Award winning director Sunil Kumar Desai shares the story of his debut venture, which also launched actor Devraj’s career
Think Sunil Kumar Desai and films such as Tarka, Utkarsha, Nishkarsha and Beladingala Bale come to mind. The man is known for making off-beat films, many of which have not only won critical acclaim but were also successful at the box office. Desai describes himself as a man who loves to blend art and commercial cinema.
The man, who is popular in the Kannada film industry, launched Sudeep as a hero with Sparsha. It was Sudeep’s second film with Desai, his first being Prathyartha, where he was cast in a supporting role.
Desai comes from “a very non-filmy background.” Having studied in Bijapur, a city known for historic monuments, Desai wanted to be an architect. “I was crazy about films. In Bijapur we had just three theatres. Hindi films were screened in the evenings and Kannada during the day. I would bunk classes and watch almost every film.”
“I made friends with all the people working in theatres and they would let me in, no matter what time I landed there. Every one knew me as the boy who is mad about films.”
Desai watched films featuring Shammi Kapoor, Raj Kapoor and BR Chopra as well the ones of the late Dr Rajkumar, Dr Vishnuvardhan and Puttana Kanagal. “One day, I told myself, I wanted to direct a film. While in college there was a theatre right next door where all Raj Kapoor’s black-and-white films were screened. I watched them all. By then I had also learnt 2,500 songs by heart with the lyrics. I was that crazy about films. When I was 20, I gave up studies and left for Bengaluru.”
Having no friends or contacts here, Desai felt he “landed in a jungle. I went blank for a while.” This was in 1976. “The only way to learn filmmaking was to go to a film training institute or watch a real-life shooting. I discovered Adarsh Film Institute. It was the only one then and offered no training in direction. I did get into it, got tired and left again in the middle.”
Next step was to look for someone with whom he could work.
“I would visit every spot I knew a shoot was on, stand at a distance and observe. I would request people in dubbing and editing studios to let me watch people at work. This went on for eight years. Friends and family termed me crazy.” A door opened for him when his friend, Shivaraj introduced him to the late director Kashinath. “I had seen his film Aparichita and was impressed. When I met him, Kashinath was working on the script of Anubhava. He saw my plight — I had no room to stay nor did I have money to pay rent. He offered me a job as his assistant. I had a lot of writing to do. We had to keep carbon copies and write those days. He also offered me a tiny room on the third floor of his house to stay. I lived there for four years.”
His background in architecture helped Desai and soon he found himself designing the posters and the title for Anubhava. “Working with Kashinath was a gift as I got to learn on the job. Kashinath was a simple, open-hearted man. He kept no secrets at work and would involve us in everything.”
Next, Desai worked with Suresh Heblikar for Aganthuka, which also starred Vanita Vasu and Devraj. “As Heblikar was also playing the lead, I got a chance to work as a second director and take charge of the camera and angles. Heblikar was kind enough to take suggestions from me, especially with regard to re-takes.”
Soon, Desai decided to write a script and says he “wanted to make a thriller. I had watched all BR Chopra’s thrillers including Gumrah, Kanoon and Ittefaq… I loved his films and started writing the story of Tarka. Once the story was ready, I ran helter-skelter for funds.
Those days, family-orientated films featuring Rajkumar and Vishnuvardhan ruled the box office. And, here I was saying my film will have three grey characters, will be shot in a house, without action scenes, songs, hero or villain. People looked at me as if I had lost my mind. Finally they would ask, ‘will there be at least a little comedy?’ When I said no, they would not invest.”
Desai, reveals that he needed ₹10 lakh to make Tarka. “As I was a nobody, I struggled for two years for funds. Finally, my close friend, Praveen came forward and financed me. That was how Tarka started,” says Desai who approached Shankar Nag through a friend. “He was popular as the ‘Karate King’ by then.
Though he was commercially successful, he also worked in off beat films such as Accident and Minchina ota… He asked me to narrate the story of Tarka in five minutes, which I did and he came on board. I gave him an advance of ₹10,000 and for the entire film, I could only give him ₹50,000.”
Desai says the shoot would stop every time the money was exhausted and resume when he got a little money. “The sporadic flow of funds caused Tarka to take almost a year-and-a-half to be completed, with dubbing, re-recording and editing.
After the preview, the film got rave reviews from the audience and media helping it run to packed houses. So much so that tickets were sold in black on Sundays. I think it was a bold portrayal of a sadistic character with a split personality, which touched people.”
Devraj became a hit too with Tarka and so did Desai’s career.
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