Thithi (II)

Another important aspect of the pre-publicity for the film Thithi should also excite a certain degree of scepticism.  This is the much-vaunted fact that the film features non-professional actors, featuring the people of the village themselves.  It is important to bear in mind that there is nothing very new about this practice.  It is as old as cinema itself and has been done many times over the year with greater or lesser success. If it remains relatively rare, this is for a very good reason; most “real people” cannot act and do not appear well in front of a camera. Even professional actors (and even well-established stars) are given screen-tests to ensure that they look and sound right in a part.

Most films employing “non-actors” are one-offs and generally only partially use non-professionals. The directors of such films may often make sure in practice that the non-professionals actually have some past experience as performers; this was very much the case with Satyajit Ray’s Pather Pachali for instance. Ray had no great commitment to the idea of non-professional actors but used amateurs very largely to save on costs. The Italian film Bicycle Thieves in 1948 had also famously used non-professional actors (and was an important influence on Ray) but its director, Vittorio de Sica, himself a professional actor, was perfectly content to use professionals for other films. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) was another film that made something of a selling-point of its use of non-professionals but the cast was largely made up of children who are, in a sense, by definition non-professional.

So the use of non-actors in a film is neither a newly-discovered technique nor some magic formula for success.  It can work well and has worked well but is very context-specific, that is to say, it generally works well, as one would expect, where the film itself exclusively reflects a world and/or way of life very similar to their own. It is not so much that they can just “be themselves”; actors, whether professional or not, still have to act.  It is rather that, where they prove capable of acting, their special knowledge (an almost incommunicable rapport with their environment) can add an element to their performance that it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, for a professional to achieve.

In Thithi the performances by the villagers (as an ensemble) undoubtedly give the film a very special authenticity of ambience that is immediately recognizable to anyone who knows the district.  I have lived in villages in many parts of the world and know something of the hidden secrets of village life. I have only ever spent a few days in the Mandya region, but was struck by the way in which the distinctive garrulousness of the Gowdas (beautifully evoked in the film) ensures that even a complete stranger is initiated into surprisingly intimate aspects of the society that elsewhere one might be months or years in discovering. Sitting in a coffee-stall there, I myself heard a family story that bore an uncanny resemblance to the story of his own life as told by Gaddappa to the shepherds in the film.

The success of the cast – Century Gowda, Gaddappa and the rest – remains, and should be allowed to remain, specific to the context of the film.  It is false to exploit the characters as a kind of folk-hero that they are not; the picture of their life in the film is, after all, without concession.  The Gowdas’ worst enemies can recognise their faults in the film quite as readily as their friends can recognize their redeeming virtues. And the success of the film has not turned the community overnight into skilled actors.  I have heard several times of plans to make a further comedy with the same “non-professional” cast and hope very much that any such notion will be abandoned.  Not only would the result almost certainly be a disappointment, it would also have the sad effect, like any bad sequel, of cheapening the reputation of the original film.

I have already discussed one friend’s opinion of the film. Another friend remarked to me in praise of the film that it seemed to have an exceptional quality that effaced the barrier that usually exist between screen and audience and which in turn allowed the film to draw one in to its ambiance.  He is not wrong and a good deal of this effect is due to the fine cinematography.  Of all the three films review, only Thithi really stands out in this respect.

I have heard rumours that there were difficulties during the shoot between the director and his various cameramen because the latter tended to resent his own strong opinions and his desire to control ‘the look” of the film.  If true, then I am strongly of the view that the director is in the right of it.  It is the business of the cinematographer to film, but is the business of the director to direct and this Reddy has done very expertly.  There is none of the claustrophobic close-filming that contemporary cinematographers are so fond of; which means that there is space for the viewer to find his place in the film.  It is an utterly false belief that close-filming involves the viewers.  It does the reverse; it blocks them out.  Here, as my friend quite rightly observed, the viewer is, quite literally, drawn in. Also commendable is the use of the hand-held camera.  Immensely irritating when overused, it is here always used selectively and appropriately.

This “drawing in”, combined with the ensemble acting, creates a very strong sense of audience identification both with the story and the characters. Such self-identification was not too difficult, you may imagine, for someone like myself, something of a cynic and a professed anarchist all my adult life, a smoker of  bidis (and nothing but bidis), who loathes the culture of the mobile telephone (the horrors of which are well portrayed in the film) and who shuns whenever possible all pomp and ceremony.  I do not think I shall adopt the habit of imbibing “tiger brandy” – it would give me indigestion – but, even as a non-Indian, I could feel, like other members of the audience, that this film belonged to me and that I in a sense belonged to it.

There are several lessons to be learned from the success of this film, particularly by those responsible for production and distribution. People are not the gormless idiots that films studios sometimes imagine them to be and everyone is capable of enjoying a really good film. Reddy is a young director at the beginning of his career and will, I hope, produce many more such good films.  But please let them have the backing they deserve from  production companies here and please, as far as the parlous state of provincial cinemas will allow, let them receive the state-wide distribution they deserve and please let such films in  future be premièred, not in Locarno or Texas or Timbuctoo, but, where they should be, here in Karnataka.