Set in a village in the Mandya district of Karnataka, Thithi (11th day ceremony for a dead soul) is quite clearly about death, the passing on of a patriarch and its repercussions on three generations of his family. But for a film dealing with mortality, Thithi has given birth to a brand new voice in the growing tribe of young, independent Indian filmmakers: that of 26-year-old Bangalore boy Raam Reddy. His Kannada film recently won two top international awards—The Golden Leopard in "Cinema of the Present" category and the Swatch First Feature Award—at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland.
Raam’s clarity, distilled thought and confident articulation belie his young age. How did this economics student from Delhi’s St Stephen’s College get into films? “I was drawn more to the arts than the world of logic. The strong writing culture in the college opened me up to the world of prose,” he says. He used to write poetry as a boy, was into photography and even held an exhibition of his wildlife photos when he was just 15. So, the second year in college found him writing and publishing a novel, It’s Raining In Maya. The choice of filmmaking then was a natural progression, a medium that brought all his passions—writing, image and sound—together on a single platform.
Raam took his first shot at moving pictures through shorts. The one he made in Telugu, Ika (Feather), went on to win national and international awards and was screened in over 15 film festivals. A film about filmmaking, Ika tells the story of a boy in Bangalore slums wanting to make a film with a cardboard box camera that he has made himself with a magnifying lens and a vhs. The idea for Thithi took root when he went to his childhood friend and co-writer Ere Gowda’s village in Mandya, off the Bangalore-Mysore highway. Actual work on it, however, began only after Raam had spent a year at the Prague Film School, to understand the technicalities of the process.
Thithi captures what unfolds 11 days after the death of a cranky 101-year-old man. His elderly son, Gadappa, is an aimless drifter, though he does have a magnificent grey beard. His scheming, materialistic grandson Thamanna only wants his grandfather’s five-acre property before someone else usurps it from under his father’s nose. Then there is his great-grandson Abhi who is in love with the local shepherdess.
Critics have praised the film for the freshness of the story, the craft and the unorthodoxy of the filmmaking process. Raam thinks it’s the rootedness that has lent it a universal appeal. Made at a frugal budget, it is marked by simplicity, eye for detail and is drenched in its milieu, ethos and culture.
The three main actors were cast even before the writing started. Leave alone aspiring actors, 90 per cent of its cast comprises totally non-professional actors—farmers of the village, for instance—lending the film an added shot of authenticity. None of them was made to go through the drill of an acting workshop. Instead it was the camera that followed them, moved with them, tried to understand them and their psyche, how they worked, what made them tick and adjust to each other’s quirks. Raam calls it a “community-centred project”. Though revolving around a death, there is a playful feel to the film, while there is humour, it never loses balance to become mindless slapstick. There is warmth, humaneness, empathy and insight into human nature than a judgemental tone.
Raam comes from a family of industrialists and his mother is a social worker and Padmashri awardee. “But what does run in the family is the ability to follow your heart, the quest for perfection and creativity in whatever you are doing,” says Raam. Meanwhile, the two leopards he carried back on the flight from Locarno haven’t hit home yet. But what he is certain of is a lifetime of “lights, camera, action”.