Ere Gowda's life – from a teenage security guard at a motorbike showroom to a festival-trotting, award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker – is a story of soaring triumph worthy of a film itself, but his own films are just the opposite of exciting and happening. It was Thithi (The Funeral) directed by his long-time accomplice Raam Reddy that put Gowda on the independent cinema map (as a screenwriter and casting director). The film, featuring a huge ensemble cast of non-actors from a village, won Golden Leopard as well as the First Feature Award at the 68th Locarno International Film Festival, and won numerous awards including the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Kannada. Francis Ford Coppola said the characters in the film were “unforgettable” and back home Anurag Kashyap gave the film rave reviews.
The Karnataka (India)-born director's debut feature film Balekempa (The Bangle Seller) was in competition for the FIPRESCI Jury Award in the Bright Future section at the 47th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), and beat out 21 other films to take home the prize. The brilliantly subtle film about life and society in a South Indian village, pictured with utmost finesse through the characters, is in itself a master-class in telling a story almost sub-verbally. This interview was done early in the festival - long before anyone knew the film would go on to win the prestigious award. Here are excerpts of that conversation, with the remarkably humble yet strikingly candid Ere Gowda.
Where does a film begin for you?
Ere Gowda: For me, it begins with a character. Once the character gets stronger and stronger in my head, I just think what kind of situation can you put this character in, so you can understand the character better. And the story forms around that.
Can you tell me a little bit more about your characters and what makes them so special?
EG: In Kannada films, it starts with who is the hero and who is the villain. But for me it's very strong from the beginning; my films don't have a hero and a villain; they are just characters. You may be bad with someone, but good with someone else? It's not about good or bad, it's about who they are, why they do what they do, because of their surroundings. After we made Thithi, people from surrounding villages came and told me they know someone in their village who behaves like Gadappa or Tamanna. They start seeing those characters in the people around them, they start seeing themselves. In Balekempa too, I wanted to create that mirror, where people can see themselves.
You said a 'character gets stronger and stronger' in your head. How does that happen?
EG: For example, if I have a character of a 20-year old boy, I try to observe and understand how he is thinking, what he is trying to do, what he wants, and why he is doing that. I try to think like him, and I enjoy it a lot. When I meet an 80-year old man, I start to think like him. Sometimes, I cannot forget some of these characters, and I start thinking more and more.
You said all the cast members of Balekempa, except for the female lead, are non-actors. The subject of sexuality is such a taboo in conservative societies in rural India, so when you address something like that in the film, how did your cast receive it, because the story is being told by them?
EG: The part about sexuality, I don't want to show that. That's not the film; I think everyone can imagine that. For me what was more important was the life that they are living because of the society. When I cast Kempanna (one of the lead characters), I told him what his character is and what will happen. He replied with, “I know when the hero kills the villain. He is not actually killed. It's just a film.” They have that awareness.
There are screenwriters and filmmakers who spend a lifetime finding their own cinematic voice, and you have achieved that distinctive style or method with just two films. Do you want to hold on to this, or do you want to break out of it and do something entirely different?
EG: At the Film Bazaar (the Indian platform for collaboration between South Asian and international film communities) people were telling me that they were shocked that someone who wrote Thithi also wrote Balekempa, which were so different from each other. If I am involved, maybe some things will be the same, but it will all depend on what story and characters they are. People can tell. I can't think like that (laughs).
For me, there have been so many people in my life, what I learned, what they gave me and what they took from me. So that is very important to me. And my characters will always have a reflection of that. When I first came to Bengaluru to make a film where in the films there is fighting and action and good-looking, well-built people. And when I cast my characters, these average-looking people, they teased me saying, “Why are you casting these people?” In Karnataka, if you are dark-skinned or short in the film, you are the comedian. But for me, beauty has nothing to do with that. It's who you are as a person and how you behave. In society also, in my area if a guy doesn't grow facial hair girls don't like him, even if he is the nicest, sweetest person. We are creating this mold – that white is beauty and dark is not beauty. And then we are so connected – that I have 4000 friends on Facebook – but we are separating more. I didn't grow up like that; I grew up hanging out with my friends, talking, and spending time together. So I want to make films from where I came and what I am missing.
By Fahmim Ferdous, back from Rotterdam. The writer is a Sub-Editor at The Daily Star's Arts & Entertainment. He attended this year's IFFR as part of its Young Film Critics Programme.