ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Once Upon a Time Was Karnad

Authenticity, Peasant Mercenaries, and Non-Kshatriya Heroism

Girish Karnad’s Ondanondu Kaladalli (1979), a tale of conflict in a pastoral village, has not been sufficiently studied for its richly layered representation of Indian martial arts, historical perspective of peasant mercenaries, and non-Kshatriya heroism. Karnad, whose legendary genius often sought history and myths to embellish narrative approaches, brings an auteur’s sensibility to a Kannada film that needs to be acknowledged as one of the best films in India rather than just be known as a “martial arts” film.

Girish Karnads Ondanondu Kaladalli (Once Upon a Time, Kannada [1979]) (henceforth Ondanondu), arguably the first1 genuinely Indian martial arts fiction film, is an astonishing work that deserves an in-depth study. Karnad is widely celebrated as an iconic genius with a formidable repertoire of work as a playwright, director, writer, actor, and bureaucrat (in an order that he would appreciate) and his contribution has been widely cherished (Gundur 2019). However, Ondanondu may not be well known, especially among the non-Kannada film audience. For the record, it won the national award for best film in Kannada in 1979 and was recognised as a part of the Kannada new wave films. However, besides a mention in a Doordarshan interview2 and a short review in the New York Times (Canby 1982), the film has not been sufficiently researched. The absence of a sufficient recognition of the film could be due to the popularity of Karnads formidable non-film literary output.3 Today, the film is known for being a Kalaripayattu (battle practice) film, samurai-like style, and the debut of an outstanding talentShankar Nag.

Ondanondu is a pastoral tale from a medieval period located somewhere. In the beginning of the movie, it is clear that Gandugali, the main protagonist, is a wanderer and expert in martial arts, passing through the verdant Mallenadu/Tullunadu region.4 When offered a job by the local Dhani (master chieftain), who is fighting a feud with a rival chief (his brother) in the neighbouring village, Gandugali is quick to plan a foray into the enemy territory and return with cattle (wealth in the pastoral village) after outwitting the enemys larger force headed by the veteran warrior Permadi. Despite his spectacular success, Gandugali falls foul of his employer and his army chief Vejira (for letting go of a captured Permadi). Permadi, on the other hand, turns avenger after his employer humiliates him and causes the death of his son. Bent on exacting revenge on the entire family, Permadi vows to kill them all. Gandugali is forced to join with Permadi to protect an innocent Jaikeshi (a family member he has grown fond of). This simple tale of rivalry in a remote rural village is the setting for a narrative that is brilliantly layered and presented by Karnad in a languidly paced style, interspersed with set-piece martial art combats.

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Published On : 20th Jan, 2024

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