Raam Reddy interview: On Thithi clones, unconditioning and life after a great debut film
Over 17 months since Raam Reddy’s debut film Thithi won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival, it’s raining clones that are trying to cash in on the original’s success and tap the cult following it earned. In December came Tharle Village featuring the four leads of Thithi, using the names of their characters from Thithi – Century Gowda, Gaddappa, Thammanna and Abhi – as the actors’ screen names. Yen Nin Problemmu was released last week and Gaddappana Circle is coming up. All three are in Kannada.
As it happens, Thithi was No. 1 on my list of Best Indian Films of 2016 published on Firstpost this month. I spoke to 27-year-old Reddy about the continuing influence of his maiden feature, international recognition, copycats and what comes next. Excerpts from the interview:
You are aware of the films Tharle Village, Yen Nin Problemmu and Gaddappana Circle featuring the same cast as Thithi and using the names of Thithi’s characters as the actors’ screen names. What do you think has prompted this rather unusual trend?
Thithi has become a sort of cult film in Karnataka, and characters like Century Gowda and Gaddappa have become Internet sensations. The new films seem to be using the marketability of the Thithi leads. It is quite interesting to see the anti-heroes of Thithi becoming conventional heroes, with Century Gowda and Gaddappa becoming “stars” in their 90s and 70s respectively, and deservedly so because of their inherent talents. Having said that, instead of playing characters that are very similar to their fictional roles in Thithi, it would be much more exciting to see them playing original roles in all their new films.
Are there copyright issues involved? Do you plan to take legal action against the makers?
My producers are taking legal action wherever there has been any copyright infringement, and will continue to do so for future films that directly replicate content from Thithi.
M.F. Husain once said, you know you have arrived as an artist only when imitations of your works appear. Are these wannabe Thithi clones flattering in that respect?
To be honest, I don’t have any particular feelings as an artist when looking at these new films. I always just focus on doing my best to create original worlds in my own work. What happens after completion of a work of art is not in our control. I believe it should be witnessed merely as a phenomenon, and not judged in any way.
Why do you think your film speaks to so many people even now, not just in Karnataka, but across the world?
One of the main reasons Thithi has done well is because it’s a comedy, so it’s enjoyable at one level and it has a philosophical undertone at another level, it can be watched without much depth if you wish or there is depth in it if you search for it. In that sense, we’ve been a little apart from other films even within the fest circuit.
There is a tendency in India to say, “Why does international acclaim matter?” especially during discussions around the Oscars. Why does international acclaim matter to you?
In general I’m a globally oriented filmmaker and this idea of trying to make stories out of India that are universal is important to me.
What does it do to an audience when they are exposed to cinema beyond their own mother tongues?
It’s like travelling, in a way. When people travel, they experience more of the world and that tends to make them grow. I know that when I first went to the village (Nodekoppalu in Karnataka where Thithi is set) I found I grew. It was different from what I’m used to. It was the first time I went into a rural setting from an insider’s point of view. I’ve been to rural settings but as an outsider. So that was an interesting experience.
That’s what happens to people watching films that are not particular to them. If a film offers me a world I’ve never seen before or an alternate reality I can inhabit, and if I like that alternate reality or vibe with it, I tend to have a deeply gratifying spiritual experience. Creating a particular world that’s never been created before or shown in a certain way – as a storyteller and filmmaker, I’d like to give people that unique experience.
Do we need more people today watching films in languages and about cultures other than their own, considering the disturbed world we live in with ISIS, Donald Trump, Brexit and things like the love jihad movement happening in our own country?
To some extent. The more travelled you are, the wiser you are in a certain way because there’s more life experience, you open your mind. At the same time, stories are quite universal, whether it’s Thithi which, if you remove the cultural rootedness, could have been told in many many places. People like exciting stories that they can relate to. So it’s a little bit of both in that sense.
The strongest influence art could have on an individual is when it makes them look inward rather than outward and points to the fact that there is a certain journey inward that could be more gratifying. The world needs that in general with all the things you said. Ancient Eastern philosophy, spirituality, every religion has it at the highest level. Touching upon that in Indian cinema is important because as a country we’re one of the pioneers of spiritual thought.
Also, in every piece I’ve ever done including my novel It’s Raining In Maya, there are spiritual philosophical undertones. In the current world situation it would help if a film would integrate that subtly, in a way that it reaches a fair number of people, like Gaddappa’s character has reached people completely apolitically. Somebody started a Facebook page called “Be Like Gaddappa” which is shocking and wondrous to me. Gaddappa has come into popular culture as an alternate way of life. In a blinkered sort of world where we’re living, which is sometimes overly politically driven and with very strong opinions, I think simplicity of the kind that Gaddappa lives with will tend to make each one of us happier. As each one gets happier, society gets happier and there’s less hate and violence. (Laughs) That’s my personal vision for cinema.
You were brought up in Bangalore. What made you think you needed to go to a village and that you will find a story there for your film?
Nodekoppalu is the ancestral village of my co-writer Eregowda. And I came into cinema with an inclination to work with non-professionals and people who still form a majority of the country but are not typically on film. The kind of films we see are fairly urban, so if you’re doing a story in a village, people say, “Oh, village story.” I’m not a fan of such stereotyping, so this just created a very special unique situation.
Still, since you grew up in Bangalore, why did you not tap Bangalore for a story?
I’d go anywhere to make a film if it resounds with whatever I’m trying to say as an artist. I don’t feel particularly from this place or that place or this country. I just feel human. I never had that strong identification to this or that. I’d be happy to be unidentified with anything. That simplicity is something a character like Gaddappa carries. That simplicity is core to all philosophical Eastern spirituality. So that’s really the core from which the art builds.
I found that world fascinating in a way that it stimulated me artistically. I’m actually least creative when I’m in Bangalore, because I’m at home, it’s too comfortable. I don’t think I’ll make a film in Bangalore to be honest, and I’m not necessarily the type who does a film particularly with what he knows.
There’s a certain school of thought that as an artist you do what you know. I filter certain impulses into other settings. The way it is packaged doesn’t matter to me as much as what the core of it is. So I could easily work anywhere in the world and feel comfortable if the core resounds with me.
You said you do not identify yourself with any particular place. Considering the political context in which you are speaking, in which it is being almost demanded that we all assert our national and religious identity and so on, you do realise that that statement could actually offend some people who demand to know, “So what are you first, Raam? Are you a Hindu? Are you a Kannadiga? Are you an Indian? What are you?”
(Laughs) Our way of non-ego is something very deep in Hindu philosophy, in all the religions at the highest level, at the root where they all stem from. In the current political situation perhaps we’ve moved away from those roots. But I don’t think in those terms at all, of whether this would offend someone or not. That’s part of the same unconditioning. I think we are all conditioned and for each of our own personal journeys and happiness, being little less conditioned leads to more unconditional sort of love 360 degrees, a more positive space. Over-identification I don’t think is a problem solver. Less conditioning is a problem solver.
It’s now moving beyond philosophy into science in terms of mindfulness studies happening all over the world in Harvard etc. Neurologists are studying brain activity and people who live in the moment, for example. It’s showing how mental activity is leading to happier, more productive, more stable people. So actually, filmmaking is one side of what I’m really interested in. I’m really interested in the human condition, why there’s so much violence and hate everywhere, how simple adjustments in the way we live our lives daily could (laughs) solve a lot of problems.
Having said that, I have an attitude of non-negation where I won’t negate the fact that I’m a Hindu, that I’m an Indian, that I’ve grown up in Bangalore and studied in Delhi. Like every time I hear Indian classical music I feel so proud to be Indian. I wanna make films in India. I love the fact that I’m Indian, and I wanna hold on to it in a sort of greedy way. It’s not that there is no Indian in me, it’s just that that doesn’t define me.
So you want to make films in India. Not specifically in Karnataka and in Kannada?
Absolutely. Not specifically even films. It’s part of my life philosophy, I’ll commit to the moment per se, then we’ll see how things go from there. Like I’m not committing to making films for the rest of my life, I might go back to writing, I’ve taken up film photography on my grandfather’s camera, I’ve been into music, I’m deeply into sound. I don’t think I’ll ever go beyond being an artist, but I don’t know whether it’s only films, and if it’s film it could be anything – regional films, a silent film on the moor. (Laughs) I’m open to exploring that. Because I don’t have any strong conditioning connections to this or that, I’m happy moving anywhere. I wouldn’t mind making a film in the North Pole if I felt deeply connected to it.
So it doesn’t necessarily even have to be within India.
Ah, not necessarily. But now where I am in my life, I feel like there are a lot of films in India that I could make better than anyone else and they’re calling me to make those. It’s more of a professional philosophy that it’s good to do something original that no one else can do better than you. Perhaps there’s someone in the North Pole who might do a North Pole film better than me. Right now where I stand, there are still stories here that I’d like to tell.
It’s always fascinating when someone makes a film in a language they don’t understand. I’ve been particularly thinking about this since I saw Dheepan, the Tamil film by Jacques Audiard who is French. Do you have the ability to make a film in a language you don’t understand?
I’m fine doing that. I’ve made a Czech short film which is unreleased, but I’m really proud of it. The title means “spring” in English. For me that becomes the body of the film which I’m happy exploring in different worlds, in different ways. It’s far less important than the core of the film.
What is the mechanics of making a film like that? You don’t understand what is actually happening on the sets when your actors are speaking, so how do you work on the film?
It’s interesting actually, I thought Dheepan was good but the intonation and dialogue delivery were the weakest part of the film. That’s definitely not the director’s fault, it’s the fault of whoever is translating. As a director, there’s someone shooting your film, someone doing your art direction, someone doing a million things in million departments so if you have someone in the translation team who understands you and your artistic impulse, then it’s a question of them watching dialogue delivery and translating it correctly. If you get multiple people to translate it you can get very close. However, you must accept that that’s something you can’t control and it may not be what you intend.
I’ve had Czech people see my film and say it’s fine. That said, my Czech film had dialogue but it didn’t depend on conversational nuances to convey the story or its intention. That’s important. I would never make a dialogue-dependent film in Czech. That would be silly. (Laughs)
You used the term “regional film”, though in an earlier conversation before the interview you told me you don’t particularly love the term. Why do you use it if you are not comfortable with it?
Oh, it’s just a way to communicate. All kinds of cinema characterisation is for the industry to communicate so you can figure out budgets, etc. Art versus commercial, for instance. But this idea of not labelling anything, of just being unconditioned, is something I like. A work of art that happens to be on screen with some sort of sound going with it, that’s all film is to me. Usually it tells a story, but not necessarily. There’s a film like Baraka that’s brilliant, it’s just visual poetry.
My question is related more to the fact that the terms regional language and regional cinema imply that there is such a thing as a national language and a national cinema, which factually there is not. Can you think of a better term for Indian language cinema?
Oh, that’s interesting. You can maybe characterise it more geographically? So it’s a south India film perhaps? Or south film? I guess you can say south, north, west, east, but that’s complicated again, so I guess that’s something I’ll think about. Do you have another better term?
I just say Indian language cinema.
Indian language cinema. But the thing is, because we have so many languages it’s important for the industry and for the viewer to choose their film.
Booking websites and newspaper listings specify the language of the film anyway.
I think the problem with “regional cinema” is that it sounds marginalised.
Yes, does it not?
Ya of course it does. The same way art film sounds. With anything in the world, a marginalising term is a problem and becomes negative in its connotations. We have so many languages that if you call one the language and others the other language, it doesn’t give the others their due. The Tamil and Telugu industries are also very big. But ya, these things don’t bother me too much. I know what I need to, so it’s a part of the whole game.
You’ve worked with non-professionals in Thithi. It has done very well but considering that you are still young, do you think you would be able to handle established stars without getting overwhelmed or intimidated?
That’s a whole new game, but I’m confident of my craft and once you’re confident of your craft, everything else becomes secondary. Then it just has to be mutual respect, and of course respect for people who are senior to you for their body of work, but it’s always film first. I’m hoping that as an ethos will work professionally while dealing with anybody. I’m quite comfortable as a people person, so I’m curious to see how that comes about, but I’m very keen as a director to always try and hold artistic integrity no matter who my producer, distributor or star cast is. Eventually if you prove that you know your craft, people will submit to your vision as a director.
But no, I’m not so nervous that way. I don’t take anything that seriously. Like I said, if it’s not film I’ll happily do something else. So that high stakes is something I try not to bother me. The sort of spiritual background that my family comes from allows me to detach and look at it as something you’re passionate about, not life or death.
Updated Date: Jan 28, 2017 12:01 PM