Raam Reddy’s debut movie, the Kannada-language THITHI bagged two top awards – Pardo d’oro Cineasti Del Presente Premio Nescens and Swatch First Feature Award at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2015. The film is a dark comedy revolving around three generations of a family, some property and two villages, after their patriarch ‘Century Gowda’ passes away. It is startling in its authenticity, and paints an intriguing and realistic picture of the Mandya district in Karnataka.
It had its Indian Premiere on October 31st at the JioMAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2015, and even won the ‘Special Jury Award’ in the International Competition section. It was the only Indian film in this section.
ABHISHEK GAUTAM speaks to the young director – who is also a Prague Film School graduate – about his film, his background and how it was to work with a large bunch of non-professional actors in an uncontrolled rural environment.
You’re an acclaimed short film-maker. But terms like ‘absurdist’ have been used to describe your work. Elaborate?
I have always been stubborn about being original in terms of interpreting the world in a deeply personal way. It’s kind of like my view on the world. In the process of those short films, I was searching for a voice. Something that was particularly my own and a manifestation of my own inner feelings. I was very deeply into the magic literature realism genre. Writers like Marquez and Murakami – the way they bend reality in a realistic way. They change the laws of the world but treat them realistically. That’s something that always got my pulse racing. This opens up your creative space. If there is some concept or some view that you would like to explore, then there are so many different ways you could explore them if you could bend the laws of the world. You don’t get bound by realism or what the world allows. Doing that in cinema is quite tricky. When you are writing, you have words, but when you’re doing cinema you have your actors. When you are doing micro budget work, you don’t have VFX , so then bending reality through realism is an interesting exercise. It is challenging, and doing it in the micro budget way helps me find a subtle voice. Those short films though are the ones I made to teach myself film making. So I wouldn’t call them my finished work. It was like my own personal film school. They were exercises to prepare me for my finished work. There are 2 short films that aren’t there yet on my website. Those are my finished works.
Any magical realism in Thithi then?
There is no magic realism explicitly, I would say. There is nothing within the narrative that sort of bends the rules of the world. That is very grounding. Having said that, there is a sort of mood creation, and there is a sort of rhythm, and there are certain moments in which it kind of sneaks through. Maybe. The audience will have to figure that out, I guess. In Thithi, I didn’t do it explicitly, but I did it implicitly with rhythm, and things like that. It’s there, but its very subtle.
How was Thithi made financially? Self-produced?
Thithi was primarily produced by a company started by my father and I, called Prospectus Productions. My father was the primary producer. So, in a way, it was self-produced but it wasn’t produced by me. It was produced by my father.
Is he from a film background too?
He is not from a film background. He is from a business background. We kind of moved into cinema together.
How did you convince him on the validity of a project like this?
By the time I was 23, I had written a collection of poetry, I had 2 art photography exhibitions, I had made 12 short films of which 1 was internationally acclaimed, and I had written 1 novel. So he knew I was driven, he knew I wouldn’t drop the project, that I would see it through to its end, and my previous works had also succeeded. The script was also something that was not too arthouse. In the sense that it was narrative enough to possibly be universal, which is what we are seeing now as well with the responses to the film. People from different walks of life – not necessarily the cinephiles, not necessarily the arthouse festivals, are appreciating it. People who just watch mainstream cinema also like this film. So that was intrinsic to the script, because it was narratively…I wouldn’t say dense, but narratively alive. So that was something that helped him come on board. And also my producer from the US, which eventually made it a Indo-US co-production. She also saw a similar universality.
Such a wide background at a young age. Did it help?
Absolutely. It helps in every step of my filmmaking. The only reason I feel comfortable as a filmmaker is because of my past arts. Like my art growing up and it all comes together in filmmaking. I use each and every thing I did while growing up, in filmmaking. There is nothing I did growing up that is wasted, and that’s nice. All the skills are being put to use. I didn’t expect it. It just happened accidentally. Like I play the tabla and that’s rhythm-oriented, so when I edit, there is a sense of rhythm which I bring to editing. From every aspect, including writing, because I co-wrote the script with Ere Gowda. So then, writing is there, and photography is for imagery, and music is for sound – so it all came together.
So you’re a one-man band?
No, you still collaborate but as the head of the film, as a director, if you have a grasp of all these things, it helps keep the film in your vision to a greater degree than if you didn’t have a grasp of these things.
You worked with non-professional actors. Was it a conscious decision? How was it?
Working with non-professionals was part of the reason I got into filmmaking. So it started from before I decided to be a filmmaker. When I decided to be a filmmaker, I decided for my early work to be with non-professionals and not professionals. The vision started when I was roaming around Delhi during college and I wanted to put the people I saw on film, in the area where I lived, for example. That itself is cinematic to me, not particularly like the glamour, like having a known face. That wasn’t what I was into. I approached it with the same idealism as when I was writing. When I was writing about such people, I wanted to shoot such people. When I decided to become a filmmaker, this was part of it. So all of my short films except one film which I made in the Czech Republic, features only non-professionals. So that was the background with which I was approaching my work and my art. Having said that, we decided to shoot in this village: it was the village of my co-writer and the treatment we chose was authenticity. It was a given that the people had to be from there because it’s a very particular place with a particular language and a particular sort of culture and interaction. So no one else could have gone and impersonated that authenticity. So it wasn’t so much as a conscious decision, but spontaneously arrived out of the intention. So it was a very early thing. It was not like we went and started working on the script and who can we put in and better we put in non professionals.
When you work with non professionals, there is no precedence. They don’t come trained as actors. They don’t know what they should hear from a director, so you have to deal with each of them personally. So it’s a very personal process of understanding individual psychologies and then moving that psychology into a direction that will grant us a form. So if you have someone who is very distracted, you have to work on getting them focused. If you have someone so focused that they can’t seem to work, then you have to work on getting them distracted. There is a certain understanding that comes when you work with an actor. Even if you work with them for 2 hours, or even an hour. Even post-audition, you know what strategy you have to use on that actor. Then it’s a process of moving them to give you that final take which matches your vision. That’s one thing and the other thing is that you have to edit on set. Edit on set meaning not actually edit on software, but edit in your mind. Because you’re gonna get snippets of usable things from each shot. So you can’t be looking for a flawless take. You cant be looking for them to remember all their lines in the entire take. If you get a portion of the take you have to start editing on the set saying I can take this from here, that from there etc. So I always landed up with just enough to cut each scene, because I was editing on set.
Very intensive and patient approach. How does it impact the time?
We were shooting for 5 months, on and off.
We are taking it as it comes. It’s going well. The next steps will be looking at theatrical releases in Karnataka, across India and internationally as well. So we are working towards having discussions with various distributors. While it is a festival film, it seems like there is more to it than just being a festival film, although it’s with unprofessional actors and also lighthearted – which is not usually the norm in arthouse work. This is slightly comic and that allows us to break out to a larger audience. So we are aiming at distribution across the world.
You’ve done a lot at a comparatively young age.
I had a great team also. My co-writer is brilliant. My DOP he is brilliant. He is from Holland and we all worked really hard. It is a small team but it’s a team that worked really hard. We never gave up. We knew what we wanted, no compromise.
How did the team form?
My DOP and my editor were from my school in Prague. My sound designer was from FTII. My co-writer didn’t go to film school, he is from the same village, but he also has a good grasp over cinema. So this is the core team, and then we had locals from the village and we had some more people from the film institute. We had people from the Kannada industry and people from the Bombay industry. It was a very interesting crew. People came from everywhere.
How is it to deal with PR and distribution?
It Is pretty intense. It’s a life shift. You have to negotiate it. I’m OK. I’m a people person. I’ve travelled, and I’m fine talking to people. It’s part of it. Its maybe not part of the art but its part of the business of it. I’m an economics major so I understand how things work.
Who handles the business?
My dad will lead it. My producers from the US as well. I will be involved in it.
Are you working on anything else?
Not really. Focussed on this. Like I said – we are a small team, so we are all shouldering responsibility. It’s full time work. If the team was larger and there was more delegation possible, then there would actually be time. This project still needs care. Once we have our distribution deal sorted then it’s not the end of it. You have to actually make sure that the releases go live. Promotional material, trailers, poster etc. Once that is done, I will start working on something else. And I’m a little funny that way. Once I start working on a project, I don’t even watch other films. Not like in 3 years, I haven’t watched any films. But when I’m shooting I don’t watch films, when I’m writing I don’t watch films, when I’m editing I don’t watch films. It’s a long period of time. I anyway don’t watch that many films. I’m not like a film geek. I’d rather just create and build my own. I’m excited to watch films now that Thithi is done. I’ll be watching films in MAMI and having fun, but in general it’s focused on one thing at a time.
Back to writing or only films?
Since a film integrates everything, I’m quite satisfied working within cinema – because I get to write. I like to write and I get to do something visual once I get started and I get to work with sound and music eventually. So, in that sense it blends everything together but having said that, films are such a massively long commitment that I wouldn’t mind doing some micro-art like photography, poetry, anything finishes quicker – like maybe even short films. But I don’t really know. I’m just in it for the art. It started with poetry and know that poetry is just taking different different shapes. Even the film is just like a poem in different form. Like a very long poem. It’s just like free flowing thought. It’s constructed thought. Whichever form it takes, it’s art.