I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“Freedom and bondage I find interesting. Or purity—and a contrast to that purity.”
This year’s edition of New Directors/New Films served as the perfect place for the North American premiere of Raam Reddy’s Thithi. To make this film, the crew—along with its 25-year-old director—immersed themselves in their south India location and built the narrative directly from the community. The story involves a modest saga of three generations of village men, each searching for their own kind of happiness. Their struggles and delights are seen as inextricable from their customs, which are effortlessly revealed in a manner suffused with generosity, understanding, and humor far wiser than the youth of its director might suggest. Here we are introduced to a town (Nodekoppalu), a language (Kannada), and an interconnected group of people—cast mainly from local non-professionals—rich and full of humanity. To watch Thithi is to be invited into a sprawling and diverse world—and to step through the cinema screen to explore a new place and meet new people. The film’s next stop on the festival circuit will be at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where screenings begin April 30, 2016.
Director Raam Reddy—who, incidentally, wrote his first novel at age 19—took home the First Feature and Cineasti del presente (Filmmakers of the Present) prizes at the Locarno Film Festival last year. I have no doubt he’ll be introducing more cinema to us soon. We began our conversation by talking about how Thithi might be received in his native India.
Raam Reddy Subtitled films are now permeating, a little bit, through regional boundaries. That’s a great trend for new cinema in India—because we have so many languages. But now, critically acclaimed films that have traveled internationally, are traveling a bit more within the country. That’s a huge market.
Daniel Kasman Is Thithi the sort of film that could play somewhat widely?
RR I would hope so!
DK But does it seem likely?
RR Possibly. What I wanted to do with Thithi, particularly, was maintain a strong narrative. That, I think, will keep it accessible to different audiences: international, national, and local. Sometimes the narrative, or lack thereof, might become the thing that stops certain films, i.e., those that don’t have much of a story, or are more form based. It becomes more difficult to engage a wider audience, especially in India, where the whole style of cinema is slightly different. But things are changing. I think it’s getting much more open; people are trying different things. With Thithi’s narrative and characters—yes—I do hope it will go into a more commercial realm back in India.
DK You went to film school in Prague, and some of the crew on Thithi are from your program. In general, they’re more international.
RR Yes. The director of photography is Dutch, we have Canadian co-producers, and the editor is American. It was challenging. I was very keen to get people from diverse backgrounds because I thought it would really help to create something more original. So, of course, when I went to film school I met people and built strong connections with them, which helped build the styles we now pursue in our careers. For example, consider the Dutch DP: He’s more than a DP. We live and breathe cinema together—we are very close. Cinema is that way for me; there are no boundaries to it. If there is a cinematic connection, on any level, you can go anywhere and make a film with anybody—as long as the artistic connections you have are deep enough.
DK It creates a kind of shared language.
RR Absolutely. That’s the benefit of an international crew. Part of our team came from the Film and Television Institute of India—which is an extremely talented and technical place. It has a different ethos, sometimes a classical ethos. It’s different from the Prague ethos in some ways. Key to this process was my co-writer [Ere Gowda], who is from the village where we shot. I have known him for 15 years. We grew up together; we started in sports, then the arts—he started to shoot film, and I used to do photography. My first short had a crew of two—the two of us. We grew up together creatively. Before I went to Prague, I went to his hometown and found it fascinating. I said, “Let’s try to do something.” The town is called Nodekoppalu, and it has a cluster of sister villages, all close to each other, where we shot.
DK At what point did you know that you wanted to make a film about this particular village?
RR As soon as I saw it! We already had a great relationship, and the place was very interesting, so that was enough to start. The writing process was very compelling because we spent so much time there. The starting point of the film was the place, not the story. We decided to do it there. We spent months exploring it.
DK Please explain.
RR We had a car and would head out every day to find whatever was interesting, be it a person, be it a place, be it a practice, a tendency, a joke—anything. We made notes. Ere told me stories from his childhood; I shared stories, too. We built an artistic database from the village, which was a fascinating thing to do. From that, we started piecing things together, and we met three wonderfully charismatic characters who make up the three generations. Gadappa—I met him as soon as I got there—was introduced to me by Ere Gowda. We had a cup of tea, and I just fell in love with him as a person, as a symbol, as a guide for life—you know what I mean? A soul-to-soul connection. He was an aspiration for me to be that simple, that happy. Ere, who is also the casting director, met the father character when he was actually giving out Thithi cards for somebody in his family [Note: the word thithi refers both to the Hindu lunar calendar and the timing of related funeral celebrations]. So a lot of serendipitous stories came about in the process of making of the film. We discovered the boy, the youngest in the film’s three generations, at a festival. He was wearing a pink hat.
DK His fashion sense is amazing.
RR Exactly. We were floored! We noticed him because of that hat—that wonderful pink hat. He was so energetic and vibrant and has the most wonderful smile. He rode in our car; we took him back to his village. We asked if he would be interested in the film, and he said, “Yes, of course I would!” That’s how we found all of the three main characters. I always wanted to make something with three generations. They are very interesting in themselves—but together, they form the layers of a much more interesting story. We met them, spent time with them, and cast them before we wrote for them.
DK Can you tell me a little more about the area you shot in? Is this a linguistically distinct community? Are the shepherds that we see, for example, clearly from a different part of India?
RR Yes. They are from a different part of the state, and that’s clear to anyone who’s from that state—because of the dialect. The place where it’s shot, and the shepherds, and the village, it’s all Karnataka. Where we shot is more to the south of Karnataka, and where the shepherds come from is more to the north. The language is the same—Kannada—but with extremely different dialects. The dialect spoken in the film is very particular to that district—not necessarily that village. It’s specific to that area. The dialect spoken by the shepherds is particular to their district. Dialects in India, even within a village, might change a bit from, let’s say, six villages down. There are thousands. But, yes, it’s very authentically true to that specific cluster of villages. Most of the shepherds came from just one or two villages—so they are also family. That’s why there is magic in that group—because husbands and wives are acting together. They came together, and this was purely Ere Gowda’s brilliance. He chose a wonderful group with wonderful synergy. It was much easier working with the shepherds because culture in the north is more art-oriented than culture in the south.
DK So the dialogues between the young man and the shepherdess, they understood each other fully?
RR 80%. The rest can be “caught.” The Indian mind is very language-acrobatic (laughter). Multiple languages have to be spoken. My mother tongue is not particularly the one the film was shot in. My mother tongue was another language that I made my first short in. I grew up in Bangalore. There is a different dialect of Kannada spoken there. We, in the south, have four or five languages that are considered major. There are hundreds of small ones. You understand them, sort of, just by living in India. I also worked in Bombay, so I had to learn Hindi. That’s very normal. We would understand each other, definitely. After a date. (laughter)
DK Is everyone in the film a non-professional?
RR Everybody. 98%.
DK As you fell in love with the village, was it always a fictional story you wanted to tell? Was there ever an impulse to make a documentary?
RR No. Personally, as an artist I find the genres quite separate. I’m purely drawn to fiction. I find it more exciting. I personally like to express something that comes from somewhere deep within, so it becomes personal—you’re creating from scratch. That’s what’s magical for me.
DK One of the marvelous things is this complete mix, almost an indistinguishable mix, between the thing that comes from you and the thing that comes from the raw material of what’s around it. Was that something you sought?
DK I heard you went to quite some lengths to achieve the look of this film.
RR I love talking the technical side of cinema.
DK Tell me more.
RR We shot with an Ikonoskop A-Cam dII from Sweden, which is a camera I fell in love with in film school, where my DP [Doron] and I met. We were using a Panavision rig during a field trip, and we randomly found a film magazine, and there was this funny-looking black camera. Doron said, “This looks interesting.” I didn’t give it a second thought. Six months later, I saw some footage from that camera and loved it. It has a CCD sensor and shoots in CinemaDNG raw sequences. It’s basically what you get out of a telecine if you shoot out of the camera directly. It has a very low ASA rating, so it’s exactly like shooting on film. You have to light for film. It’s a very interesting camera. Not easy to work with—very heavy data. But I love the look. Most people shoot on Zeiss Super Speeds, but I’m not so keen on that because it still looks digital.
DK If you can’t afford film—why go for a film look?
RR India is a very organic place. There’s a lot of soul. It’s very ancient, with texture. The bite of digital images creates… not an artificiality, but it looks new. It’s fresh, where India is more organic. The organic-ness of film and the organic-ness of India match. Because we couldn’t afford it—we wanted to get very close to it. It’s not the Super Speed, but I do like Cooke lenses. We needed to find a Cooke lens that matched, so I needed a fast Cooke lens, ideally a zoom, because we were dealing with characters moving around—very dynamic. With sometimes two or three shots, we would have to compound them—the whole crew would move around the actor.
So I found out there was a very fast Cooke zoom made in the 1970s—but it’s also very rare. And it would fit my camera perfectly. Only 14 were made. We went around the world searching for it. I contacted five out of the 14 owners. Through forums, I got in touch with the CEO of Cooke—we didn’t let anything go. Me, my co-writer, my DP, my editor, and my sound designer—none of us let anything go. We were young, it was our first film, and we were ready to put our lives on the line. That’s how I tracked down a rare zoom lens in the west of Texas.
The technical side of the film was extremely key to the creative process. I personally built rigs, built lenses, picked the mics and the recorder, etc. We had to go handheld, because of the actors, and the way we needed to capture their performances, so we needed a compact, handheld camera. We had to go with certain mics because of the moisture in the country. But it was a creative decision—it wasn’t a technical decision.
DK You clearly love a super hands-on approach. Is this a path you want to continue in the future? Or if you get access to more money, will you perhaps desire less control?
RR I think a bit of both. It would be wonderful to be able to collaborate more with people who get the vision. I had to do this alone because I’m starting out, right? But at the same time, yes, I’m very hands-on.
For me, I was a writer first—I wrote a novel—and I wanted to bring some of the idealism of writing into cinema. Cinema is collaborative, and beautifully so, when it works. At the same time, writing has a certain kind of inner soul. So bringing that to cinema means you have to be hands-on. Not necessarily just the director but with the core team.
DK Inner soul? Does that mean a singular personality or sensibility?
RR Yes. But it doesn’t have to be only the director.
DK The feeling of the film must be of one thing—wherever it came from?
RR Absolutely. If there’s a core creative team that you know inside out, as well as you know yourself, that’s fine. It can’t be the entire crew. It will become a core process.
DK I see that in some movies, but what I think is particularly special about Thithi is that you don’t only get a sense of that unity behind the camera, but in front of the camera as well. There’s a true complicity. These aren’t stories you are filming—they are stories that everybody is making.
DK Was this script at all autobiographical for you or your co-writer?
RR In the micro sense, not the macro. Gestures, lines—all the dialogue is his. The micro of the script is his, and the macro we did together. I think every writer will do that—but here, not particularly so, since it is fictional.
DK You said at the beginning of our conversation that you wanted a very strong story to carry the film. At what point was it clear to both of you exactly what story you wanted to tell?
RR The idea of the three generations was what I wanted to address first. Because that structure opens up the creative space, basically, and allowed me to explore more of life. You can create a sense of balance that I really appreciate in a work of art. Personally, I wouldn’t follow a single character through an entire film. I think a sense of balance comes from contrasts. Three generations create contrasts that I find interesting. That was an early idea. The other thing that personally connected me, and this I might address in my future work as well—as it was also in my novel—was the idea of something pure, or innocent, or genuine, surrounded by things that are basically messy and negative. Things that are pure in a sea of negativity. In this film, that idea became the grandfather character. He has no desires in a typically human way; everyone else around him has human aspirations. This is not a comment on aspirations, per se, but a comment on the possibility of happiness achieved through simplicity and purity.
DK As long as we keep drinking whiskey, as he does.
RR As long as we keep drinking whiskey! (laughter) Nooo! He likes it, but he doesn’t need it. Whiskey or no whiskey, it is the inner spark, the inner calm, and the inner understanding. He says in the film, “Whatever happens, happens, so it’s better to just be happy.” That’s a core conflict that I like. I don’t like regular conflicts. I’m generally not a conflict-driven person, so to find a conflict that means something to me was tricky, and there are only a handful. Freedom and bondage I find interesting. Or purity—and a contrast to that purity.
DK The grandfather character—clearly that actor is the character—he embodies that role so much that I couldn’t possibly separate the written concept from the person who is acting. And yet it sounds like you came to the village, and this project, wanting to fill that role. When you found this man was it like (snaps fingers)? Or did you pull it out of him?
RR When I met him, I saw that purity. If you find the core of the story you can believe in it and build on it. Beyond that, it was a mixture of filmmaking techniques that continued to build his character into the way he appears on screen. He actually found it quite difficult to be on camera. So a lot of techniques went into pulling that character out of him. He is that way in real life, but getting it like that on screen, for him, was difficult. For example, the youngest kid had no problem—for him, it was very easy. The father had other challenges, for example, with his lines and focus. But this character, the grandfather, was a bit shy on camera. But he could give us what we needed when he was comfortable enough. So even though this is how he is in real life, making it happen took multiple attempts and techniques.
DK This process of immersing yourself in a community and building a project out of that research (also, working with non-actors): Is this a methodology you’d like to continue working with?
RR It’s one way to do things. The next film could be very different. I find India very diverse, and there are so many things that can be told. I thought, “I have to start somewhere, and I have to tell it the way it kind of is.” Be true to one of these worlds and share it with the rest of the world, because it deserves to be shared. I started with photography, went on to writing, did some music—didn’t want to give up any of them. So I decided to become a filmmaker. For me, art is art. Like I said about the conflicts that inspire me, if those conflicts are strong enough, it can be packaged in many possible ways. It just depends on what phase of life you’re in, and what sort of inner voice or impulse comes up. I would love to continue to work with non-actors, because there’s a magic that happens on set that’s very different. At the same time, I’m very keen on doing more traditional work, with more control, and possibly building more of a personal voice. But it’s definitely project by project.
DK Do you know what you’re going to do next?
RR Take some time off. Create a new seed. It’s been almost three years. If I have that seed, I’d like to—this sound a bit cliché—germinate it.
DK Live with it almost.
RR Live with it before it reaches its ripeness. You get the seed, keep that seed very preciously planted in your brain, and then whenever the conditions are right, it will sprout. I’m very keen on creating a particular world in every film I make. So each film will have its own world. It will have a core that might come from me, but it will have its own voice. As long as the core is something that resonates with me, I will let it. I tell people, “Film has a very strong ego, and none of us who make it have any.” That is crucial to the final product and the way we philosophically approach filmmaking. So let the film have as much individuality as it should, let it be very particular, but we… we are just the shepherds.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee