(Language: Kannada, Director: Raam Reddy)
Art cinema in India has generally been a cinema of social concern and may be taken to represent the conscience of the educated urban middle-class. Its subjects have been marginalized social categories – ranging from dalits and the tribal populace to the urban poor and farmers. Farmers in India do not always represent the ‘poor’ since a fair number of them are enormously wealthy but ‘farmer’ and ‘peasant’ conjure up visions of indebtedness and misery to urban middle-class audiences, and rarely does the prosperous farmer feature as a protagonist of art cinema. Since art cinema is emblematic of the urban middle-class conscience its protagonists – when they come from the marginalized segments – are often implausible creations. One recalls Shabana Azmi as a dalit woman in Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974) and Sonali Kulkarni as the wife of a farmer in a drought-prone area in Satish Manwar’s Marathi film Gabhricha Paus (2009) as actors who are out-of-place in roles. This is not to disparage the films and many of them are evidently classics but the middle-class – due to the grotesque social stratification in India – does not easily get a sense of the ‘other half’ and has therefore tended to imagine it as a version of itself. In Court (Chaitanya Tamhane, 2014), an excellent film which deservedly won the national award for best feature film, dalits in a Mumbai chawl apparently speak upper-caste Marathi from Pune. Since the art film is a product of the metropolitan sensibility, the rural folk in it are rarely convincing; director Raam Reddy’s greatest achievement in Thithi is perhaps to allow a rural community to represent itself on-screen, although not as ‘fact’ through a documentary but as enacted fiction. He casts non-actors in various roles speaking the way they are used to and with the same inflections. Reddy is an inveterate urbanite and collaborating with him on the script is Eregowda, who is from the territory the film is set in.
The first few minutes of Thithi establish the mood for the film. A decrepit old man squats in a village corner in the company of a few goats, passing comments or cursing passerby, whose histories are all known to him since he is the oldest man in Nodekoppalu. The language is colourful - and often ribald - and a few moments later the patriarch collapses beside a ditch and it is announced that ‘Century Gowda’, who has just turned hundred, is dead. Thithi was hugely successful at international festivals and arrives with subtitles but this detail will give the reader an indication of how difficult it is to translate a local dialect. The surname ‘Gowda’ has caste connotations connected with rural Mysore (Nodekoppalu is an actual village in Mandya district) and suggests ‘headman’ while the English word ‘century’ connotes both cricketing records and national commemorations. ‘Century’ has a ceremonial air to it belied by the name ‘Gowda’ which invokes a proud rustic in a dhoti with a towel slung over a shoulder.
‘Century’ Gowda (Singregowda), it turns out, has led a life very much without restraint and especially noted has been his philandering. A ceremony (‘thithi’) is now scheduled for 11 days after his death but his son Gaddappa (‘Bearded Man’) is not up to it since he prefers to spend his time imbibing ‘Tiger Brandy’. Not only is Gaddappa (Channegowda) unwilling to involve himself in the ceremonies but he is not even interested in the five acres of ancestral land his father left behind. Gaddappa’s son Thammanna (Thammegowda) is not ‘other-worldly’ like his father and wants the property, but Gaddappa will not strain himself to transfer the title either to himself or to Thammanna. Thammanna’s son Abhi (Abhishek HN) takes after his great-grandfather and spends his time watching porn or eyeing nubile women. Abhi’s eyes are now set on Cauvery, a girl from a tribe of nomadic shepherds camping nearby.
The principal crisis in Thithi revolves around Thammanna having to get the ancestral land transferred to his own name without his stubborn father’s involvement. The ruse he hits upon is to finance Gaddappa and coax him into travelling around India on the condition that he never returns. Thammanna will then spend some more to have the old man declared dead and the property duly transferred. Gaddappa is happy to oblige but he is nonetheless tempted to get off the bus at the site of the nearest liquor store. He then falls in with the nomadic shepherds camping a few kilometres away.
Thithi teems with characters and among those who are given importance – apart from Century Gowda’s heirs – are a corrupt official negotiating with Thammanna for the transfer of the land as well as assorted land sharks, since Thammanna has decided to sell off the land. Also important are the elders among the nomadic shepherds where Gaddappa finds a sympathetic ear and to whom he recounts the story of his life. Apart from these there are assorted moneylenders, shopkeepers and villagers, and Raam Reddy gets authentic performances from all of them. The film is engaging and its observational humour is spot on. An instance is the sequence in which the corrupt official undresses and commences to pedal on a stationary bicycle before the obsequious Thammanna, who is visiting him at home. For all their pride, the farmers are completely servile before officials and ‘big people’. But unless one is misled by the film’s flair, it becomes evident that Thithi is hardly satirical comedy. There is a dark streak at its centre involving incest and suicide which makes it much more sordid than its nonchalant air might suggest.
None of the happenings dealt with by the film stray from our experience of the milieu and Thithi is certainly ‘true to life’. But that only makes our discomfort with some of its attitudes more difficult to explain. The village in the film is not an example of probity and Abhi is engaged in various illegalities – sand mining and stealing timber from forest land being only two of them – with everyone’s full knowledge. This is accurate because rich villages usually owe their prosperity to easy money, which is not lawfully made. But what makes us uncomfortable is the sense that no one in Nodekoppalu is worthy of respect. Thammanna, who is not all bad, gets a death certificate for his living father against a payment of Rs 25,000 and we are not convinced that death certificates could be so easily had. There s a casual air suggesting that everyone capable of anything but there is never any regret or retribution. At the same time Thammanna is made to suffer when he loses on every count and his punishment seems disproportionate.
In this milieu Gaddappa is saintly - not only for his indifference to property but for having borne great personal tragedy with equanimity. Gaddappa finds his place in another moral community, that of the nomadic shepherds who also live without the greed for land that afflicts the farmers. Cauvery belongs to this untainted community and Raam Reddy makes us care about her innocence. But when Abhi (well played by Abhishek HN) pursues her ruthlessly with only one end in mind and she submits – despite knowing about the customary doings in his family – we are disappointed. The seduction is even embarrassing in its cynicism: it is as though we were being reminded that carnality is everything.
Thithi is, in my view, the best Indian film of 2015 and a remarkable achievement, chiefly for its sharp observation of everyday conduct in a contemporary village community. What it is doing, essentially, is showing things ‘as they are’ but that is where one finds oneself wishing for a little more. Regardless of the director’s capacity for unmediated observation we are not easily convinced that what Raam Reddy shows us is the world and not his world. We demand a moral vision from a film-maker and therefore find ourselves wishing for old fashioned ploys like innocence protected, regret for sin and fair retribution for wickedness. Perhaps Thithi needed a touch of the middle-class conscience to make it a landmark for Indian art cinema.