In Ere Gowda’s directorial debut, family secrets are revealed through mundane activities, unpredictable moments and subtle camera movements. Suggestion is everything in the Kannada movie Balekempa, the story of the hard-working bangle seller of the title, his stifled wife, his bed-ridden mother, his sexually curious neighbour, his supportive friend, and a pushy insurance agent.
Through these characters, Gowda, the co-writer of the 2016 Kannada drama Thithi, weaves a compelling morality tale about individuals addressing the incompleteness of their lives. The cast features only one professional actor, and the location is a village in Karnataka’s Mandya district. The level of local detail will be obvious only to very alert outsiders or highly sensitive insiders. Through his acutely observed narrative, Gowda occupies both positions.
The Zoo Entertainment production will be screened in the competitive India Gold section at the Mumbai Film Festival (October 25-November 1) and at the Dharamshala International Film Festival (November 1-4).
Unlike the multiple award-winning Thithi (2016), which was directed by Raam Reddy and based on characters and the rhythms of life in Gowda’s village in Mandya, Balekempa is purely fictional. “How can I be a mirror in my expression – this has always been on my mind,” the director said in a phone interview. One of the few links with Thithi, apart from a tendency of the locals to lapse into coarse speech, is a photo of the older film’s character, Century Gowda, on the wall.
Balekempa has been shot entirely on location in Dodda Byadarahalli in Mandya. “It’s my wife’s village,” the 37-year-old filmmaker said. The home of the bangle seller, Kempanna, belongs to Gowda’s wife in real life, while his maternal grandmother plays Kempanna’s ailing mother. Other relatives play small roles, while the main cast features local residents.
Casting was a challenge for Gowda, who has unconventional notions of screen beauty (“it comes not from how people look but from somewhere else”). Television actress Bhagyashree, who plays Kempanna’s miserable wife Soubhagya, is the only professional in the cast. Jnanesh, who plays Kempanna, was driving by on a motorcycle in much the same way he does in the film when he was flagged down by the director. “I cast him immediately,” Gowda said. “He was scared, but he knows my father very well, so he agreed. Also, he had watched Thithi.”
The biggest obstacle in preparing the non-professionals for the screen was to make sure that they wouldn’t mimic the melodramatic acting style prevalent in television serials and mainstream films. “The challenge was to take out what was there in the mind,” Gowda said. “We know how to act drunk or when we are scared because we have seen it on the television and in films. The idea was to take all these things out. I spent a lot of time with the characters, trying to understand them and their families. Most of the times, I was screaming, don’t act, don’t act.”
There were also intense discussions on how cinematographer Saumyananda Sahi, who has also edited the film, would frame the characters. “We discussed how close viewers could get to the characters, what would the distance be from the viewers,” Gowda explained. “I was exploring how to tell the story as both an outsider and an insider, and I wanted the outsider to get the story, but I also wanted an insider to watch the film and be comfortable. I was very lucky to have Saumyananda Sahi.”
Ere Gowda is an autodidact like few others in cinema. His life story could inspire a movie. He hails from a farming family, and lived in a village next to the one featured in Balekempa. Until 2000, he had seen a handful of films, since only one house in his village had a television set and there was no movie theatre. There still isn’t.
When Gowda was 16, he moved to Mysore to earn a living. A string of low-paying jobs followed, including as a security guard, a household help, an office boy and a gardener.
In 2000, Gowda moved to Bengaluru. He badly wanted to be a filmmaker, but was turned away from film sets. He taught himself English and basic filmmaking skills by watching videos on the internet. “Google is my guru – I owe all my talent to Google,” he said. “I told my friend that one day, I will be a director, and you will see my photo in a newspaper. I didn’t even know how to cross the road properly, but I wanted to be a director.”
In Bengaluru, Gowda began working for social worker Anita Reddy, who founded the Association for Voluntary Action and Services. Gowda did a series of jobs for Reddy, including guarding her house and working in her office. He befriended her son Raam Reddy, who would later direct Thithi.
“Raam was much younger than me, but we became friends,” Gowda said. “At the office, I got the opportunity to at least touch a computer. I did all kinds of jobs – editing, camera, graphic design, Photoshop. The Reddy office was a big opportunity and was like a school for me. Every day was a learning.”
As Gowda picked up skills he hadn’t known before, Raam Reddy returned after having learnt filmmaking at the Prague Film School. “He was interested in the stories from my village, and he said, let’s go there and make a film.” Reddy and Gowda first collaborated on a Telugu short film, Ika. “The short film gave me the confidence to make films,” Gowda said.
Along the journey, the man named Eregowda became Ere Gowda. “I was named after my grandfather,” the filmmaker said. “I had to split my name since I didn’t have a surname and it was causing a lot of confusion.”
It might seem like a hardscrabble journey, but Gowda says that every obstacle and every hurdle has been worth it. “It hasn’t actually been a struggle – I can’t say that I haven’t had painful moments, but I have enjoyed every bit of them,” he said. “Who I am today is because of these experiences.” Even as Balekempa gets set to tour festivals, Ere Gowda is already working on a new film. “I can’t sit still,” he said.