Suneel Raghavendra’s existence as an indie film-maker on the Kannada scene is more than a bit of an anomaly. Firstly, there is no Kannada indie film scene. Second, he is a Brahmin who grew up in staid Malleswaram in Bangalore. Third, he did Engineering. Fourth, he got married. This context and all these things should have destroyed him for life but they did not. He broke away, went to film school in Prague, made Puta Tirugisi Nodi (Turn the Page or PTO, in Indian parlance), a quite unusual Kannada film, moved out of his family’s house and Malleswaram disgusted with marriage, and life is looking good.
A Kannada film-maker has two choices. Make lousy, commercial films that have a regional audience and are more or less unwatchable or make an ‘art’ film, a low budget scam in formulaic frames that gets a government subsidy, does the festival circuit and the film-maker waits to hit the commercial jackpot.
Raghavendra who has nothing to lose given all the ways he has swum against the tide, decided to make a third kind of film: an unapologetic, urban (Bangalore is his stomping grounds), quiet and unassuming film. The themes do not stray too far from those of any young, heterosexual man growing up in Bangalore: cricket, relations with women and politics.
But there are some serious departures from a regular guy's negotiations of these things and Raghavendra’s own journey bears its imprint on the film. The film deals with caste, secularism, a critique of masculinity and Bangalore’s urban landscape.
Indeed, the film opens almost documentary-style with people across class, caste and location in the city talking about what games they played as children. These people include the characters and some of those are children themselves. The film takes its own time to reach its central twinning narratives: the recreational lives of Brahmin children brought up in a Vedic pathshala/mutt, a modern, secular couple, a bunch of urban, lower class, young men and their lives playing cricket in a park, and two mothers in the background whose quiet presence (we do not even see one of them at all) remain the strongest in the film, at least for this viewer.
The film slowly grows on you and the characters, while they are almost all unobtrusive and low-key become engrossing to the viewer. There’s the failed cricket player turned school teacher (played understatedly and absorbingly by Kailash TV), a spirited and adventurous young woman who works, has a combative but very caring relationship with her mother and loves this man, a mechanic who plays cricket and a range of young men who in their limited screen time still manage to be fully individuated in the viewer’s imagination. Finally, there are the two mothers. One a single, strong woman who has suffered terribly as a daughter-in- law in a Brahmin household and does not want her daughter to ever have to endure that and the boy’s mother who lives in the village but wants to move to Bangalore for a knee replacement, to have kitty parties and, pointedly, to stay alone.
There is a broader narrative about secular politics, cricket and how we must all learn to lose our tempers less and enjoy a game or whatever it is that we do more, but that cutesy resolution might well be ignored by the less faint-hearted viewer and yet it will not damage the film. The individual biographies of the characters, etched in the smallest and most (seemingly) insignificant strokes are what stay with the viewer. They creep into the viewer’s imagination accretively and incrementally and stay with one long after the credits have rolled. The incredibly melodious and refreshing music score works similarly. One finds oneself humming the film’s creatively written and composed songs long after the film is over.
Puta Tirugisi Nodi is a remarkable achievement and has created the space for a new kind of Kannada cinema. Whether that space will be snuffed out given the commercial and ‘art’ mafias that exist in Karnataka that will inhibit distribution and it reaching a much larger audience, which it deserves to reach, remains to be seen.