Raam Reddy’s excellent debut feature Thithi is a rare Indian film. There’s great interest in providing textures (ingrained with realism) to the frame and imbuing character details rather than chasing greater narrative aspirations.
The film does have a central familial turmoil and a string of conflicts, but what Raam wants us to witness is simplicity and purity of character. Thithi may seem a bit hollow for those expecting broader realization of narrative conflicts. The film is anything but hollow.
I am not saying the film’s form is utterly flawless. There might be few unsatisfying aspects. But it takes no didactic approach to comment on the inbred patriarchal issues or other social issues, common in Indian villages. That’s what makes Thithi more profoundly layered.
On the outset, Thithi may seem like a dark comedy around village mannerisms. The dialogues in opening scene involving the cantankerous 101-year old ‘Century’ Gowda, in fact, make it seem like that. In that humorous scene, the old man sits in the centre of the village, shooting swaggering remarks on people walking around. His raw words make him an instantly likeable character, but his unstoppable chatter is framed from a distance.
The objectivity derived from this shot makes the old man, a distinct individual of the surroundings, not a glorified clown. This deft direction by Reddy continues throughout the narrative. His wonderful non-professional actors of different generations bring that charming rawness, while he places them among the cultural tapestry.
The opening scene slashes off expectations as it culminates with the death of Century Gowda. The narrative focus moves to the old man’s three generations of living family members – son, grandson, and great-grandson.
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The villagers elaborately plan for the old man’s funeral and after cremation, it falls on the family to conduct an important, local custom of funeral celebrations known as ‘thithi.’ (The ritual is to be conducted on the 11th day).
Thamanna, the grandson, desires for the swath of Century Gowda’s land, to pay off his debts. The rightful owner for the land is Gadappa – Thamanna’s father. Thamanna wants to sell off the land as soon as he can for the fear that his uncles might cause problems.
Gadappa is a nonchalant, free-spirited individual. Sporting a long, white beard, Gadappa wanders around the fields, swilling ‘tiger’ brand whisky, bumming beedis, and playing ‘lambs and tigers’ with school students. He is disinterested in owning the land or to have any thing to do with family members. When someone conveys him the news of his father Century Gowda’s death, he casually replies, “Its fine. No big deal.” Gadappa looks like a cagey individual you can’t constrain within boundaries. Gradually, as we glimpse into his finest gestures and expositions, it becomes hard to not empathize with him. Devoid of desires and conflicts, Gadappa remains the purest individual.
The other sub-plot involves young Abhi who indulges in youthful activities. This includes charming a local sheepherder girl Cauvery. Abhi, the great grandson of Century Gowda, has nothing to say about the conflict of inherited land. His perspective on life is as immensely different as that of father Thamanna and grandfather Gadappa.
If Thithi never wavers into the territory of morality play, it is due to director Raam Reddy’s adept concentration on the form. He shows an amazing sense of patience in letting the idiosyncratic character to fully evolve on-screen. He allows the familial tension to arise in an organic manner.
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Even when confrontations reach a high point, there’s no focus on dramatics, which, in turn, also keeps away forced reconciliations. The sub-plot involving the great-grandson breaks the organic flow of the story at times, remaining less precise than the construction of other two characters.
Exploring the life of three men, from three different generations remains astute (as each one is kind of making a transition). However, Abhi’s tale didn’t thoroughly engage me. Gadappa’s colossal impact on me may have overshadowed it.
Director’s friend and co-writer Ere Gowda’s work as casting director is as fascinating. (Ere belongs to Nodekoppalu village in Karnataka where the film is set). The film’s vital interplay between reality and fiction is well realized with Ere’s attention to character detail.
The non-professional actors are affectionately framed in their natural surroundings rather than forced to act. They are not trying to emulate a set of emotions. Their presence and effortless dialogue delivery allow us to feel part of the community.
Channegowda (playing Gadappa) is a great find. He walks in and out of static frames, demonstrating indifference. Gradually, his purity and innocence peel the layers of indifference, bringing out his true qualities. Of course, this transformation is visible in the film’s famous monologue scene. “What is meant to happen, happens. No one has any control over it. So, it’s better to just be happy, isn’t it,” says Gadappa relating to the grim past events in his life. Neither the actor nor the director pull an emotional punch in this scene. It elegantly nudges us to perceive the simple, accessible resolutions for our own core-conflicts.
The happiness Gadappa talks about is derived from a pure mind, not grand aspirations. When faced with such a pure spirit there’s no need for heavy didactic proclamations or narrative resolutions.
I was not able to judge where the writing merges with the person embodying the character. Which gesture is fictional and which is real? That along with Raam Reddy’s restrained direction should be the two primary reasons for celebrating Thithi.
Thithi is a witty, slice-of-life drama that observes the ever-changing personal and domestic spaces without ever resorting to a didactic tone. Its blend of indigenous realism with fiction yields a satisfying film experience.
By Arun Kumar