As promised, here’s my review of Shankar Nag’s debut movie. Apart from paving the way for Shankar’s trailblazing career as both actor and director par excellence, this film has in its own small way, retained a cult-like reputation. A one-of-a-kind film in Kannada cinema, almost no other Kannada film has managed to achieve its class in terms of script and narration. I can only recall two miserable failures that attempted this kind of cinematic storytelling: Bharjari Bete and Gandabherunda. The latter was a pathetic inspiration of Mckenna’s Gold.
Directed by Girish Karnad, Ondanondu Kaladalli (trans: Once upon a Time) is clearly inspired by Kurosawa. It is a simplistic tale of two warring Nayaka tribes in Karnataka. Shankar Nag essays Gandugali, the young warrior pitted against Permadi, played by the excellent (late) Sunder Krishna Urs. Ondanondu… is stylish, fast-paced and moving, all at the same time.
As the film unfolds, we’re told to the tale of two warring brothers who have murdered their elder brother, and divided his kingdom equally between themselves. As is compulsory, each brother now wants the whole kingdom for himself, and appoint mercenaries to that end. They fight regularly, on appointed days but none of these battles reach any decisive outcome.
All that changes when Gandugali break rules and herds off the Permadi’s cattle. This sets the tone for much of the subsequent fighting. Gandugali is shown as a kind-hearted mercenary who refuses to kill a humiliated Permadi. As the film progresses, both Gandugali and Permadi are double-crossed by their respective masters. They get together, much in the same way as Talienkov and Scofield in The Matarese Circle and kill the feudal chiefs.
Below the surface simplicity, the film scores in depicting the principal characters of Shankar Nag and Sunder Krishna Urs, better known for his chilling portrayal of villainy in later films, notably in Antha. The duo is shown as a welcome departure from the principles of brute force and winner-is-always-right, when they restore the kingdom to the son of the slain king, the rightful heir.
This movie catapulted Shankar Nag straight into mainstream Kannada cinema, which he ruled in his own way for about two decades. It also won him a national award, a mere byproduct of his performance. His Kannada accent in the movie is hard to imitate, is almost flawless, and doesn’t come across as learned. He doesn’t score too high on acting but makes up for it with energy. The countless combat scenes are any viewers’ delight, and some sources say the film is one of the first (if not the first) to show Kalaripayttu on screen.
Ondanondu… remains a favourite among millions of Kannada film watchers and Shankar Nag fans. In one stroke, it gifted Shankar Nag to Indian cinema and gave us something to savour repeatedly. You can watch it several times without getting bored, or enough of it. Like Sholay.
Cross-posted on Desicritics.