Thithi (I)

Thithi, when it finally found its way home to Karnataka, arrived with something of a fanfare.  Everybody (in Bangalore at least) knew of its success at the festivals and its success with the critics.  Whatever his abilities as a director, there can be no doubt of Raam Reddy’s talents as a publicist and all the hype seems to have worked like a charm.  People flocked to see the film at the Bangalore Film Festival and packed the cinemas once it opened there.  It does not seem to have received much distribution state-wide but, happily, at least the good folk of the Mandya district, where the film was shot, live sufficiently close to the capital and came in by the busload to see it.  In the provinces, even if they had not seen the film, everyone appeared to know of its existence and to have heard the reports of its fame.

The irony (and it is a shade irritating) is that Thithi as a film had absolutely no need of all this hype. Thithi is, in its own right, a very fine film, one of the best Indian films I have seen in this decade, and destined, in my view, to become something of a classic of Indian cinema. For this reason I have decided to devote two separate articles to my discussion of the film.

A critic should not be indifferent to public opinion.  But I was rather more interested to know what people in Karnataka thought of the film than I was to hear the opinions of viewers in Locarno or in Texas or in Timbuctu or from some gaggle of “international critics”.  As it happens, an Indian friend of mine, who lives in a country town, had read about the film and was particularly interested to see it.  He is a gentleman of a certain age (a contemporary of mine), a retired headmaster, who has all his life been an extremely prominent local activist on a wide range of issues.  He is what in England one would describe as a “child of the sixties” or, in France, rather more neatly, as a soixante-huitard  – a “68-er”, in memory of the so-called “May Revolution” that took place in Paris in 1968 and which marked the peak of popular protest there.

The issues in those years were of course not always the same in Europe and in India but the underlying spirit was recognizably similar. In both places, it involved, to put it at its simplest, a spirit of questioning, a rejection of tradition (simply for tradition’s sake) and a strong belief in change. My friend, amongst other things, was especially hostile to the burden placed on the poor (and even the not-so-poor) by the grotesque and futile expense of the ceremonial that traditionally accompanied (and still accompanies) rites of passage such as weddings and funerals.  He and his wife were themselves married in a simple, cost-free fashion and, although he performed thithi on the death of his father, out of respect for his mother who was still alive, he refused to do the same on her death and angrily sent packing a delegation that came to try and persuade him otherwise.

This friend watched the film twice and was much impressed.  A festival such as thithi is not an innocent affair and even a comic film (albeit a dark comedy) needs to recognize that fact and this film does so in no uncertain terms.  Not only does it portray quite clearly the severe financial strains caused by such pointless ceremonial but, as my friend was quick to point out, it also shows how such strains serve the interests of a whole network of social parasites and profiteers, from opportunistic minor crooks to corrupt officials and property developers. The film also wittily disdains the temptation to use its title-subject as an excuse for colourful song/dance items (the familiar pattern in most Indian films).  The ceremony in the film is a pitiful and chaotic affair, even if the food (in a neatly ironic twist) is good, and the film pointedly and abruptly ends just before the music begins.

My friend was also impressed, as was I, by the manner in which the film portrayed the different generations.  When “Century Gowda” dies, which he does somewhat dramatically in the opening scene of the film, his elderly son Gandappa displays an irreverent indifference to the whole affair. His son, the materialistic Thammanna, assumes, out of self-interest, the responsibility for the thithi but cannot meet the expense without appropriating (and selling) the property that rightfully belongs to his father.  His son, Abhi, the great-grandson of the dead centenarian, is a feckless young man whose interest, natural enough perhaps at his age, is mainly in drinking, gambling and girls.

A very refreshing and attractive feature of the scenario is the skilful way in which it reverses the standard tropes.  Conservative tradition and blind respect is not shown to be typical of the older generations and a spirit of rebellion is not held to be the prerogative of the young. On the contrary, it is the two older generations who show both disrespect and rebellion, with hilarious violence in the case of the abusive old centenarian, and with a highly engaging spirit of peaceful anarchism in the case of the elderly “hippy” Gandappa. It is the younger generations who, in one way or another, are most conformist.

Reddy and co-writer Eregowda are here dramatising a view quite commonly held by my own generation.  We grew up, we soixantehuitards, in the belief, in the words of a famous protest-song of the period, that “the times, they were a-changing” and now, as grumpy old men and women, we are often disappointed, not merely by the lack of change that has actually taken place but by what often appears to be a change for the worse. We are shocked by the conservatism of those who should be “our youngers and betters” (represented here by the generation of Thammanna) but unimpressed too by the rather mindless, and therefore meaningless, “liberalism” that often prevails among the young (represented here by the generation of Abhi).

This is a comedy certainly – and a very funny one – but it is a comedy with a serious content that commands respect and reflection.  It remains to say something of the cinematography and the cast and these will b the subject of the second part of my review.