For a town that’s sliding into oblivion, Kolar Gold Fields, or KGF, is constantly in the news—at least in name. My Google feed shows me that the blockbuster film, KGF: Chapter 2, was released on television channels last weekend; others mention its worldwide box office collections of over Rs.1,000 crore. About a month ago, director Pa. Ranjith said his upcoming film with actor Vikram would be set in the town, while the trailer for KGF: Chapter 3 dropped around the same time.
Not so long ago, ‘KGF’ referred exclusively to a gold mining town in Karnataka, which had produced over 900 tonnes of gold in 125 years and provided a living to generations of miners. It’s the town I grew up in the 1950s—on one side, it was a picture-book colonial town with sprawling bungalows and gardens, churches with steeples and a clubhouse surrounded by a golf course; on the other side it was dotted with the mining shafts poking out of the ground and the hillocks of residual waste, known as the cyanide dumps, from the mills which ground the gold-laden ore.
This real KGF still exists: It is a town with a rich and layered history of pioneering miners from underprivileged backgrounds who slogged under terrible conditions inside the pits, risking their lives to extract gold and provide a better life for their families. Some of them are still around, and are proud of the fact that their labour has sent their children and grandchildren into other professions. Even as this once prosperous town disintegrates, the iconic name KGF has been appropriated by the makers of a blockbuster gangster movie that has nothing to do with the reality of life in the town. Google ‘KGF’ and you get details not of the gold mining town, but of the movie.
The fictional KGF films are set in the 1970s and 80s, by which time the mines were already exhausted and on the brink of closure. It is full of gang wars, violence and bloodshed.
“The KGF films have given our town a bad name,” said a resident, who was a miner and whose family has lived in KGF for three generations. “We have lived dignified lives in peace. We struggled to earn a living and now, our children are all educated. We don’t deserve to get a reputation like this.” The miners who descended into the pits certainly had a hard and dangerous life, and were not gangsters. They fought for their rights through organized trade unions. Industrial action in India, in fact, has its roots in KGF where labour unrest began as early as 1908. During a general strike in 1930, 16,000 workers downed tools for 21 days, partially paralysing mining activities.
Though conditions were harsh, working for the British mining company had some benefits. There was a hierarchy within the company, but over time, the labour community in KGF became one, erasing lines of caste and religion. The men from neighbouring villages who came to the gold fields in search of work in the late 19th century were mostly landless Dalit farm workers, who spoke Tamil, Kannada and Telugu. They had little idea about the enormous danger they were to encounter, and were trying to escape a life of bondage and caste discrimination. The new mining town offered hope of a place where they would get a fixed wage, housing and rations. Despite the danger of death that was part of their working life, surprisingly, these families brought more friends and relatives to work in the mines. Over the next two decades, the labour force in KGF increased almost fourfold. Large families occupied huts provided by the company in the labour lines.
Wage earners continued to die inside the “hell holes”, but the families got compensation and another family member usually got a job. The labour leaders became aware of their rights and were inspired by leaders like B.R. Ambedkar.Very soon, the miners realized that education was the only route for their children escape going “down to the depths of hell”, and began sending children to school and college.
By the 1970s, as the mines started retrenching workers and the threat of closure loomed, the emphasis on education became more pronounced. By the time the mines closed in 2001, educated youngsters already had jobs in nearby Bengaluru. In 2020, just before the pandemic, when trains were cancelled and many businesses were closed, over 1,500 people were commuting by train from KGF to Bengaluru every day. Despite the many health hazards posed by the dumps of tailings which dot the town, they preferred to return every evening because, for them, KGF was home.
In December 2020, there was a surge of excitement when Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Coal and Mines Pralhad Joshi announced that the Centre had decided to revive the mines. In December 2021, Joshi (who represents Karnataka’s Dharwad constituency) said it was no longer feasible to revive the mines. In August 2021, Karnataka’s industries minister Murugesh Niranisubmitted a memorandum to Joshi, suggesting the setting up of an industrial township on 3,212acres ofKGF land. This March, Nirani said the state government planned to use all 16,000 acres in KGF for an integrated industrial township. Nothing has happened since, but for the large, educated population in KGF, for whom the threat of unemployment looms, such a development would be welcome.
In the meantime, Kolar Gold Fields seems to have become filmmakers’ playground. While announcing his film, Ranjith said the film, to be shot in 3D, was based on a real-life incident from the 19th century and would portray the lives of miners living under British rule, while also having elements of magical realism. One hopes this film will turn out to be closer to life in the real KGF.
Also read: Gita Aravamudan’s six-part series on life in the mining township of Kolar Gold Fields, from the 1950s to the present day.
Gita Aravamudan is an author and journalist based in Bengaluru. Her books include Colour of Gold, a murder mystery set in the KGF mines, Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide and Baby Makers: The Story of Indian Surrogacy.