The Kannada-language film Pinki Elli? (Where is Pinki?) begins as an exploration of every parent’s nightmare but then reveals itself to be something else altogether – a clinical examination of a remorseless society that leads to a heartless crime.
Prithvi Konanur’s third feature is set in Bengaluru. It revolves around Bindhushree, a working woman, who leaves her eight-month-old daughter Pinki in the care of her maid Sanamma. Bindhushree doesn’t know that Sanamma has been loaning Pinki to a relative, Anasuya, who then uses the infant to beg at traffic signals.
Pinki goes missing one day, sending Sanamma and Anasuya into a panic. The film is both a social realist drama as well as a suspense thriller. Pinki’s trail is littered with surprises, while secrets about each of the characters tumble out during the course of the police investigation.
The plot of Pinki Elli? was inspired by newspaper reports of babies being rented out, and had been with Konanur for close to four years. The narrative took a while to fall into place. “These days, inciting incidents happen within the first ten minutes, and you don’t have the time build up characters – you can do that as you go along,” Konanur explained.
Pinki Elli? is among the titles that has been picked by the Mumbai Film Festival as part of its official selection for 2020. Although the festival has been postponed to 2021 because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the organisers have released a list of five competition and five non-competition movies that would have been shown had the event taken place. “The 10 films will not be screened this year either in theatres or digitally but will have the option to screen at the festival next year in the same section as long as the film stays an India Premiere till the next edition of the festival and is not available on any streaming platform,” a press release stated.
Konanur’s 2016 film Railway Children was previously screened at the Mumbai Film Festival. The movie shares with Pinki Elli? its setting, its use of mostly non-professional actors, and its concerns for the plight of people living on the margins of the economy. Railway Children looks at a bunch of boys recruited to work odd jobs at a railway station. The film highlights their precarious lives, their struggles with drug addiction and the constant threat of sexual and physical abuse.
One of the boys in Railway Children plays a key role in Pinki Elli?, as does a social worker. In both films, Konanur uses non-professional actors to authentically portray the harsh realities of city life.
“After the script, the most important thing is the casting – unless the actors are 100% convincing, I will not watch a film but will leave it halfway,” Konanur told Scroll.in.
In Pinki Elli?, professionals share the screen with first-timers who have never faced a camera before. Sannamma is played by Gunjalamma, who is a babysitter in real life too, Konanur said. Anasooya, who plays the character named Anasuya, is Gunjalamma’s cousin.
“You take this element and then put it into the character,” Konanur said about marrying fact with imagination. “You take people who are almost suitable for the part and then you work with them.” Like with Railway Children, Pinki Elli? involved acting workshops, conducted by Konanur, to build trust between the crew and the cast and to extract the correct level of emotions needed to make the story credible. He picked his actors from slums in Bengaluru.
“They were not worried about the characters they were playing, but they were initially worried about the crew,” Konanur said. “They were suspicious about who we were and what our intensions were. The main challenge was to convince them and create credibility.”
Stage and film actor Akshatha Pandavapura plays the central part of Bindushree. “It was a challenge to cast the lead actor since we shot in real locations,” Konanur said. “I wanted somebody who could perform under the pressure.”
Konanur has a degree in software engineering. He was working in Cyprus in the mid-2000s when he wrote a script for a horror film. It was optioned by a Hollywood studio but never got made.
He did a diploma in filmmaking at the New York Film Academy and returned to India in 2007. Konanur made his feature debut with the children’s movie Alegalu in 2012.
One of the lessons he learnt at the New York Film Academy has stayed with him: a movie is first about the story, then the performance, and only then about the style. “I made a lot of mistakes in my first film, but I was able to correct them in Railway Children,” he said.
While Pinki Elli? was shot in 16 days, the preparation, which involved familiarising the actors with their parts and choosing the locations, took longer. The cinematography, by R Arjun Raja, is entirely handheld to bring out the urgency of the hunt for Pinki.
“It’s all in the preparation – I can’t emphasise it enough,” Konanur said. Being well-prepared was also crucial to building up trust among actors who haven’t been on sets before, he added. “I just try to be myself – I tell things as they are. Being non-pretentious also helps.”