In Prithvi Konanur’s new film, a pair of adolescents set off a fire that rages out of control. The director’s Kannada-language Hadinelentu, or Seventeeners, is, like his previous movie, Pinki Elli?, an unvarnished exploration of moral choices forced upon ordinary people embroiled in extraordinary circumstances.
The self-produced independent feature was premiered at the recently concluded Busan International Film Festival. The spark for the conflagration in Seventeeners begins when college students Deepa and Hari have sex in a classroom. The act, recorded by Hari on his phone, soon hops from one device to the next and spreads across the college.
The reactions of the college administration reveal deep-rooted biases, the economic and caste divide between Hari and Deepa – he is a privileged Brahmin, she is a working-class Dalit – and the dynamic between the staffers. Seventeeners impassively examines the turmoil caused by the sex tape, neither taking sides nor passing a judgement.
Konanur, whose previous films include Railway Children (2016), wrote Seventeeners with Anupama Hegde, a lawyer. The film is fictional despite appearances, Konanur told Scroll.in.
“Such incidents have happened before, and we have seen their effects too, but the film is a work of fiction,” Konanur said. “The fundamental idea is of two teenagers indulging in intimacy and this act getting leaked. How do you explore it, and where do you take it? The screenplay took a long time to crack.”
As Konanur delved into the legal aspects of the case, the film evolved in interesting ways. “The legal intricacies became a parallel narrative to the family dynamics and college politics,” Konanur said. “The more details I went into, the juicier the film became. Even now, the full potential of the theme is yet to be realised.”
Seventeeners has a mix of professional and non-professional actors. The film relies on a verite style of shooting, naturalistic performances, and scenes that play out in full to maximise the intricacies of the arguments that fly between characters.
Konanur’s instructions to his cast involved basic housekeeping rules: “Keep it real and simple, say the lines in your own words, improvise when you can, add something to a scene if you feel like.”
Realism is increasingly attractive for Konanur, who chucked a career in software engineering in the mid-2000s and turned filmmaker with Alegalu in 2012.
“The older I become, the more I am going towards realism,” he said. “It is not like I don’t like dramatic films. But when it comes to realism, actors get a lot of freedom.”
A realistic approach also means that directors run the risk of open-endedness. “You can’t always come up with an ending or a direction – the moment you try to do that, it looks forced,” Konanur said. “Our efforts should be to make films look as plausible and realistic as possible.”
Seventeeners initially had a more ambiguous ending, which was altered after feedback. Konanur was keen to avoid being prescriptive, arguing that such an approach wouldn’t work in a film with many complex layers.
“An activist mode will absolutely not work, given how confusing and vague the situation is,” he said. “The moment you take a stand you are doing injustice to reality. It’s different in commercial cinema, where you have to enforce a certain kind of ending. In a film like this, you have to allow the characters to make their own choices.”