In the Kannada film Pedro, nothing is what it seems – the countryside heaving with rain and lush beauty, the intricately interwoven community life, the neatly ordered hierarchy where everybody knows their place.
In a seemingly quiet corner of rural Karnataka, an electrician commits a horrible mistake that upturns his world. Pedro flaps about and then falls right off, his descent revealing harsh truths about human nature and the insular and often iniquitous ways of the Indian village.
Natesh Hegde’s stunning feature debut was premiered at the Busan International FIlm Festival London. Hegde based Pedro on a clear-eyed vision of rural life that contradicts the conventional notion of the ideal village in films.
“If there is such a village, it doesn’t exist anymore,” the 26-year-old filmmaker told Scroll.in. “I have always felt that when you watch so-called rural films, you don’t get a sense of their real problems.”
Pedro is a farm worker who knows much more about his employer’s dark secrets than he lets on. Pedro lives with his mother, sister-in-law and her son. He is devoted to his nephew, evident in the sequence in which he lovingly bathes the boy.
Pedro’s sheltering of his sister-in-law irks his brother Bastayva, who lives apart but frequently lands up at Pedro’s house to shower abuses on the family. When Pedro is promoted as a security guard to watch over his employer’s estate, he relishes the feel of the rifle and the responsibility of hunting a boar that has been damaging the crops.
Pedro shoots the wrong animal, bring to the surface long-simmering communal feelings. The killing exposes bigotry as well as the transactional nature of relationships.
“Communalism is more pronounced than before,” Hegde observed. “I wanted to see how far a man and a mob can go. You see these videos of people being beaten up – only a mob can carry out this kind of violence.”
Pedro sheathes its brutality through a host of means – long shots that put distance between viewers and the viewed, casual conversations that reveal the delicate interweave of relationships, a performance style rooted in realism.
If there is a bunch of damaged goods rattling about the village, they don’t make too much sound. Working with mostly non-professional actors, cinematographer Vikas Urs and editor Paresh Kamdar (with whom Hedge shares the editing credit), the filmmaker has created a crackling and chilling chronicle of rural disquiet.
The violence that slices through the countryside had been building up in Hegde’s short films. Kurli (The Crab), made in 2017, is about a boy who is accused of theft by an upper-caste landlord and cruelly punished.
The powerful theme and stylised black-and-white camerawork caught the attention of filmmakers in Bengaluru. The actor and director Raj B Shetty, who messaged Hegde after watching Kurli, has a starring role in Pedro. The film has been produced by another prominent Kannada actor-director, Rishab Shetty.
Hegde’s second short film Distant (2018) shares a bucolic element with Pedro – a man hunts high and low for his missing cow. This film has elements that Hegde has fruitfully expanded in Pedro – the insular and often iniquitous ways of the village, the violence threatening to burst through the surface, troubled relations between family members, stasis and alcoholism.
The films are all set in Hegde’s Kottalli village in Ummachgi in the Uttara Kannada district. And all of them feature his father. Gopal Hedge has small roles in the short films and the lead role in Pedro.
“His face is very interesting, and things didn’t need to be explained to him,” Natesh Hegde said. “I know everything about him, so it was very easy to handle him, much more than if I had taken a professional.”
Like Pedro, Gopal Hegde too is a contractually employed electrician. Natesh Hegde described his family as “lower-middle class”, but with the entitlement that comes from his Brahmin identity.
“I see stratification and layers everywhere,” he said. “I can make this film only because of my privilege. The kids that you see in Kurli are from the Sidi tribe, they can’t even think of doing what I do.”
Except for Raj B Shetty and Medini Kelamane, who plays Pedro’s sister-in-law Julie, the cast has been drawn from the village. Pedro was filmed over 25 days in Kottalli. “If anybody thinks the film is slow, it’s because this is the way time unfolds in my village,” Hegde explained. “The village is feminine, in a way – it is rainy and sleepy and then there is this masculine edge, this imbalance.”
The advantages of working with first-time actors included relying on their “muscle memory”, Hegde added. “I wanted performances that were very silent and underplayed. If you know how to cry and you know how to work in a field, you know how to express yourself. The actors realised that a film was being made only when a generator van arrived on the location. That was good – if we had been too serious, the film wouldn’t have happened.”
Part of the battle is waged in the writing process. Hegde, who has a masters in journalism, initially set out writing short stories that he later realised had the flavour of screenplays.
“Kurli was the first time I had touched a camera,” Hegde said. He taught himself editing on a borrowed laptop, just like he taught himself filmmaking by watching movies rather than attending film school.
“If the expression is true, the style of film doesn’t matter,” Hegde observed. He writes the old-fashioned way, putting pen to paper. The screenplay for Pedro was barely 25 pages long. “I wanted to show a lived experience,” Hegde explained. “I wrote the film as I saw it in my head.”
Among the filmmakers Hegde sent his script to was MS Prakash Babu, whose Attihannu Mattu Kanaja (Fig Fruit and The Wasps, 2014) is another quietly devastating exploration of an existential crisis.
Like his arthouse predecessors and peers, Hedge’s project is destined for the film festival circuit. But he would rather Pedro is shown in his village – even though his short films got a frosty reception.
“I got yelled at for my short films, people told me, why are you showing these things, they don’t happen anymore,” he recalled.
But they do, which is why Hegde hopes that Pedro will make its journey back to India and, ultimately, the fertile ground from it has sprung
“This film has to be shown to them, I am not afraid,” Hegde said. “What is the point of festivals abroad when the problems are here?”