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Raam Reddy: ‘Film itself is a character’

Raam Reddy on his second feature, ‘The Fable’, and why the setting always comes early in his outline and feeds into everything

Raam Reddy directing 'The Fable'
Raam Reddy directing 'The Fable'

Raam Reddy was 26 when his directorial debut Thithi (Funeral) premiered at the 2015 Locarno Film Festival, winning several awards on the international film festival circuit and the national award for Best Kannada Film in 2016. A marvellously deadpan tragicomedy about three generations of men responding to the death of a patriarch, Thithi was set in co-writer Ere Gowda’s village of Nodekopplu in Karnataka’s Mandya district.

Now 34, Reddy has made a second feature strikingly different in terms of cast, language, setting and tone. The Fable features Mumbai-based actors like Manoj Bajpayee, Deepak Dobriyal and Tilottama Shome, has dialogues in English and Hindi, is shot on 16mm, and unfolds in the shadowy glades of a fruit orchard in Uttarakhand. Set in 1989, it’s about an English-speaking business family not dissimilar to Reddy’s own—except that the man of the house (Bajpayee) spends a lot of time surveying his surroundings, wearing a pair of wings. The Fable substitutes Thithi’s gentle philosophical realism with the surreal and mysterious, exploring the family’s transformation after fires begin to break out on their estate.

Lounge spoke with Reddy at the recently concluded 74th Berlin International Film Festival, where The Fable had its world premiere. Edited excerpts:

The settings of both your films are very different: a chaotically busy Karnataka village and a vast, quiet Himalayan estate. What role does place play in inspiring your work?

A huge role. Place always comes early in my outline and feeds into absolutely everything. My novel It’s Raining In Maya (2011) is set in a fictitious town inspired by my years in Delhi University’s North Campus. I lived in Malkaganj. For Thithi, it was the village. Here it’s the mountains, because they have an inherent magic in the air.

In ‘Thithi’, there was a real village. But in ‘The Fable’...

It’s fictional.

So, was the germ of this film the setting?

Actually, it was genre. The magical elements I have experienced in very moving ways in literature, I wanted to translate them into cinema. Then the setting: I spent three months in the mountains. The narrative structure comes from what story the place wants me to tell. Thithi was very... humorous? This time I was excited by the challenge of holding attention through mystery.

‘The Fable’ combines a real world with the surreal. How did you decide what those magical elements would be?

I would love to clap on a pair of wings and fly. Or be able to communicate without words. I always wanted to be part of that heightened reality. It gets a little indulgent, but I wanted to abide a little in these dreams, in a very pure way.

Do your scripts start as novels?

My novels look more like films scripts: I think in cuts. But yes, this screenplay was quite literary. I used language to create moods that had to be executed in the audiovisual domain. Quite hard to do if you have a lot of specifics.

Talking of specifics: why fires?

When I was in the mountains for the first time, I went to fight a forest fire. And I like allowing life to guide my storytelling hand.

You mean, it’s like magic: the fire happening while you were there.

Exactly. Fire was also exciting at the narrative level: it’s the perfect crime (there’s no way to know where a spark fell in a pine forest) as well as the perfect capsule to see how an unknown accident affects a social ecosystem. Fire also signifies many things, like regeneration. Destruction is not always negative. It also brings forth the new.

You have two songs, which seem crucial to the mood.

Not just mood, but meaning. The lyrics move me to tears each time, even in the edit room. Shivoham says you are not your body, or your mind: you are pure consciousness. This is the deepest part of our philosophy and I connect with it deeply. As does the family. It takes them into a spontaneous meditation. The purity of that space, from which the song comes, is why the family were worthy of this story. Naiharwa is about reaching the land of the enlightened. Both have been sung by my sister-in-law (Hindola Aguvaveedi). She would sing these to us after she married my brother.

How much does the film draw on your own life?

I have spent time in a coffee estate, I have seen those relationships as a child and I wanted to question them. So the soul of the film is personal, it’s my voice as an artist. But the body—the north Indian setting, the narrative elements, those are my craft as a filmmaker. I almost don’t want to be over-familiar with the place. Like in Thithi—it wasn’t my village.

In ‘Thithi’ you worked largely with non-actors. Here you have well-known actors.

Unlike in Thithi, where we wrote roles based on real-life characters, here I wanted to write and then find actors who could inhabit those key roles, who could transform. But there are many non-actors: the villagers, the army men, the gardener, the maid. They served different purposes within this tapestry.

Was the combining of actors and non-actors ever a challenge?

These are the challenges I love. That dynamic was exciting to me: having a veteran like Manoj-ji do scenes with Ravi Bisht, who is a Pahadi villager, is talented but never acted before. Or Tilottama (Shome) going into the non-actor world and playing a villager. But mostly we had an actor schedule and a non-actor schedule.

I tried with this film to bring opposites together. So it is realistic but also magical; it is 16mm, 1980s in look and feel, but it’s also VFX-heavy. (The fires, but also a lot of the nature is VFX.)

Why did you want to shoot on film?

Multiple reasons. One, it was the medium in use in 1989. Making it look like it was shot then, that authenticity was exciting. I also believe in a kind of transference of consciousness in art; I think film carries our emotions in a tactile way, more potently than the digital medium. Film itself is a character, the grain dances from frame to frame. I do still photography on film, so that was the entry point.

Creating this visual world was a beautiful collaboration with debut cinematographer Sunil Borkar, and debut production designer Juhi Agarwal. I love working with first timers in key roles—it’s not like I am so far away from being one—because their visions are so uncoloured, coming straight from the hearts.

Would you speak a little about the film’s politics, and class in it?

First of course there’s the colonial hangover. And class has always fascinated me. It is a cross-sectional analysis of a plantation society. There is the family at the core. Then the manager who is loyal to the family but is a local himself, so he mediates between worlds. Then there are the villagers whose livelihoods are based on the estate by choice, or at least within the choices available to them. There is a loving relationship between Dev (Bajpayee) and his workers, but there is an obvious disparity. There is a shot in the film where the workers are walking home, under suspicion—and you cut to the family at a dinner party.That’s just how much of India is. And then there are the nomads: they surrender to nature, they don’t speak.

The nomads seem to represent a different sensibility from your real-world concern with class. They seem almost fictitious.

Totally, almost like elves. They had to stand apart. They are part of the questioning of our rights. Can we inhabit nature, filled with trees and creatures, without being persecuted?

Your shooting schedule was disrupted for two successive summers by the pandemic. What do you do as a filmmaker when something stops a creative process like that?

You stop, internally as well. I make one film at a time. But I am a compulsive creator. I’m into photography, music, philosophy, poetry, songs—not for an audience, yet.

Do you think of ‘The Fable’ as political allegory?

It is part of the layers, but you can decide what you think is the core. As an artist, that’s exciting to me—to leave room for my art to be inhabited.

Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic, and professor of practice at the Jindal School of Journalism and Communication.

Also read: Qurratulain Hyder: A writer of a divided world

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