Sandalwood'Ondu Motteya Kathe' was, without a doubt, one of the clear winners of 2017.Rakesh MeharIf 2016 was a breakout year for Kannada cinema, the following year has been much more of a mixed bag for Sandalwood. This year saw big-budget star vehicles taking centre stage once again, with Puneeth Rajkumar’s Raajakumara hitting box office gold in the first half of the year, while his brother Shivarajkumar’s Mufti is showing signs of significant commercial and critical success at the year-end. Kiccha Sudeep’s Hebbuli, Darshan’s Tarak and rising star Dhruva Sarja’s Bharjari too found favour with the audiences. Further down the budget ladder, though, Kannada cinema struggled to repeat the success of last year, when a handful of modest films with strong stories like Thithi, U-Turn, Rama Rama Re, Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu managed to become the talk of the town by drawing fresh audiences into theatres. It wasn’t as though there was a shortage of films or ideas in the market. Indeed, 2017 saw a massive number of Kannada films hit the screens, with some weekends even boasting of six or seven simultaneous releases. But this very glut cut at the chances of success, as many movies disappeared before finding their foothold at the box office. This, coupled with the less-than-satisfactory execution of many experimental ideas left many new films struggling to hit the mark. The one runaway exception to this story, 2017’s independent cinema fairytale, was Raj B Shetty’s Ondu Motteya Kathe. First written as a tiny short film and originally destined for a small release in a few theatres in Mangaluru, this film’s fortunes changed after indie hero Pawan Kumar laid his hands on the promotion of the film, finding both statewide and international audiences. A refreshingly earnest but gently mocking look at people’s beauty obsessions, Ondu Motteya Kathe scored big because it was a genuinely relatable narration of the many quirks of the middle-class marriage market. What worked best about the film was that it treated all its characters as real people, neither deifying nor crassly parodying them. Backed by strong acting performances, crisp cinematography and editing, and a thoroughly enjoyable soundtrack, Ondu Motteya Kathe was one of the clear winners of 2017. Another film that managed to make smaller but nevertheless interesting ripples was Operation Alamelamma, starring Shraddha Srinath and Rishi. A quirky mix of a love story and a comic thriller, this film was eminently watchable despite a mediocre mystery component, thanks largely to its great humour and strong acting performances. Rishi, as a suspiciously innocent-looking bystander tangled up in a kidnapping, particularly caught movie-goers’ attention as one of the new faces to watch out for. The year also saw some interesting attempts at writing strong women characters, though they did not all find success at the box office. Urvi and Shuddhi were the two main contenders on this count, picking up important issues around sex work and trafficking and rape and gender violence respectively. While neither film was without its problems, the women protagonists of both films scored with their strong performances. Coming from a very different space, the horror film Aake also ticked off many of the right boxes. Centred on a single mother whose life suddenly takes an eerie turn, Aake got its fundamentals right, teasing out the tension in a slow but intense narrative that works almost throughout the film. And while the film’s superb cinematography and sound gave the film its strong effect, Sharmeila Mandre turned in a highly creditable performance as the woman at the centre of it all. There were many other experiments that showed promise but fizzled in the final stretch. Ensemble film Dayavittu Gamanisi and Happy New Year, for instance, faltered for want of some better writing. Happy New Year struggled to bring enough intensity and emotional conflict to its love stories, resulting in diluted, surface-level tales. And while Dayavittu Gamanisi showed some flashes of brilliance, particularly in the way it scripted the marriage market transactions between Rajesh Nataranga and Prakash Belawadi, the film faltered in the absence of well-written women characters. Other multi-starrers that didn’t quite live up to their potential included Mugulu Nage, Chowka and Kaafi Thota. While Chowka started off with a strong premise of stories across different time periods, it faltered towards the when it brought its protagonists together in a single narrative. Kaafi Thota had a rock solid ground for an exciting thriller. But director Tn Seetharaman wasted this potential with a stuttering structure for the final film. Mugulu Nage was a nostalgic ride back to the runaway success of Mungaaru Male, with director Yograj Bhatt and Golden Star Ganesh coming back together after a long break. The meandering love story, with flashes of what worked for their breakaway hit, gave audiences eminently likeable women characters who knew their own minds and wanted to live on their own terms. But the film finished by affirming a fairly traditional view of relationships and marriage, leaving one wondering why the whole journey was necessary at all. Among the many duds of the year, one of the key points to emerge was that a courageous experiment can’t be crassly replicated. So, after director Raam Reddy and writer Ere Gowda’s incredible success last year with Thithi, there were a few filmmakers eager to ride the rural bandwagon by using the same cult characters. But with little more to offer than crass comedy and tired plotlines, these films failed to make any mark on audiences. Comedy was the one genre where many films struggled to make an impact. Whether it was Sharan’s remake products Raj Vishnu and Sathya Harishchandra or Upendra’s disturbing-on-some-levels family comedy Upendra Matte Baa, many films found it hard to get laughs out of audiences. Even Ramesh Aravind’s Pushpaka Vimana, a melt-in-your-mouth comedy about a naive and slightly confused man and his relationship with his daughter, couldn’t stay high and dry. Overplaying moments that should have been underplayed, the film turned into a cloying sentimental love-fest instead of a light and heartwarming film about life’s simple pleasures.