Village people

Posted on May 28, 2016


Thoughts on ‘Thithi’, a small film with big buzz and bigger ambitions.

The burden of expectation can sometimes be too much for a small film. Raam Reddy’s Kannada directorial debut Thithi won last year’s National Award for Best Feature Film in Kannada, which seems just about right. When we think “National Award-winning film,” we think a certain kind of film – Thithi is exactly that kind of film. But in addition, Thithi won awards at the Locarno, Marrakech, Bengaluru and Pune film festivals. Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather, called it “a joyous view on life in a village in India with unforgettable characters.” And Anurag Kashyap – Indian indie cinema’s saviour, torch-bearer, problem child, traitor, all rolled into one – said it was one of the recent films he wished he’d made (the others being Sairat and Visaaranai). Suddenly, Thithi didn’t look like a “National Award-winning film.” It began to look to like something Martin Scorsese should be taking notes from.

So I’ll admit to a bit of disappointment when I left the theatre after a 10 am screening last Sunday. (It was a full house. So yay, Chennai film lovers.) I found it a good, at times very good film – just not the great, make-me-a-better-person experience I’d been led to expect. (Not the film’s fault, I admit. It is what it is. This is more a function of all the buzz around it.) But before getting to Thithi, I have to ask you a question. Would you call a Kannada (or Tamil or Gujarati or Bengali) film “regional cinema”? I would, simply because only Hindi films – in their domestic release – are released all over the country while films in all other languages play mostly in the regions they are made in (and maybe a handful of big cities outside). Hence, regional cinema, cinema of a region. But someone on Twitter told me to stop categorising film as local, regional, national. “Film is a film.

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I’d call Thithi a regional film that’s almost universal, even primal, in its abstraction – it ends with a cave painting of an image, an old man in front of a fire. And it begins with an older man, all of 101, commenting rudely at passers-by. This girl is swaying her hips too much. That man’s wife has found someone better. I laughed, but with some uneasiness. Given that these “festival films” play almost exclusively to urban audiences, both within and without India, are we laughing at or with this villager, and the woman who intimidates men with her colourful swearing? Is this another instance of an urban filmmaker peddling “village shtick”? And “village kitsch” – with a superstition-feeding astrologer and a girl getting her nose pierced as women chant around her? If so, Raam Reddy is in good company. Satyajit Ray was once accused of something similar, selling India’s poverty to international audiences.

After throwing that pebble into the pond, let me tell you that the core of Thithi is quite magical. Put it prosaically and it sounds like this: The 101-year-old man dies, and we follow his son, grandson and great-grandson during the ten-or-so days leading up to the religious ceremony the title refers to. The son, Gadappa, is the film’s locus. When he receives the news that his father has died, he shrugs and walks out of the frame – only to re-enter the frame and head in the opposite direction when reminded that his village lies that way. At first, we think he’s a fool, but he’s more of a blithe fatalist. When his son Thammanna walks him to the bus stop, he says he will board whichever bus comes first. He does this, and then realises that his supply of his favourite Tiger brandy is exhausted. He asks the bus to stop. Or maybe it’s really the universe asking.

Because Gadappa gets down at this place, he runs into a nomadic shepherding community, decides to stay with them, becomes one of them. And one day, when someone steals their sheep, he recompenses them using the money Thammanna stuffed into his bag. If you see who stole the sheep, you’ll realise that this is karmic reparation. A seemingly random decision – getting down from the bus – results in the righting of a wrong, just like the seemingly random decision by the shepherds to move out ends up righting another act of wrongdoing, preventing a man from getting a tract of land by unlawful means. Gadappa is a great character. He narrates to the nomads what appears to be his life’s story, and then admits he doesn’t know if it’s real or a dream. “What happens will happen. It’s better to be happy.” But though he sounds like one, and despite his apparent renunciation of his family, Gadappa is no seer or mystic – merely a cog in the cosmic system of checks and balances. And you finally see the reason behind the awesome buzz. This wisp of a film ends up carrying almost metaphysical weight. A butterfly flaps its wings in a remote village in Karnataka, and justice prevails.

There’s a sense of the interconnectedness of it all. The stolen sheep and the Tiger brandy are echoed in Gadappa’s favourite game that goes by the name of… “sheep-tiger.” The great-grandfather’s reputation as a playboy connects with (Thammanna’s son) Abhi’s fascination with porn. The great-grandfather’s demise in the midst of barnyard animals connects with Abhi having sex in the midst of… more barnyard animals. (An eros/thanatos link. I told you this small film likes to think big.) But whenever Gadappa is off-screen, Thithi stumbles. The other characters aren’t half as compelling. In addition to Thammanna’s attempts to organise the thithi, we get a most lacklustre (and generic) romance between Abhi and a girl from… the same shepherding community Gadappa is now with. (More interconnectedness!) If Thithi transcends these easily overlooked failings, it’s also due to the excellent cast of non-professionals, who never disturb the illusion that we are inside this village. In other words, we don’t have Aishwarya Rai Bachchan playing Thammanna’s beleaguered wife.

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