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July 19, 1999


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Carnage unlimited

Shivraj Kumar in AK-47. Click for bigger pic!
M D Riti

"Arre bachcha, aaj doodh piya hai kya?" asks Om Puri, cast in the role of tough cop Yeshwanth Sinha.

"Nahin, tera khoon ka intezar hai (or some such thing!)" snarls underworld don Dawood. "I will get you, Sinha!"

The screen fades off with the words 'I will catch you, Dawood' written across Puri's surly face.

If you think we were watching a corny 1960s style Hindi masala movie, you are mistaken. We were at the theatre to see the Kannada film with the biggest budget ever, producer V Ramu's AK-47.

"This is not 1947," says Sinha to Dawood. "It's the era of the AK-47." And the film certainly rubs that point in with a vengeance.

So neither the hero nor the other good guys ever attempt to hand the villains over to the courts for justice. They simply pump them full of bullets and watch them die, saying things like, "I cannot waste my time waiting for every street dog to die on its own" as if they were the local anti-rabies squad.

Director Omprakash says he was inspired to make this film by some interviews of A Kalashnikov he had read in newspapers. The creator of the AK-47 gun has frequently and publicly lamented the fact that his creation, meant to defend Russia against foreign invaders, has now become the weapon of choice of global terrorism. The film climaxes with the young hero called Ram voicing these same sentiments after killing Dawood in cold blood with an AK-47.

At a time when the entire Kannada film industry is going through a resource crunch, and when most financially successful films are those made with low budgets and high profit margins, this movie is certainly making waves. Last year's most profitable film was a small film called Hello Yama, which was full of slapstick and double entendre and turned up good collections more in the B centres and small towns than in Bangalore.

Om Puri in AK-47. Click for bigger pic!
Instead of going with the flow, Ramu, who has produced seven films so far under his banner and distributed more than 85, decided to try for the big time. Raising Rs 60 million for a film in this discouraging environment was no joke, but Ramu managed it. "I was simply not interested in making either a sex-oriented film or a remake," he says now. "I thought it's time the Kannada audience was given the opportunity to see a well-made film on a large canvas with good sound and a strong original story."

Not that Kannada audiences have been suffering from a lack of lavish productions just because the local film industry hasn't been providing them. All the big films from Bollywood, Madras and Hyderabad, right from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai to Padayappa, do very well here and make good money for distributors and cinema theatres.

As Ramu puts it, "Bangalore is now such a cosmopolitan city that people understand and appreciate all languages. So I thought, why not capitalise on this multilingual trend, and make a film that is almost half Hindi? Besides, as AK-47 is set mostly in Bombay, using Hindi seemed only natural."

Large chunks of the film's dialogues are in Hindi, especially the exchanges between various Bombayites, particularly those from the police and underworld.

Many others are have one character speaking in Kannada and the other responding in Hindi. For example, towards the end, the hero explains all his problems to the Maharashtra chief minister, played by veteran Marathi film actor Ramesh Deo in an outburst of passionate Kannada.

Murali Manohar Joshi, as he is called in the film, hears him out patiently, and then replies in Hindi: "Beta, I cannot understand your language, but I can comprehend the depth of the emotions that move you, and I am willing to help you in whatever way I can."

Ashish Vidyarthi in AK-47. Click for bigger pic!
The film also tries to tread a tightrope between what the director calls being natural and being commercial. Thus, you have fight scenes shot right in the middle of busy streets in Bombay, causing traffic jams. And if that provides some verisimilitude, you have to suspend belief when policemen and villains leap off high rises, land heavily on their backs, roll over and start shooting again. You have invincible heroes like Om Puri and Shivraj on the one hand, and the Bombay policemen who are killed off like flies in fights with the better armed underworld on the other.

Much of the money seems to have been spent on elaborate and expensive fight scenes, especially the climax fight, which relies on at least three helicopters. Cars, trucks and vans are blown up galore.

"The scale of the film is very big," explains Omprakash, talking to over coffee at a hotel frequented by the local film crowd in the middle of Gandhinagar in Bangalore.

"Payment to outside artistes was high. Most extras and small artistes were from Bombay, as it is simpler to do it that way than to take them from here. But they come expensive." It was also hard on the pocket getting all kinds of government bodies to give permission to shoot in Bombay.

"Permissions from the police, the RTO, the muncipalities and what not alone cost us almost a lakh [Rs 100,000] rupees a day," says Ramu. "We shot for almost three months, on and off, in Bombay, as 80 per cent of the film takes place there. Our managers had to really run around to get all those permits, but it was worth the effort."

Adds Omprakash : "It is also very risky to shoot in Bombay, because of the crowds and the traffic. You can spend a fortune on a scene and still not be sure that you got it right. There might be a slip up somewhere."

Chandni in AK-47. Click for bigger pic!
Nobody is willing to talk hard figures. But rumour in Kannada film industry circles has it that Ramu has already earned back more than half of his investment, and that his gamble has paid off magnificently well. This is not the first time that the Ramu-Omprakash duo has attempted a big budget film successfully. They made the Devaraj starrer Lock Up Death a couple of years ago for what was then considered a huge budget of Rs 15 million, and laughed all the way to the bank after its release.

That film was dubbed or remade in three other languages. Then came the Shivraj starrer Simhada Mari, at Rs 35 million, which was again a hit. This is the duo's third venture together.

Both have, of course, made several films independently. Omprakash began his career as a director with the Devaraj starrer Adipathi a couple of years ago, and has since made other films like Emergency.

Ramu, whom Shivraj describes as one of the few producers capable of making a good big budget film, has made three films -- Lady Commisioner, Hello Sister and Muthina Hendthi. Now, both are working independently on movies starring Shivraj Kumar, which they hope to release by the year end. Next February will see them start work on their next film together, which is rumoured to be even bigger.

However, money, they both insist, was not their sole motivation.

"I set out to prove two points, and I think I succeeded," says Ramu. "The first is that the Kannada film industry is as good as any other. The second was that it is not only the low budget films that earn revenue."

Explains Omprakash: "I am a Maharashtrian by birth myself. But I consider myself a Kannadiga at heart, and my main goal was to restore to Kannada cinema the high status and good name that it once enjoyed. You can make a film in one week for a few lakh rupees, but films of that genre are what have caused the downfall of Kannada cinema."

Click for bigger pic!
Although this film has no pretensions of being anything other than a pure commercial entertainer, Omprakash says he seriously expects it to get national and state awards, primarily for his direction, and also for its production values and good acting.

A Telugu version of the film, with Saikumar in Shivraj's role, was shot simultaneously within the same budget. This is now being dubbed and is almost ready for release. That version may also be dubbed into Tamil.

This film is the 50th film that Shivraj Kumar, Kannada film icon Dr Rajkumar's eldest son, has acted in.

"I am very glad that I celebrated my golden jubilee as an actor with a well-made film like this," says Shivraj, talking to after a hard day of shooting.

"I enjoyed the role, as well as the opportunity to act with actors like Om Puri, whom I have always admired." Shivraj has been going through a fairly successful phase, with at least three of his recent films doing well at the box office, earning him the sobriquet 'Hat Trick Hero' from the Rajkumar's Fans' Association.

"I am absolutely sure that this film will complete at least a straight 100 day run at some theatres," says director Omprakash, soon after the film opened in a record 11 theatres all over Bangalore a month ago.

Excellent cinematography by P Rajan and good editing by Manohar contribute greatly to the film's appeal. Music direction by Hamsalekha is as effective as usual, while four playback singers -- Yesudas, S P Balasubramaniam, new Kannada singing sensation Rajesh Ramanathan and Chitra -- do a great job.

Surprisingly, for a Shivraj starrer, there are no songs or dances in this film, barring one background title track. Shivraj is known to be a good dancer, and much of the success of Simhada Mari was laid at the door of his very popular dance number Dekho Re, Dekho Re... in that film. "We thought it would detract from the naturalness of the movie to introduce a song and dance number into it," says Shivraj.

Girish Karnad in AK-47. Click for bigger pic!
"Besides, the hero's love for the widow heroine is pure and sublime, not carnal." It may be unkind but perhaps what he meant was corny: the film's only love scene has him offer her a white dove wearing a red sticker bindi!

It took them almost two years to make this film, from conceptualisation to release. Apart from reading about Kalashnikov, the director also seems to have been inspired by incidents like Sanjay Dutt's arrest for being in possession of illegal arms and the Rajiv Gandhi killing. He gave the young scriptwriter duo known in Gandhinagar circles as the S R Brothers the bare bones of the story, especially his thoughts on the Dutt incident, and they came up with a viable script.

"The idea was to examine the issue of how an innocent victim caught up in a web of treachery and deceit would set about proving his innocence to the world, by using his brains, and not the lathi or guns," says Omprakash.

Despite his protests, there is little doubt that AK-47 does come across as a rather violent film. More disturbingly, it justifies violence by portraying all the good men as being forced to resort to it, even as they mouth dialogues decrying it.

"The film was meant to be a straight entertainer, nothing more," admits Shivraj. "We don't believe you can change the world through cinema, so why compromise on entertainment in the name of social reform? However, we do try to caution the hot-headed young that they should save violence for the last resort, and try to resolve their problems by more peaceful means."

What next? "A large number of producers, director and distributors have seen the movie in Bombay last week," says Omprakash. "Now there is a plan to make the film afresh in Hindi, with Bobby Deol as hero. All that remains to be decided is the director." Would Shivraj and Omprakash like to be involved in any other language remakes of this film?

"It is for the producers to choose, how can we voice an opinion on this?" they chorus.

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