It was a story straight out of some B-grade horror movie when, on June 12, Darshan Thoogudeepa, the Kannada film industry’s biggest box office star, was arrested. Darshan, along with 16 others, had been detained and subsequently remanded to judicial custody for the murder of a person who had allegedly sent lewd messages to the star’s paramour. The arrest capped a series of setbacks that Sandalwood, as the Kannada movie industry is known, has been facing in recent times.

Just two years ago, the industry was basking in the limelight, feted by critics and moviegoers for delivering box office successes like Kantara, KGF Chapters 1 & 2, as well as 777 Charlie. Kannada stars like Yash, Rishab Shetty, Rashmika Mandanna, and Rakshit Shetty became nationally known.

Industry Struggles

However, in 2023, of the 225 movies produced in Sandalwood, nearly 200 of them failed to even recover their investment, according to industry insiders. Except for Kaatera, which was released in December and became a hit, most others were box office duds. Ironically, Kaatera was Darshan’s last film before his arrest this year.

Industry veterans who spoke to businessline blame the situation on factors like piracy, competition from other language movies in a limited Kannada market, disappearing single theatre screens, and a lack of support from OTT and online platforms for Kannada movies.

Of the nearly 100 movies released so far into the year, Sandalwood has yet to deliver a single hit. Karnataka Film Chamber of Commerce secretary Ba Ma Harish admits that the industry has been facing tough times, but ever the optimist, he says, “There will be a rush of great films starting from July. A lot of movies will be released until year-end. Most of these movies (hopefully) are blockbusters and will recover the money invested.”

Popular actress Malavika Avinash says, “Kannada’s audience reach has always been restricted. We have been economically behind, but we also have good stories. Recently, we also had some great hits like KGF and Kantara. Now, with OTT platforms, Kannada films have more visibility, but audiences also have access to other language films. So, in this industry, we must coexist with other filmmakers and actors from other industries.”

Structural Challenges

However, veteran movie journalist KM Veeresh, who runs a YouTube channel called Chitraloka, is sceptical and says the industry is facing deep structural problems like transparent financing and outlandish ticket prices.

“KFI took a hit during the pandemic, which is when people stopped going to theatres. Instead, they would pirate movies to watch on their phones. But even after restrictions were lifted, people continued this practice because of ticket prices. Earlier, movie tickets were affordable even for big-budget movies. In 2017, the Siddaramaiah government put a ₹200 cap on tickets, but this was widely protested. Now, nobody even brings it up,’’ he adds.

Sandalwood has always worshipped the underdog. Industry players hope that, like in the movies, the underdog will overcome all odds to provide a happy ending.