The Big Story: Theatre of the absurd

The new Rajinikanth movie, Kaala, will be released in Karnataka after all, but with statutory warnings from the state’s chief minister, HD Kumaraswamy. From the start, the film has had to battle the odds in Karnataka. Rajinikanth had drawn the ire of Kannada chauvinists for his comments on the Cauvery water sharing issue, a long-simmering dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka which has become a fight between two rival regional chauvinisms. A regional film body had banned the release of Kaala and Kannada chauvinist groups had threatened to disrupt screenings. The film will only see the light of day in Karnataka because the Supreme Court has refused to stay the release. Its prospects in the state are not improved by Kumaraswamy, who commented that the movie should not be released “in the present situation”, that he would speak to the director and persuade him to postpone it till the “issue is over”.

Kumaraswamy’s comments are particularly alarming since they are among his first after taking over as chief minister. Two weeks into his term, he stands accused of pandering to the fringe, of even speaking in its voice. The sharing of the Cauvery waters has struck deep roots in the state’s psyche and become synonymous with Kannada pride over the years. Every election, the matter is dredged up and used to inflame regional sentiments. Kaala releases in a Karnataka that has just emerged from an assembly election where identity, specifically “Kannada asmita” or Kannada pride, played an important part in political mobilisations. Its freshly minted government, a shaky coalition between the Janata Dal (United) and the Congress, managed to come to power after a close race with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was the single largest party by a large margin. Are Kumaraswamy’s so-called populist comments an attempt to cement his place in the state? Does this blatant avowal of chauvinism set the tone for this government?

Of course, Karnataka has never covered itself in glory when it comes to defending artistic freedom against regionalist bigotry. The Cauvery issue has been a flashpoint in the past. Before the release of Baahubali - the Conclusion, last year, actor Sathyaraj had to apologise for comments made years ago during one of the standoffs over the Cauvery. Artistic freedom is also a lost cause when many of Karnataka’s leading writers and intellectuals form the vanguard of regional chauvinism. The government, for its part, could have ensured the space for a plurality of ideas, even for works that offend. Sadly, that looks unlikely to happen anytime soon.


  1. In the Indian Express, SY Quraishi on the questions that the Karnataka political drama raises about our electoral system.
  2. In the Hindu, Suhasini Haider observes that the India-United States equation may not be balamcing out.
  3. In the Economic Times, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay asks whether the Bharatiya Janata Party will be able to placate allies.


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Sharanya Deepak writes about a play on identity and music, featuring the Jewish refugee who composed the All India Radio theme:

Prema, the protagonist of The Music in Our Blood, meets many people and encounters several perspectives in her journey to break away from the rigid traditions she has known, but also comes across a man who changes the path she chooses – German composer and musician Walter Kauffmann. A Jewish refugee who lived in Bombay and Calcutta, Kaufmann is widely known for the theme he composed for All India Radio.

Born in Karlsbad (now in the Czech Republic), Kaufmann had lived and worked in Berlin and Prague, before he realised that Europe was becoming unsafe for Jews. He arrived in Mumbai in 1934, and stayed for 14 years, during which time he was introduced to Indian classical music. Though he initially found it “alien and incomprehensible”, it became part of his own training, and himself.