Suneel Raghavendra: The Kannada film director questioning his own caste and identity

In conversation with The News Minute, Suneel opens up about his past, his identity and how he ended up making Puta Tirugisi Nodi
Suneel Raghavendra: The Kannada film director questioning his own caste and identity
Suneel Raghavendra: The Kannada film director questioning his own caste and identity
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Suneel Raghavendra is the director of Kannada film  Puta Tirugisi Nodi, you can read about it here. In conversation with Ashley Tellis, Suneel opens up about his past, his identity and how he ended up making Puta Tirugisi Nodi.

Q. What made you break away from the conventional narrative of your life and study film and become a film-maker?

A. I always wanted to be a film-maker. From the age of 3 or 4, films were a big deal for me. Especially the popular kind. I fell ill a fair few times and would be stuck in bed. And while I rested, I'd watch my favourite film on VHS tape over and over again. For days together. I was infatuated with Shankar Nag, the actor and director and dreamt of emulating him. Now, after having made this film the conventional parts of my life's narrative actually seem like detours. That isn't to say I don't value what I gained from those detours of course. I've made great friends, learnt a lot of lessons, but I am a filmmaker – as I always wanted.

Q. How did you come up with the idea of Puta Tirugisi Nodi?

A. The film was originally titled “Makkalaata” literally meaning “Child's Play”. I had seen a whole bunch of kids dressed in panches (that's Dhotis for Hindi speakers) with partly shaved heads playing cricket inside a Matha. They were from the gurukula that was part of the Matha. It was an amusing sight- there were temple bells ringing in the background, a whole bunch of kinds who looked like mini-priests in printed T-shirts playing cricket barefoot, with gratuitous use of profanity in their interactions. But I was struck by how seriously they were taking the game. They weren't 'amused' by the setting at all. So I thought about youngsters in general, and the difficulties of not being taken as seriously by others as they take themselves. Invariably people say something is 'child's play' to dismiss or condescend. But children themselves obviously go through their own feelings or thoughts as seriously as an adult, if not even more so. I thought there was something very endearing about that. I still needed a bigger driver to hold the plot. While I was developing the story, I happened to watch the documentary Fire in Babylon. There's something about West Indies test cricket of old that is as full of struggle as it is full of joy. Perhaps I only see these things as a fan of cricket, I am not sure how someone new to the game would feel. So apart from the cricketing context, I had two other things I wanted to examine. About what success means to the average Janardhan or Javed, about failing to attain 'greatness', going past that and instead finding content in a middling path of life. About also how Orthodoxy stands in Urban India. Orthodoxy of religion, lifestyle, Brahminism – I had some comments to make based on what I've seen around me in such a household and extended family.

Q. How did you find your actors?

A. I've known my lead actors for a while now, Kailash and myself were Assistant Directors on the sets of Puttakkana Highway (under B Suresha), and the both of us worked with Adithi on a short film I made. Sudha Belavadi is a very popular actor in Kannada cinema and TV, and Umesh is perhaps the most renowned comic actor of Kannada cinema ever, or perhaps a close second to the late Narasimharaju. I was thrilled to have them both on board. Some of my other actors are friends from my film and theatre circles. Finding the kids took a little more effort, so I combed a couple of amateur theatre camps and found an interesting bunch in local cricket clubs too. I wasn't too worried about their acting skills or how they took direction, I've always felt I could manage that. It mattered more that the kids looked immersed in the ongoing story. Or in this case, the game and the squabbles. I think they managed better than I'd expected.

Q. How did you come up with this amazing music score?

A. When Dheeru and I first sat to discuss the score of the film, I had no clue what I wanted. We thought of a bunch of sport films, but we cameback to Fire in Babylon. I loved how a film about a struggle for unity, purpose in an era of unstable race relations and politics seamlessly blended with the Reggae background score. The Bahamas and Reggae! And the beautiful aged betacam and 16mm footage that just went so well with it. So we had to find a similar musical identity for Bangalore. I grew up listening to classical music, Kannada Bhaavageethe and great 80s and early 90s film music. And oh, adolescence to adulthood was all about Jazz. So while I was certain these had to influence our score, Dheeru brought in his rather large repertoire of musical skills. So along with the sounds of temples and Tamburis and Kannada poetry, Dheeru added EDM, Pop and some Electro-whatever stuffs that the new kids listen to today. He played them for me and I loved it! So I didn't worry too much about what it was called.

What I was very happy about as well was getting the rights to use a lovely poem by the Da. Ra. Bendre. And interpreting it in very modern musical ways. Not one but two ways in fact, the album has a jazz rendition of Yaarigu helonu byaada that isn't there in the film.

Q. You seem especially sensitive to women?

A. I want to say something honest but boring like, it's because I had strong women in my family. It's the truth though. My mother is a Metallurgist and has run a business with my father for the last 36 years. My grandmothers were both great survivors in their own ways, and good story tellers too. I think that's why I got hooked to building stories too. There's my aunt, who is an award winning writer and feminist critic in Kannada. I had a host of intimidating and inspiring teachers throughout schooling. I think the foundation for my understanding of women had this great continuum of ladies who made me, me.

In recent years though my exposure to feminist thought is better, I'm learning better. The internet is a great place for that. I really enjoyed this speech Joss Whedon gave about how he keeps getting asked How and why he has such strong women characters in his work. He offers a host of answers, and finally concludes that it's the 21st century and he still keeps being asked this question, and that's why he keeps writing strong women characters. It's the 21st century and yet it's still surprising when there's a reasonably well thought out woman in a story. Shows you just how unfair it's been and how far we need to go. I look up to these ladies around me, as well as my friends and contemporaries to get inputs about how to write better characters. I hope it only grows from here.

Q. You seem willing to interrogate caste which is very unusual for a Brahmin film-maker?

A. I must confess I was a slow starter in this regard. I had a very rudimentary understanding of caste and an even weaker understanding of oppression. Much of what we were taught in school was about personalities. The best example being that Ambedkar's life story featured in a lesson in every language from the 4th standard to the 10th - which is fine, but very little of his writings or his ideas. I regret now having not had access or the orientation towards them much earlier. While I floated in my own infantile sense of "my acharya greatest", I started reading about Brahmin schools of thought to prove my point. That opened a can of vegetarian worms for me really, I read and discussed what I could with the people around me. I'm still very much in the process of understanding my politics and ideas, and I won't get too far without questioning my own caste and identity.

Q. Your film is very quiet and unobtrusive? Is that just you or what you thought would be appropriate for this film?

A. For now I think this will be my approach to any film I make. I like seeing humans as another kind of wildlife so I try to follow what wildlife documentary film-makers do. While the larger story is scripted and staged, each individual shot isn't necessarily so. I want to come close to depicting life in an as-is form.

The other line of thought I have about this is, as I look back to Kannada films from a decade or two ago, personally I feel none of them capture the time and lifestyle of those periods. Well, not none, there are exceptions, but I refer to the majority. Particularly urban living is either villified or glamourised at the extremes. I strongly feel against this. I believe popular media and art is essential in recording life for posterity. For a while now we've pursued fantasy while chewing on nostalgia. And it seems we've forgotten to take down notes on today. Granted, this approach loads my work with my own biases and privilege. I hope that will change with collaborations with other writers and directors.

Q. Your film is not yet released. How difficult are you finding distributing it?

A. Difficult is the word alright. While I've met some enthusiastic distributors, I still need to dig deep for marketing and release expenses. Added to that, there is the well documented troubles of the Kannada film industry with regards to the shortage of theatres and screens. I'm still working towards the release, hopefully it can be seen soon.

Q. How do you see yourself within the Kannada film scene?

A. Very intimately connected. While my understanding of the work is quite fresh and lacking in experience, and narrative style is a little different from the popular kind, the ideas and stories are all very much local. I grew up more with Kannada popular cinema than any other kind. My understanding of world cinema in fact, is terrible. I owe more of my passion to Shankar Nag, Kalpana and Jaggesh than I do to Fellini, Ray and Godard. It will take another film or two for me to really find my own voice and space in the industry, but that's true of starting out anywhere afresh I suppose.

Q. What are you doing these days?

A. I've been working on a couple of stories for future projects. They're still very much incubating, before they're ready to be implemented somewhere. In the meantime, I've been discussing with some colleagues about making the literature associated with Film technology more accessible to Kannada speakers and readers. Much of what is available online is either English with bits in other European languages. It's a great injustice on those who don't speak English. So from my company, I've started a consultancy wing for filmmakers to consult with. I am also putting together a bunch of writers to form a script consultation group so people can bounce ideas off. I also want to seriously make use of the public library that is the Internet to make information available in Kannada for anyone anywhere to look up. In the meantime I wait like Paro for Devdas to return with many more festival selections for my film.

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