In Karnataka’s Mandya district is a real village that is straight out of fiction. Nodekopplu, which is off the highway between Bangalore and Mysore, is packed with eccentric, boisterous and passionate people who cast a cock-eyed gaze at death, life, love and money. This place with something in the water is somewhere between RK Narayan’s Malgudi and Federico Fellini’s ancestral village in the movie Amarcord – at least, that is what Raam Reddy’s debut Thithi will have us believe.
Both realistic and absurdist, suffused with the dust of the landscape and the gossamer of fantasy, Nodekopplu – rather its screen version – is the strongest character in Reddy’s assured debut. Thithi, which will be screened at the Dubai International Film Festival (December 9-16), is centred on the funeral of a centenarian. A series of picaresque and comic events follow the death of “Century Gowda” just as he is about to take a leak by the roadside. His son, Gadappa, has entered a stage of dotage or detachment, depending on which way you look at it, and does not care about the property he stands to inherit. But the grandson, Thammana, does, and goes about grabbing what he cannot legally have. Meanwhile, the great-grandson, Abhi, has lost his heart to a sassy lass from a nomadic goat-herding family that has temporarily moved into the neighbourhood. As these three generations of men chart their respective paths to happiness, the village clamours for a respectable feast, since Century Gowda was no ordinary mortal.
Thithi is reminiscent of Korean master Im Kwon-Taek’s Festival (1996), which explores the dynamics of a family that has congregated for the funeral of its matriarch, and the filmmaker cited references as diverse as Wes Anderson and the television series The Wire. The screenplay’s source lies closer home: Nodekopplu is where the movie’s co-writer, Eregowda, grew up and has family. The plot meshes documentary, fiction and ethnography and provides a tapestry of rural life that is stripped of the sanctimony and morality imposed by outsiders. Eregowda based the writing on people he knew and incidents he has seen and remembered. The actors are mostly non-professionals and locals, and many of them are from Eregowda’s extended family. “We knew whom we would shoot and where – we wrote for the place,” the 34-year-old writer said.
“The movie started off with the idea that this place had something special that we could adapt for cinema,” Reddy added. “Eregowda’s relationship with the place and our relationship came together.”
Reddy first visited Eregowda’s village five years ago, but the collaboration between the film school graduate from Karnataka’s elite and the autodidact from the hinterland began several years ago. Reddy’s grandfather, K Chengalraya Reddy, is Karnataka’s first chief minister, while his mother, Anita, is a Padma Shri winner in the field of social work and the founder of Association for Voluntary Action and Services. The 26-year-old director trained in direction at Prague Film School, and self-published his debut novel, It’s Raining in Maya, a few years ago.
Reddy knew Eregowda since he was a teenager. Eregodwa had worked with Anita Reddy in various capacities, and he learnt driving, English, data management, cinematography and editing. Conversations between Reddy and Eregowda about his village and its colourful folk planted the idea that there could be a movie here. “We wanted the film to come spontaneously out of the interaction from the place,” Reddy said. “I have grown up in the city, and was thrown into this world through the eyes of an insider. Eregowda knew the locations like the back of his hand. The place kept building the story for us. The whole village was a set. ”
The idea of using a funeral as a plot device also flew out of experience. “I know that people gather when somebody dies or for festivals or weddings, otherwise, the village is mostly quiet,” Eregowda said. The person who plays Century Gowda’s grandson was actually handing out cards for the funeral ceremony of his grandmother when he was spotted by the filmmakers. The non-professional is not too different from Gadappa, the itinerant and rebellious grandfather. “That man had left the village when I was a kid, and he went off to stay with his four daughters in a hut,” Eregowda said.
The local culture of raucous funerals, gambling, hustling for money and the brusque and often coarse speech patterns are all a result of Eregowda “knowing the culture inside out and writing the dialogue from experience”, Reddy said. The authenticity of the dialogue made it easier to direct the mostly amateur cast. “The actors had to be comfortable with the lines,” Reddy said.
Although some of the dialogue appears to have been improvised, none of it was, Reddy asserted. “These guys had to perform and they had to have some talent,” he said about the casting process. “Many of them could not say a single line, but every one of them had different strengths. The movie has a slippery screenplay and a playful narrative, and the lines had to be exact.”
Shot over five months, Thithi made its international premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in August, where it won the top award in the category for the best first features from around the world. Thithi also picked up a special grand jury prize at the Mumbai Film Festival in October. A commercial distribution deal is in the works. Thithi is perfectly poised as a rustic comedy for Kannada speakers and an accessible arthouse film for the rest of India. “I wanted the acting to be authentic, the people to be as true as possible, and the world to be as cinematic and particular,” Reddy said.