects, actors and technicians all fit like a glove. 

In 1988, when Tarka was released as a directorial debut of Desai, it created waves in the history of parallel cinema. When I watched this movie, I could witness the whole of the theatre at the edge of their seats. Having written the story, screenplay and dialogues himself – Desai made a hallmark as entry into movies. Tarka was not nationally or internationally recognized; nevertheless it swept several accolades including state awards. Tarka was a two hour suspense thriller with absolutely no songs and fights; it almost reminded me of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. It sent the streams of media flying with reportage and reviews. Believe me, this is perhaps one of the most intellectual movies I have ever seen. The whole of the Indian film industry must salute this venture of Desai; it germinated a new genre in making movies and Desai created a pug-mark in the history of movie making.

Then came his Utkarsha. Reviews reported this as a remake of Psycho and Frenzy of Alfred Hitchcock. But to me, this seemed far different than those movies, except for some traces of screen-shots and lighting. But this again was a magnificent breath-taking thriller with no songs and fights that dealt with a psychopath as the main protagonist, beautifully portrayed by Devraj. Then rolled Sangarsha that didn’t do well at the box office because of two reasons: the film lacked a grip in the script and storyline and secondly Desai was never understood to make movies with songs and fights. The recovery of the shock came from his next success Nishkarsha, an action packed thriller that set new standards in Indian cinema yet another time.

By this time when Nishkarska was released, Desai was in news almost in every column of the Film Review Sections. His name shone as bright as starts in articulations, news journals, magazines and TV Shows. The young brilliant director had made a solid foundation – a new “therapy” into the treatment of movies. 

Soon everyone recognized that Desai always ended his movie-titles with an arka syllable and had set a standard in presentation and conceptualization. Music maestro Illayaraja approached Sunil Kumar Desai and expressed his desire to work with him. This was a turning point not only to Desai, but to the entire Kannada Film Industry. People went to watch his movies not because of stars and not because of any commercial elements, but because it was “Sunil Kumar Desai’s” movie. The three-worded name “Sunil Kumar Desai” had become a brand in itself for canvassing his movies. Such honor was rarely observed, other than the legendary Puttanna Kanagal. Reviews compared Sunil Kumar Desai as the “Maniratnam of Kannada” and “Speilberg of India”; but to me “Desai was Desai”. I would never ever personally metaphor one artist with another. Desai by then had some natural intellectual ingredients which none ever had, and to me, it seemed most appropriate that he can be compared only with himself. 

Scorpio by birth (22nd November), an architect by qualification, a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, Desai is of a short and fair personality, very reserved and a man of few aquaintances. 

Coming to technical brilliance, Desai had an eagle’s eye on every detail of his movies. Gunasingh his musician, P Rajan his cinematographer and R. Janardhan his editor by then had formed an impregnable team for all of his movies. It was like the moment Desai narrated a scene, there was nothing more for either Rajan or Gunasingh or Janardhan to inter-collate the ideas among themselves…everything worked like a clock. The “ambience” was always visible in all his movies and anyone with little observation to technical details could acknowledge that it was an effect of the same team in synchronization. Such was the thread-line Desai had defined by then.

I remember his next movie beLadingaLabaale was in the media even when there was one more year to be released. “No fights, no hero, no heroine, no dialogues in second half, no comedians, no villains” etc rammed the press and marketing reviews of beLadingaLabaale, a novel based story adapted from the famous Yendumoori Veerendranath’s literary works; and this created waves, anxiety and curiosity to the whole of Bangalore city and outside. It saw a sensational success after release. To me, it didn’t seem a very logical movie towards the end, though it saw a good start. To me, what hit hard was the strength of “philosophy” actor Ramesh Bhatt conveys in his dialogues. There are instances where the dialogues try to derive meaning of what “Marriage” is all about and also brings the essence of “I am okay, you are okay” – a famous psycho-analytical book by Thomas A. Harris. The dialogues were most brilliant I had ever heard in movies and the camera work by Rajan was a milestone achievement. The lighting, background sets and music blended like honey and dew-drops and was a real treat visually. 

BeLadingaLabaale was Desai’s last thriller in the series of his first five movies and the first thriller to lose the title with arka syllable. 

I am still not sure as for the drastic deep change his career and movies observed – Desai later started to make family movies like Nammoora Mandara Hoove, Prema Raaga Haadu GeLathi, Parva, Sparsha etc. Except for Pratyartha another thriller in the year 2000, his focus had turned to a family director; and to me this was shocking because what Desai had set as a new standard, a new genre, a new treatment into movie making had faded away by time as he showed up as an ordinary commercial director as years came. This sent a sad and disappointing current to many of the audiences as well. The well-defined audience which Desai had, was lost it in the event of making money through family-cinema. 

One noteworthy point here, was that Namoora Mandara Hoove was also the movie that started with a big change in technicians as well. His regular music director Gunasingh was replaced by Illayaraja (this of course was a welcome change as the subject of this movie deserved the deep ragas which only Illayaraja could have composed). His regular cinematographer P Rajan was replaced by Venu. I wouldn’t mind the change, but for P Rajan – he never ever showed up in Desai’s movies after beLadingaLabaale and to me – this was disappointing. I still wonder why the pair broke. 

With huge success at the box office, Namoora Mandara Hoove was a welcome change; but Desai’s motives had changed too:

It was learnt from press and media that Desai had been in huge debts and that was one of the reasons for switching into family-commercial-cinema. To me, it was difficult to digest that a caliber of Tarka standard had ended up shooting stars running behind trees and dances and songs. I had almost given-up hopes that the magic of Desai will never ever rekindle again. But I guess history repeats and Desai came back to his old shoe again in 2003 with the release of Marma. To mine and everyone else’s surprise this was a welcome change and we wish him that this is just a step-back to where he was (and where he is supposed to be).

Some interesting observations of Desai and his movies

In all of his earlier movies like Tarka, Uthkarsha, Nishkarsha, beLadingaLabaale and to the current Marma, Desai has exhibited one thing very clearly: his passion for psycho-studies. He has shown what a psychopath means, what psychiatry means, what “sub-conscious” mind means, what “hallucination” means, what “psychology” means, what “split-mind” personality means etc. I mean the way he portrayed these concepts into movies was something sensational…it touched the common audience with some sophisticated science. And to me that’s most amazing. Unless Desai is read and learned, he could not depict such scientific sophistication into movies. These movies, to me, were a learning experience in itself besides the massive entertainment it rendered.

Another point I would like to bring here, is the dress-sense of Desai: it occurs to me that Desai never wears t-shirts (atleast I have never seen personally). His dress usually composed of a full-arm out-shirt and I have observed in many instances that he loves wearing shirts of Red colour and trousers of White colour or everything in White. Infact, in his movie Uthkarsha he gives high prominence to Devraj’s dressing in full-white. I mean, in most occasions, I could see the combinations of Red and White on him and wonder if those are his favorite colours. 

One more interesting fact of Desai is that he loves to give “flash” appearances in his movies like the legendary Alfred Hitchcock used to do. In Uthkarsha, he was seen excercising in an open field, in Sangarsha he snaps the titles with a camera during the title peresntation, in Namoora Mandara Hoove he is peep-boy in the street trying to take a look into a photograph (which Shivrajkumar is looking through while talking a walk), in Sparsha he is the railway-refree whistling to start off the train and so on.

Another yet very queer observation of mine into Desai’s personal beliefs (though I am not 100 percent certain of my inferences): I could remember Desai had replied in some of his interview questions that he was an atheist and didn’t believe in any sort of prayers and poojas. This was when he was into the initial days of movie making. Later over several years, in another review, a comment was passed that Desai has changed his views towards these. A statement confirmed that he believed in astrology and even met an astrologer for some discussions. A few months later I could see Desai with sacred vermillion on his forehead and thereafter, I always (at least most times) see him with that. Anyway, this is a classic example that however strong an individual might be, it might change his views towards God and the outlook of philosophy when situations get sensitive in life. 

Having made eleven movies so far in a span of about 15 years, concluding here – I wish Desai a very good luck in all of his future projects. I hope he will stick to his original style and make more movies like Tarka. His brand and values comes from movies like these and not movies like Parva. He must keep up his standards and that is all is needed to be a singular artist, which I am sure Desai deserves to be.

- Sreesha Belakvaadi

About the Author:
Sreesha is a 29 year old Software Engineer with a passion for Film making. He underwent a course  in
Film Making at the Millennium Films, New York when he worked in United States, where he learnt Basic Script Writing, Screenplay, Lighting, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Mixing and direction. 

SreeshaHe also made a movie called the "King and the Pawn", which was screened in one of the Film Festivals hosted my Millenium Films, New york.  It was a self made, experimental movie.  He conceived the concept, wrote the script, screenplay, dialogues, cinematographed, edited, did sound mixing and shot the movie over a period of 2 weeks.  It is a short documentary movie made on Chess pieces with no human characters.  The whole movie is a symbolic essence of "Chess" and "Human Life", both inter-woven into a meaningful relationship.

His hobbies include Still photography, Oil Painting, Sketching, Short Story Writing, Creative Advertising, Resume Writing and Meditation. And to name a few of his Social interests : Reading general books (on Physics, Psychology, Philosophy, Arts & a lot of comics), some social charities, Cricket, Chess and of course watching movies and anything related to art all the time.

Click here if you would like to Contribute or send a feedback.
Click here to read more articles from Sreesha.
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