Wildlife researcher Dhruv puts Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe into his backpack as he sets out on a survey – a foreshadowing of the relationship that is central to Bharat Mirle’s Tamil-English film The Road to Kuthriyar. If Crusoe, the fictional adventurer, slave trader and castaway, struck up a life-altering friendship with the man he calls “Friday”, Dhruv too finds his Man Friday in the form of his tribal guide, Dorai.

Bharat Mirle’s debut feature fruitfully explores the unusual bond that emerges between the young and pony-tailed man Dhruv and the older Dorai. It’s an unequal partnership, captured by Dhruv’s description of Dorai as “my assistant”, dictated by Dhruv’s needs and Dorai’s compulsions, complicated by language (Dhruv speaks passable Tamil) and influenced by technology. Dhruv records his adventures in English in the form of vlogs, itself an act of privilege.

The vlogs are included in the 115-minute movie, and provide another foreshadowing for Mirle’s bold turn towards non-fiction. The Road to Kuthriyar, which has been premiered at the Busan International Film Festival, moves between fiction, fiction inspired by actual characters and conversations, and pure documentary.

The Road to Kuthriyar (2021).

Mirle began his filmmaker career in advertising, later veering towards documentary. “I was more into storytelling, and I liked the process of doing something without a big crew, interacting with people and understanding their lives,” the 34-year-old Bengaluru resident told Scroll.in.

Encouraged by his father, the film scholar MK Raghavendra, and partially inspired by French filmmaker Agnes Varda’s Vagabond, which contains narrative and documentary elements, Mirle set out to explore his interests. An entry point was provided by Dhruv Athreye, an old friend and a researcher himself.

When Mirle learnt that Athreye was conducting a survey in the area around Palani, and that cinematographer Mithun Bhat was recording the process, he paid the duo a visit. The Road to Kuthriyar grew out of the recorded footage, onto which Mirle grafted a scripted story of the Dhruv-Dorai interaction.

“The friendship forms the core of the film,” Mirle said. “I hadn’t seen someone like Dhruv and Dorai becoming friends.”

In the real world, Dhruv Athreye and Chinna Dorai had already forged thick ties over the course of their work. In the movie, Athreye and Dorai play versions of themselves – city slicker and tribal getting to know each other – before Mirle flips into hybrid mode.

Dhruv’s initial interest in animals gives away to a better understanding of the people he calls the “Humans of Kuthriyar” – the villagers who live around the Kudhriyar dam in Tamil Nadu’s Palani town alongside tribals who have been displaced from their homes over the years. Mirle comes to replace Dhruv as the person holding the camera and conducting the interviews – the director as the protagonist of his own movie.

Chinna Dorai in The Road to Kuthriyar (2021). Courtesy Bharat Mirle.

Except for a couple of fictional characters, including MK Raghavendra as a professor – the self-financed movie has been performed by non-professionals. Based on a concept by Raghavendra and a story by the father-son pair, the movie mostly adhered to the script, Mirle said. The 45-day shoot took place in 2019 and 2020 in and around Perumal Malai, Kudhriyar and Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu.

“The script itself allowed for documentary,” Mirle explained. “We had a general sense of what people were going to say. Some of the footage of the animals were from Dhruv’s actual survey. The interviews [the “Humans of Kuthriyar bits] were done for the film itself.”

The screenplay was organised around the daily rhythms of the characters. Their dialogue and actions approximated how they would actually speak and behave, Mirle said. The documentary portions reveal the challenges faced by the tribals, who struggle to overcome poverty and alcoholism and suffer the brunt of forest laws that penalise their traditional foraging methods.

The merging of Mirle with the fictional Dhruv in the latter portions of the film suggests that their quest is similar, Mirle pointed out. Both are privileged city dwellers trying to make sense of an alien space and culture but unable to completely identify with their subjects, he observed.

“We try to put ourselves into the shoes of our subjects, but there is no way I can put myself into Dorai’s head because our experiences are so far removed from his,” Mirle said. “I can’t escape my privilege at all, and I implicate myself in the film.”

Bharat Mirle.

Viewers of The Road To Kuthriyar who run into Chinna Dorai in the real world are likely to encounter the man we see on the screen – worldly wise, afraid of the police and authority figures, fond of alcohol and brusquely tender. Like his screen self, Dorai too is given to frequently checking himself out in a mirror that he appears to carry with him at all times.

“Dorai is a very accurate representation,” Mirle said. “He had lines to say in the film and we were directing him, but sometimes he would add dialogue out of the blue.”

Dorai’s understanding of the project was that Bharat Mirle and Dhruv Athreye were making a film about the survey. “The friendship between them is very real, and they had to pretend that they were getting to know each other,” Mirle said. “This was achieved chronologically – the point in the film where they don’t each other is when Dorai is new to the process of filmmaking.” Dorai is now herding cattle, his job of crystallising the collision between worlds done.