An internationally acclaimed Kannada film offers a funny, sad, insightful take on an India we don’t often see on screen.
The most colourful character in Thithi is dead within the first ten minutes of the film. When we meet Century Gowda, thus anointed for managing to live that many years upon this earth, he seems like that familiar village fixture: a gap-toothed old man, capable of nothing except sitting on his haunches and watching the world go by. But Century Gowda is not like most people at his stage of life. Age has not withered him, nor custom staled the infinite variety of taunts that flow from his ancient tongue. “You kids neither study nor graze cattle,” he berates a passing posse of uniformed schoolchildren. “No men at home to graze the buffalo?” he jeers at a woman trying to steer the lumbering beasts past him. A hapless looking fellow who scurries by dressed in an incongruous black suit gets a more personalised insult: “Has your wife left you yet?” he calls out.
But then his nonstop activity comes abruptly to a close. The film pauses for an instant, marking the moment with a shift that is both visual and perceptual. The human world carries on — it is the animals who notice. The camera suddenly gives them to us in close-up — the rooster crowing, the cow mooing, the goat bleating, as if to announce they’re alive and well, and that crumpled heap on the ground is not.
It takes barely a minute, though, to return us to a human perspective. A crowd gathers, the old man’s grandson is called, and soon enough an astrologer has been sought out to offer advice on what must be done. Thithi is the word for that funereal feast he ordains. Ere Gowda and Raam Reddy take the ritual markers with which we seek to make our lives intelligible, and craft around them a film that is about the unmarked, everyday business of living. The marking of death is part of the carrying-on of life.
Yet Thithi is not the sort of film that is about only one thing. If it outlines the generational scaffolding upon which life in the village still stands, it also shows us the cracks that individuals can create in that structure. Century’s grandson Thamanna may cleave to the rules of community, but his father Gadappa — Century’s son — has long refused to abide by them.
Played by Ere Gowda’s real-life uncle Chennagowda, a wiry man with a shock of wild white hair and a thoughtful gleam in his eye, Gadappa is perhaps the film’s most affecting character. We start off being amused, perhaps even a little shocked by his response to the death of his father. “No big deal,” he says, striding off into the fields with his usual quarter of local liquor. As Thamanna’s harried existence — negotiating with his wife, disciplining his youthful son, running around for a motor mechanic to get the water back into his fields — is juxtaposed with Gadappa’s free-floating, alcohol-fuelled wanderings, one wonders if the film is setting up the householder against the ascetic. Is social obligation the glue that keeps things from falling apart, or that which unnecessarily binds us? Is Gadappa the irresponsible wastrel his son treats him as, or does his lack of worldliness makes him a model worth emulating? Even much later in the film, when his ‘unfeeling’-ness is partially explained, Gadappa retains an intriguing air.
Reddy manages to combine an observational documentary style with an almost indulgent affection for every character he places on screen. Women remain largely tangential, though watch out for the marvelous Kamalakka, who accosts a drunken customer with a threat appropriate for anyone you’ve ever wanted to shake by the collar: “I’ll pass your life through a strainer!” Yet for all its pleasurable meandering, Thithi is not plotless. Its seemingly unplanned threads do in fact come together in the end — just not in the dramatic pitch we have been schooled to expect from cinematic resolutions.
My favourite of these narrative threads involves Gadappa’s spontaneous joining-up with a group of sheep-herders. Their surprised but ready acceptance of the old man reminded me a little of another old man who finds himself taken into a nomadic community, albeit under starkly different circumstances: the Marathi film Astu, in which Amruta Subhash’s Telugu-speaking nomad finds her self sheltering to an aged, confused Mohan Agashe. On an altogether different plane, Chennagowda’s adamant refusal to stay in one place made me think of the immortal David Gulpili in Rolf de Heer’s devastating Charlie’s Country. Of course, Gadappa is rebelling against his own community; while Gulpili’s Charlie is rebelling against a whole modern civilisation that has swallowed up the old aboriginal way of life. But like Gulpili, Chennagowda has a twinkling, laconic way of declaring his intentions, and a dogged pursuit of life on his own terms. He may have always wanted to wander, but he will not do so at anyone else’s behest. These are spirited old men laying claim to the lands of their forefathers — but doing so in a way that rejects accumulation.
Thithi is a remarkable, unusual film. Not just because it gives us a set of memorable characters (all non-actors) and etches in almost ethnographic fashion a rural Karnataka milieu, but because it so beautifully balances the event with the nonevent, the extraordinary with the ordinary, the gently comic with the deeply sorrowful. A little like life.