Nagarahavu became a cult film at the time of its release - and not just in terms of its box office collection and the number of weeks it ran in theatres. What captured the imagination of its young audience was the then new generation rebellious protagonist played by newcomer Vishnuvardhan. The essence of Nagarahavu is the character of its protagonist, Ramachari. It is, in a sense, also the content of the film.
Till Nagarahavu came along, the hero of a Kannada mainstream film, as popularized by Rajkumar, was generally a pious do-gooder who was extremely dutiful to his family and who would never harm to the innocent. But in Nagarahavu, Ramachari, described as a useless vagabond by society, draws his own moral lines. He has no qualms in copying in his college exams and when he is caught, in tying the principal to a light pole. He is clear - he copies because he knows that acquiring bookish knowledge is not his forte. At the same time, Ramachari is straight forward and always tells the truth. Eve teasing is morally wrong for him. When his girl friend comes to him at the middle of the night with an intention to elope, he takes her back to her house. But when another girl falsely accuses him of an attempt to rape her, he finds it morally right to kiss her, in brute retaliation, in front of her mother. In fact, Ramachari has many shades of grey in him and contradictions galore. He is therefore easily identifiable. What is wrong and what is right for him, is decided by him alone. The society around him, through his teacher, tries to rein him into following its rules. That is the essence of Nagarahavu - the conflict between individual freedom and time tested societal norms.
If there is one man Ramachari does obey and respect, it is his teacher Chamaiya who always asks him to give up some thing or the other - at times because he feels that if Ramachari makes those sacrifices it will be good for both himself and to everyone around. But most times it is also because Chamaiya has given his word to someone or the other that he would convince Ramachari to fall in line. And each time, Ramachari does follow his respected teacher's instructions, no matter however heart breaking it might be. Yet, when he loses his temper, he does not hesitate in picking up a stone to throw it at his teacher. Of course, he regrets it later.
The film is rooted in one place and not set in an 'anywhere anytime' scenario as it happens with many films of mainstream cinema. The fact that the film is based on a novel written by a well-known Kannada writer also helps. The story is set in a small town in central Karnataka called Chitradurga, known for its vast expanse of boulder ridden hills and ancient fort ruins. These boulders almost assume the role of an independent character right through the film. A disturbed Ramachari finds solace amidst these ruins. Chamaiya knows that if he can't find his student anywhere, he has to look between the boulders. It is also an ideal place for Ramachari to have a rendezvous with his girl friend. Confessions, declarations, gentle blackmail, romantic songs - all happen here. And finally, Ramachari even kills himself by jumping down from one of these boulders. Nagarahavu cannot be separated from the boulders and ruins of Chitradurga.
A special mention of a technique used in the climax - A few shots just before the hero and the heroine jump off the cliff, there is a dialogue between Ramachari and his teacher. Suddenly, as Ramachari comes a step or two forward, we see a dramatic red light that appears on his face. After a few shots, all of a sudden the whole frame turns red and the two characters jump down the cliff! It might sound contrived and even kitchy today, but the director seems totally convinced. In fact, such loudness was the signature of Puttana Kanagal, not just in Nagarahavu but all his other films as well. And people were impressed! Sweeping track shots, the use of the wide angle lens to captures the panoramic view of the boulders, a very identifiable theme music associated with the main character, acting bordering into the territory of melodrama and a script with a lot of shock values and twist and turns are the hallmark of Nagarahavu.
But there is a question and it's a disturbing one. In most of his films, before and after Nagarahavu, Puttana Kanagal gives us an impression that he is dealing with the new and the progressive. Even Nagarahavu seems to question oppressive societal norms that the individual initially fights against. But how does he ultimately respond in the end? Confused and unable to find a resolution, he tragically kills himself. So, the man who dares to question or rebel against conventional society morals has to die, his death being his so called 'punishment'. This, in my view, is a highly regressive view. The film, therefore, ends up confirming existing norms as the best solution and that, I think, is also one of the main reasons for the popularity of the film as people are comfortable with status quo. So, is Ramachari and hence Puttana, an ultimate rebel or an ultimate escapist? It is anybody's guess.