The best laid plans come to naught in Raam Reddy’s remarkably assured and often very funny Kannada movie Thithi, which is being released with English subtitles. Starring a mostly non-professional cast and set in a small town in Karnataka, the debut feature is aimed at local audiences as well as cinephiles. The former group will easily recognise the setting, the lilting Mandya dialect and the woes of the movie’s characters, while the latter crowd will see echoes of European absurdists such as Federico Fellini, Jiri Menzel and Emir Kustirica in the yarn’s cross-weave of exotic quirkiness and rural realism.
Approximations of the town depicted in Reddy and Eregowda’s screenplay can be found in several places across South India, but it has actually emerged out of an imagination of what these communities on the margins of propriety and economic progress must be like. Thithi plays out in a less idealised and more cynical Malgudi-type place that is populated by profanity-spewing ignobles, rogues, cynics and shrews.
The irreverent tone of vernacular cool is established in the opening scenes, which present Century Gowda, a foul-mouthed centenarian who drops dead right after making rude remarks about the village folk, just before he is going to relieve himself by the roadside.
The funeral must be elaborate and include meat, declare the villagers, who are angling for a meal at somebody else’s expense. Century Gowda’s son, the free-floating Gadappa (Channegowda), is incapable of the task, since he has renounced his family years ago and wanders about with the beatific look of one who has been blessed either by the One Above or the quarter bottle in his pocket.
It falls on the stopped shoulders of Gowda’s grandson, Thamanna (Thammegowda S), to organise the 11th day ritual – the thithi of the title. Thamanna has a bigger problem on his hands: he must persuade Gadappa to pass on the valuable land that he has inherited from Gowda before the rest of the family gets to it. Since Gadappa is firmly non-materialist by nature, Thamanna is forced to adopt crooked measures.
Causing Thamanna further headaches is his own wayward son Abhi (Abhishek HN). When not stalking Cauvery (Pooja SM), the daughter of a shepherd whose community has temporarily settled on the outskirts of the town, Abhi is gambling away his father’s hard-earned money. Cauvery doesn’t initially warm to Abhi’s lechery, but like the rest of the characters, she ends up accepting her fate. In a social order dictated by prolifically hirsute men (Gadappa’s leonine crown competes with the handlebar whiskers of Cauvery’s kinsmen), the women are either harridans (the abusive wife of Thamanna’s hapless neighbour; a scary moneylender) or marks (Cauvery).
Is there anybody worth saving from a preordained life of misery and borderline penury? Reddy’s microscopic view of his characters reduces their insurmountable troubles to mere follies. Gadappa is presented as the only one with his head screwed on the right way, but it’s Thamanna, the most rooted and credible of the characters, who elicits empathy. Thamanna’s fate is sealed when he vigourously nods his head to usurious rates from a moneylender who is straight out of a Kannada potboiler.
Thithi presents Thamanna’s tragedy as a deadpan satire and relies heavily on the unschooled and spontaneous reactions of the mostly non-professional cast. Reddy does a fine job of getting the townspeople to play versions of themselves and expertly steers the main cast past their endless obstacles.
Even Channegowda and Abhishek HN, who are less polished than their roles require them to be – some of Channegowda’s inscrutable reactions appear to be a result of not knowing what to do rather than great acting – come off as credible because of the skill with which they have been written.
Stripped off its unusual settings, Thithi’s story is most ordinary – a crooked deal gone badly wrong. By plonking it in a place that is both “once upon a time” and a recognisable town in Karnataka, Reddy has brewed a curious mix of anthropology, comedy and commentary on the futility of resistance. The strongest clue to the movie’s philosophy lies in a rudimentary game of stones that Gadappa plays with the town’s children. It involves sheep and tigers, and invariably ends in carnage.