Among the titles being screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam is an Indian production that crawls into the mind of a person politely known as a “keyboard warrior” but better described as a “troll”. Harshad Nalawade’s Follower attempts to understand where trolls emerge from and why they do what do.

The film draws from actual events. Raghu is paid to post videos and commentary about the cause with which he is aligned – the perceived mistreatment of Belgaum’s Marathi speakers. The city has been the centre of a longstanding boundary dispute between Karnataka and Maharashtra. For decades, Maharashtrian politicians – most recently, Uddhav Thackeray – have demanded that Belgaum be merged with Maharashtra on account of its sizeable Marathi-speaking population or declared a Union Territory.

Raghu, who belongs to a Marathi-speaking family, has been catalysed by a series of personal and professional challenges. While Follower is about a specific cause, and has been inspired by Nalawade’s formative years in Belgaum and his own Marathi identity, Raghu’s experiences could be extrapolated to other hot-button issues too.

For instance, the Belgaum border dispute could be exchanged for the industrial-level social media abuse by Hindutva troll farms of Muslims, liberals and any group perceived to be sceptical of the current government.

Nalawade was responding to the thick air of polarisation that hangs around us, he told Scroll in an interview from Rotterdam. Follower has been programmed in a section titled “Focus: The Shape of Things to Come?”, which explores India’s future under a Hindu Right-wing regime. Other titles in the section include Ranjan Palit’s A Knock on the Door, Anand Patwardhan’s Ram Ke Naam, Anurag Kashyap’s short film Chaar Chappalein (which also features a social media troll) and Sanjiv Shah’s Hun, Hunshi, Hunshilal.

Follower (2023). Courtesy Causality Films/HumaraMovie.

“It started from a personal thing – post-2014, you could see so many people being passionate about their beliefs,” Nalawade said. “That passion started creeping into my friendships. The discourse was so much that everyone was talking about it everywhere.”

A chasm emerged between Nalawade and a Hindutva-leaning friend. “Why does someone believe there is a single leader who is great and will take us out of our misery?” he asked. “I started my research.”

Nalawade was keen on humanising Raghu, even at the risk of being accused of being sympathetic towards online toxicity. While it easy to dismiss trolls as faceless bigots, it is important to understand their journeys too, the 35-year-old filmmaker said.

“While minorities are typically victims of hate, members of the majority like Raghu are victims who are exploited too,” Nalawade asserted. “If a certain discourse is going to increase their bigotry and if we dismiss them outright, they will stick to their beliefs even more strongly.’

Follower achieves its tricky balance through its characterisation. Nalawade’s riveting film, which he described as a “cautionary tale”, sets Raghu’s recently acquired hard-line ideology against soured friendships, unfeeling family members, thwarted dreams, and an escalating feeling of emasculation.

The themes of Nalawade’s screenplay are backed by a shooting style characterised by continuous takes. Sequences of Raghu arguing with his friends Sachin and Parveen or standing up to Kannada activists trying to force him to shut the gift shop that he runs are especially revealing because they play out in the full.

In these moments, we see the fraying of established relationships; the erosion of sureties; the frustration that build up and bubbles away within Raghu.

“We did this for two reasons – one was to portray what was going on in Raghu’s mind in every one of his scenes,” Nalawade explained. “There are these wide shots that stay on Raghu, in which the camera isn’t moving, where you see how he is stagnating. The second reason is to show how unpredictable he is. You don’t know what he will do next. Since we were working on a very low budget, we would rehearse the scenes thoroughly before shooting.” (The film has been shot by Saket Gyani and edited by Maulik Sharma.)

Harshad Nalawade.

Follower has dialogue in several languages to reflect Belgaum’s diversity. We hear Marathi, Kannada, English and Hindi – evidence of what Nalawade termed Belgaum’s “multi-lingual culture”. He added, “We can break into any language at any moment to communicate with each other, but we forget this when we have leaders to divide us.”

Nalawade himself plays Sachin in the film. Donna Munshi, an actress from Hyderabad, portrays Parveen, the common link between Raghu and Sachin. Raghu is played by Raghu Prakash, a first-time actor who happens to be Nalawade’s neighbour in Belgaum.

“He is an engineer who works in a software company in Bengaluru, but is very keen on acting,” Nalawade said. “He has only ever acted in a short film before.”

Nalawade too trained to be an engineer, but dropped out and instead enrolled in the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication in Pune. He briefly worked with the director Umesh Kulkarni and edited Jaideep Varma’s documentary I Am Offended (2015) before embarking on Follower sometime in 2017.

Nalawade has also co-written Abhishek Chaubey’s upcoming web series Soup, starring Konkona Sen Sharma and Manoj Bajpayee. “I would like to consider myself as a filmmaker from Karnataka who is keeping the roots and culture of that region alive,” Nalawade said.

Follower can be seen as the latest entry in a recently rejuvenated Kannada indie filmmaking scene. Ever since Pavan Kumar’s crowd-funded Lucia in 2013, young filmmakers such as Nalawade have been encouraged to pursue independent-minded projects.

Recent outliers include the Rishab Shetty productions Pedro (by Natesh Hegde) and Shivamma (by Jaishankar Aryar). “Lucia was the film that made me think that I too should go for crowd-funding,” Nalawade said. Follower was partly crowd-funded until HumaraMovie stepped in as a producer.

Despite a premiere at Rotterdam – a prestigious platform for arthouse cinema – Nalawade knows it won’t be easy procuring a distribution deal. “It is a difficult road ahead,” he said. “This is a story that the majority of the country should watch to see how most of us are vulnerable to exploitation.”

Follower (2023).