‘Dollu’ director Sagar Puranik spoke to TNM about the creative choices he exercised, the reason for keeping things subtle and why he adopted an understanding tone when speaking about urban migration.

Kannada director Sagar PuranikInstagram
Flix Interview Monday, September 05, 2022 - 19:06

Fresh from his 2019 National Award winning short film Mahaan Hutatma (2018), Sagar Puranik was contemplating making his feature debut. One day, at an event in Bengaluru, he witnessed a Dollu (double-headed drum native to Karnataka) performance. It was something he’d seen many times before, but watching the Dollu Kunitha practitioners playing the drums with gay abandon struck a different chord. “It was like I did not just hear the music, but saw the visuals that accompanied it and felt the reverberations it triggered,” Sagar recalls. He wondered how it would look on the big screen, because not many films spoke about the folk arts or music in detail.

At the same time, during a conversation with a cab driver, a line struck Sagar. “He said that he was from a small town and that the traffic bothered him. He did not realise he was part of the traffic as was I. I thought of this mass migration from villages and how entire villages have turned into retirement zones. The youth had left.”

Sagar clubbed both aspects and it resulted in the lovely slice-of-life film Dollu, about a floundering folk art form in Karnataka. The film has a neat screenplay and true-to-life dialogues by Shreenidhi DS and evocative cinematography by Abhilash Kalathi. The film is produced by filmmaker Pavan Wadeyar and his wife Apeksha Purohit, and is the debut film of their banner Wadeyar Films. “We wanted to do a meaningful first film and this one ticked all the boxes. I had watched Sagar’s short film and loved his vision, music sense and ability to extract performances,” says Pavan.

The film, shot in Shivamogga, Sagar, Saraba and Bengaluru, won the National Award for Best Kannada film for 2020 and the award for best audiography (sync sound). Interestingly, the team immediately put out a statement that the sound of the drums was recorded. Quite in keeping with the integrity of the entire filmmaking process they followed. “The drums were recorded outdoors on a location mimicking the actual shoot location. We had the technician from Kerala carry his sound equipment and record the beats with the same performers,” says the director.

Post the film’s theatrical release, Sagar spoke to TNM about the creative choices he exercised, the reason for keeping things subtle and why he adopted an understanding tone when speaking about urban migration. Here are some excerpts from the interview.

You’re a Bengaluru boy, but you’ve managed to bring alive the rhythm and tone of a village in Dollu.

Yes, I grew up in the city, but I have my roots in Dharwad. I frequented the place in my childhood and I’m intimately familiar with the rural lifestyle. I have friends from all over the state, I’ve travelled across Karnataka and picked up nuggets about rural life from friends. Dollu Kunitha was not a novelty, in that sense, because for every government function, you could always see the percussionists in action. I just brought together all that I’d seen and heard.

Dollu makes a case for keeping the craft alive. The subject is ripe for a documentary or a docu-drama. Why did you decide to take the feature route?

I see myself as an actor, director and technician who is a part of the feature film universe. Yes, the folk arts lend themselves to the documentary format, but I did not want to miss the tremendous reach that a feature film offers. But, I packed the film with the research our team did, and so, while a fictional feature, it rings true.

How did you work on the sound for the film? While it is a film about percussion, it allows for silences and routine everyday sounds…

Our music team (composer Ananth Kamath and sound designer Nithin Lukose) worked really hard on this. So many people told us that while the film was about a loud instrument, it was all so subtle. The film explores the world of sound and in the ‘Mayanagari’ song, you see how sounds and rhythm come alive in everyday life — in the cracking of a pani puri, in the drum beats for a funeral, in the clapping of hands, in the cracking of knuckles…

You’ve kept things pretty subtle in everything — even potential confrontations are toned down by reason…

I wanted to avoid melodrama at any cost. I wanted the film to travel to festivals and I know that heightened emotions work well only in our country. I wanted to keep it realistic while being able to showcase some style of mine. People do understand realism, you know. And in real life, people usually strike the middle path, they don’t always stick to extreme positions. My previous short film had done well in the festival circuit, so I had faith that my kind of filmmaking will work.

It helped that producer Pavan Wadeyar came on board. He knows the commercial film circuit well and I had faith that my film would see a good release.

If you see the film, Bhadra’s (a very sincere Karthik Mahesh) reactions are always toned, the result of thought. When he makes a mistake, he apologies, like we would do. Even those around him are sensible in their reactions.

Again, while speaking about the urban-rural divide and the issue of mass migration to cities, you don’t take sides and instead present each side’s reality.

Is that not what happens in real life? People make choices for a reason and usually stick to them, for their own valid reasons. Some might say, I’m struggling to survive but I love Bengaluru. They are fine staying five people in a cramped room, and that’s valid. I prefer showing each character’s reality and not sermonising. I did not want to say this is right, this is wrong. For instance, people claim the Dollu originated in three places in Karnataka, but I don’t want to get into that. I just want to tell a story. Yes, I speak about the importance of preserving rural traditions, but I live in the city, I’m having my fair share of fun. Who am I to tell people they should live in poverty to protect culture?

I also consciously tried to stay away from mansplaining, especially when it came to issues of consent.

The love story between Bhadra and Priya is very evolved. Theirs is not a fledgling love, and is punctuated by both support and argument. Why did this film need this love story?

If I had begun with the origin of the love story, the essence of Dollu would have shifted, and I did not want to deviate. Everyone speaks about how love starts, but I wanted to focus on how it develops and the resultant ups and downs. I wanted the love to both let my character slide and rise again. When all his friends leave, he shows his frustration on the very understanding Priya (the utterly dignified and bright Nidhi Hegde), who is his pillar of support. She helps him see an elevation as a person again.

This love was also integral to show Bhadra’s graph, and the film ends with women too — showing how the dollu empowers them, and they give it new life.

What prompted the team to put out the statement you did after the National Awards?

We made the film from our heart, with a certain integrity, and when we saw the words “sync sound” in the category we won, we decided we should make it clear that it was not recorded on location. We did not want to claim credit for something we did not do. The team stood by me and the statement was in keeping with the ethos of the film. We got the Best Kannada Film Award, that meant a lot.

The recognition has been of many hues — after watching the film, a media professional hugged me and said he used to play the tabla once and the film reminded him of that period of his life.

Subha J Rao is an entertainment journalist covering Tamil and Kannada cinema and is based out of Mangaluru, Karnataka.

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