2018 saw a handful of small, beautiful Kannada films release in theatres. Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shaale, Kasaragodu, Koduge: Ramanna Rai was a certified hit, and Katheyondhu Shuruvaagidhe recovered its cost from theatricals and online streaming. Jeerjimbe, which won four Kerala State Film Awards in 2016, will manage a break-even with theatricals, digital streaming and award subsidy, while three others — Naathicharami, Ammachi Yemba Nenapu and Ondalla Eradalla — sank, with few footfalls.

Each of these films explored a subject not often spoken about, was rooted in local culture and was made with heart. Most of them were small-budget films, shot in a budget of Rs one crore to Rs three crore. Barring Sarkari and, to an extent, Katheyondhu, the rest struggled to find screens.

Champa Shetty, who directed Ammachi, also doubled up as producer, along with five others, speaks of the struggle of how these niche films lose out on everything, from a publicity budget to star referrals. “We shot economically. The first copy cost was only Rs. 75 lakh. We stayed in an aunt’s house. We did not have to spend on transportation. We ran a tight ship. We spent about Rs 25 lakh on distribution. Our income from theatricals was close to Rs 40 lakh. We have been trying alternative revenue sources, such as screening for Kannada associations in other cities, for students; but unless we recover cost, how will we be encouraged to make meaningful cinema?,” asks Shetty, whose film is based on the play Akku, derived from three stories by Sahitya Akademi Award-winning writer Vaidehi.

Speaking of the multiplex-single screen battle, Shetty says that if single screens allowed these films a time slot on revenue-sharing basis like multiplexes do (the film was screened in Bharat Cinemas, Mangaluru, for five weeks!), producers will be more willing to back these creations.

Sathya Prakash, who made the moving Ondhalla Eradalla, about an adorable Muslim boy in search of his pet cow and the people he meets in his journey, says that unless a film has star value or enough theatres in hand, it suffers at the box office. Ondhalla Eradalla suffered a technical glitch on day one and was not screened in many places on Friday. “Many people who liked my earlier film Rama Rama Re had turned up to watch this on Friday. In big cities, who can make the effort to travel again to watch a movie?,” he asks. These films have a good scope in multiplexes in the Bengaluru, Mysuru and Tumkur belts, he says. “It is easier for content-oriented films to be received there, before they travel to B and C centre audiences through word-of-mouth. But, when you have seven or eight films competing for screens every week, the smaller ones get left out.”

Prakash would like a world when the creator has to only worry about his craft, and not its selling. “Making a good film with good writing is not difficult, but the distribution process can leave you frustrated. You create ‘art’, but have to sell a ‘product’.”

In contrast to these cases are the stories of Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shaale and Katheyondhu. The former was produced and directed by Rishab Shetty, which did very well in theatres, especially in the Dakshina Kannada region and other border districts that identified with the language debate the film revolved around. Katheyondhu, directed by Senna Hegde, was backed by the producer with the Midas’ touch, Pushkara Mallikarjunaiah, actor Rakshit Shetty and Vinod Diwakar. “With a low-budget film, you have to get lucky with the producer,” says Hegde, whose next film is in Malayalam. “With stars, you don’t have to worry about the opening weekend. With other films, you need word-of-mouth. Only a few niche films, such as Ondhu Mottaye Kathe and Lucia, have managed to make it big at the box office. “Without Rakshit and Pushkar, I’m not sure if we would have had that kind of reach. They are sensitive to the needs of the film they are backing. And Pushkar has built an audience that looks forward to the films he backs. He can always tap into them when a film is releasing. A small film has to have someone on its team who will make sure it gets noticed.”