Screening Room Magazine

Small film, metaphysical weight

A still from 'Thithi'.  

The burden of expectation can sometimes be too much for a small film. Raam Reddy’s Kannada directorial debut Thithi won last year’s National Award for Best Feature Film in Kannada, which seems just about right. When we think “National Award-winning film,” we think a certain kind of film — Thithi is exactly that kind of film.

But in addition, Thithi won awards at the Locarno, Marrakech, Bengaluru and Pune film festivals. Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather, called it “a joyous view on life in a village in India with unforgettable characters.” And Anurag Kashyap — Indian indie cinema’s saviour, torch-bearer, problem child, traitor, all rolled into one — said it was one of the recent films he wished he’d made (the others being Sairat and Visaaranai). Suddenly, Thithi didn’t look like a “National Award-winning film.” It began to look to like something Martin Scorsese should be taking notes from.

So I’ll admit to a bit of disappointment when I left the theatre after a 10 a.m. screening last Sunday. (It was a full house. So yay, Chennai film lovers.) I found it good, at times very good, but not the great experience I’d been led to expect.

But before getting to Thithi, I have a question. Would you call a Kannada (or Tamil or Gujarati or Bengali) film “regional cinema”? I would, simply because only Hindi films are released all over the country. But someone on Twitter told me to stop categorising film as local, regional, national. “A film is a film.”

I’d call Thithi a regional film that’s almost universal, even primal, in its abstraction — it ends with a cave painting of an image, an old man in front of a fire. And it begins with an older man, all of 101, commenting rudely at passers-by. He soon dies, and we follow his son, grandson and great-grandson during the days leading up to the religious ceremony the title refers to.

The son, Gadappa, is the film’s locus. When he receives news of his father’s death, he shrugs and walks out of the frame — only to re-enter the frame and head in the opposite direction when reminded that his village lies that way. At first, we think he’s a fool, but he’s more of a blithe fatalist. When his son Thammanna walks him to the bus stop, he says he will board whichever bus comes first. He does this, and then realises that his favourite Tiger brandy is finished. He asks the bus to stop. Or maybe it’s really the universe asking.

Here, he runs into a nomadic shepherding community, decides to stay with them, and becomes one of them. One day, when someone steals their sheep, he recompenses them using the money Thammanna stuffed into his bag. And a seemingly random decision, getting down from the bus, results in the righting of a wrong.

Gadappa is a great character. He narrates to the nomads what appears to be his life story, and then admits he doesn’t know if it’s real or a dream. “What happens will happen. It’s better to be happy.” But though he sounds like one, and despite his apparent renunciation of his family, Gadappa is no seer or mystic, merely a cog in the cosmic system of checks and balances. And you finally see the reason behind the awesome buzz. This wisp of a film ends up carrying almost metaphysical weight. A butterfly flaps its wings in a remote village in Karnataka and justice prevails.

But whenever Gadappa is off-screen, Thithi stumbles. The other characters aren’t half as compelling. In addition to Thammanna’s attempts to organise the thithi, we get a most lacklustre (and generic) romance between Abhi, the great-grandson, and a girl from… the same shepherding community Gadappa is now with. (More interconnectedness!) If Thithi transcends these easily overlooked failings, it’s also due to the excellent cast of non-professionals, who never disturb the illusion that we are inside this village. In other words, we don’t have Aishwarya Rai Bachchan playing Thammanna’s beleaguered wife.

(Baradwaj Rangan is The Hindu’s cinema critic.)

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 4:59:13 PM |

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