Production Posts – Thithi
Thithi is successfully running in theatres and the technical team behind the film has finally got time to relax. The film that is based in a remote village in Karnataka is travelling the world restoring faith in the fact that honest detailing is universally accepted. We spoke with Writer (Cum assistant director, casting director and production assistant) Ere Gowda, Sound Designer Nitin Lukose and Cinematographer Doron Tempert to dissect the making of this cinematic brilliance.
When was the seed of Thithi sown in your mind. Talk about the very first trigger for the film’s plot.
Working on Thithi was a detour from conventional filmmaking. There wasn’t any trigger as such. Raam (Reddy, Director) and I went to the village that we wanted the film to be based on. So, in a way the space was locked first. During this process I would tell Raam real stories from my life that were based around the village. Around this period my grandmother passed away. Soon after, my friend’s mother passed away. So, we started visiting those funerals and their Thithis (Last Rites). It was here that the film started developing in our minds.
The film is character-driven. How did you come up with such layered characters? How much of it was penned and how much was improvised on set?
The story always took the lead. The characters came later. We were just looking for stories and during the course we met these people. The first character that we found was Gadappa who happens to be my uncle. He moved away from the village when I was a kid. He started living in a secluded hut with his family devoid of electricity. I was always curious about why he moved. I went to pay him a visit as a practice and Raam liked him. Most of the events shown in the film are references from real stories about real people. We met characters while loitering around in the village.
As far as writing a bound screenplay is concerned, there was none. The plot and story were very clear in our mind but since it was actual people playing the parts, we did not want to burden them with strict dialogues to follow. I would tell them the dialogues before the scenes. If they were not comfortable with any particular word from the dialogue I’d change it according to their convenience. So there was always a scope of improvisation on set.
My process starts with finding interesting characters and then placing them in a story with a conflict
Please talk about the collaboration with Raam Reddy and the process of writing drafts and redrafts. How do you cope with indulgence and edit in successive drafts?
It was an enriching experience working with Raam. I have worked with him since he was eleven. Since, there wasn’t any bound script we were open to ideas. I was present on location during all the shots. Since the content was very familiar to me there was a lot of clarity. The only trouble was to block the non-professional actors. They would get confused. That is where I would step in with my local dialect skill. I would befriend them and make them comfortable and change stuff according to the need of the hour. Those were our redrafts. Since nothing was rigid there was no scope of indulgence.
In one of your interviews I read that you had cast your actors first and then derived the screenplay. Please talk in detail about your approach.
I can write stories around characters. My process starts with finding interesting characters and then placing them in a story with a conflict. But the characters should be from my environment. For example, I cannot write a story about a software engineer. But yes, I can pick characters from different spaces and put them in my plot just the way it was done for Thithi. I operate around my own sensibility and I cannot wear someone else’s sensibilities and write. That would be fake. For Thithi, the one thing that really helped me was Raam’s brief after we had collected all the characters. He asked me, “Whether you are looking at a warm film or a cold film?” That became the key behind scripting.
In my next script I am following a similar approach, the only difference being that this time the space is different. So, I am working on placing my story in a different space from where the events have happened.
A lot of importance has been given to sound in Thithi. How did you plan it. What did your meetings with the director sound like?
The film doesn’t have background music (BGM). We wanted it to have a very natural sound and make very realistic cinema. With the first scene starting with the sound of the village, we set a tone for the film. It’s a fact that if you establish something with sound then that stays in the subconscious of the audience throughout the film. Raam and I spoke about it in the pre-production stage itself.
To block the noise during outdoor schedules for location sound recording is a big challenge. How did you manage this with the villagers?
The village wasn’t a very noisy place. But there were some sounds of people working on the fields that would trouble us. We faced this problem only in the initial four-five days. After that the villagers got to know that we were filming. The team was very focused and cooperative. The assistant directors and other crew helped in managing the sound blocking, if and when required. There were people in the crew who knew the local language and communicated with the locals. Things were in control after the first week and it became a smooth sail. The whole film was a sync-sound recording because it is really tough for non-professional actors to dub. So, it was a do or die situation for us.
How did you mic the non-actors? Talk about familiarizing them with the equipment. Also how comfortable were the villagers with the sound equipment?
It was fun and challenging. There was a lady who I had to mic. Raam and I discussed and reached a conclusion that we mustn’t body-mic her as she may not be comfortable with the equipment. The male actors were comfortable with it from the beginning. Later on female actors also wore the body mic comfortably. They had understood the whole process of sound being captured in a mic and visuals in a camera. It was the first film to be shot in their village so their hesitation was natural.
Everyone in the village was very inquisitive. They would come and ask about the equipment. Everyone including the actors had a question around the boom rod. We used to make them understand the use of the equipment and they would happily cooperate. Since, it was their first exposure to filmmaking they were scared about the equipments. But gradually they became a part of the process.
The whole film was a sync-sound recording because it is really tough for non-professional actors to dub
Please talk about the equipment that you used and the motivation behind your choice. Also tell us about the overall process of designing and recording the sound for Thithi.
The recorder that we used was Sound Devices 788T. I had worked on it during my course in FTII. The recorder wasn’t easily available in Mumbai but eventually our vendor bought it for the shoot. Taking the correct equipment with us was imperative. So, Raam and I sat and decided on the microphones to be used for exterior and interior sequences. For the brass band sequence we carried stereo pair microphones to get a perspective of space. Basically the equipment was chosen based on the requirement of the space and the actors.
We took some wild takes of the brass band as well which are used in the credit roll. But apart from the credits all the sound that you hear in the film is diegetic. There were a lot of walking sequences in the film. So, we could not carry a trolley. Most of the equipment from boom to lapel microphones was wireless. So that it was easy for both the actors and me to move freely.
As far as the design is concerned it was decided in the preps that we wanted the film to be very realistic. We shot for six months in that village. During that period I got a good idea of how the village was sounding. The film design took seven months because there is no BGM and just diegetic music in the film. That became a difficult process because it is a very tricky zone to be in. In such films you have to design the sound in such a way that you do not miss music in frames. There were times when I wasn’t convinced about going without BGM. But eventually we were convinced that we did not need any external support.
The whole village in Thithi looks like a performance stage. You have even used lots of static long shots that enhance the stage performance feel. Yet it’s very cinematic. How did you balance this?
The stage feel is because we did not want to bring malice to the original visuals. We wanted the camera to be observational in nature. We did not want to apply our own sensibilities to the village life. We chose to shoot flat and in a non-judgemental manner. We aimed at making the visuals like paintings where one need not point out where to focus on. The viewer could pick freely what to see from a given frame.
Ram had a couple of critical instructions. One of them was to shoot at the horizontal axis of the eyeline of the characters. We were always shooting according to the height of the characters. We could look directly into their eyes and there was no power difference between them and us. This way we could shoot their real self.
We did not want to apply our own sensibilities to the village life
The film has an inherent wry humour to it. There are close ups of cattle that the editor has interestingly juxtaposed. How did you compose the shots?
(laughs) We knew those shots were difficult so we postponed them for quite some time. We spent lots of time with the cattle and tried different permutations and combinations. We would whistle and look at their responses. From there we got the trend and worked on it. It was fun shooting those shots because in most part of the film we have refrained from closeups except for the sequences that have humour. The sound design also played an important role.
The protagonist’s passings have been used as a tool. How did you work out the timing with him. Also how did you make the non-actors comfortable with camera and its equipments?
A lot of the time we were aware that it was a rhythm based film. Raam would give them the cue to enter and exit. It is one of the most difficult things to work out with non-professional actors as they cannot hit the marks correctly. But having said that I do not remember doing many retakes for such shots. The actors were smart and got the shots right. Of course we did create a rhythm in the edit as well.
As far as making villagers comfortable with the equipment is concerned, I don’t think it was a big problem for us. We were a small crew and we did not take over the village at any point of time. We had a lot of people from the village as a part of our crew. So, there was never a distance between us (crew and villagers). People were very understanding and regardless of me being a western guy, they got used to me very quickly. The crew also made them focus on their parts rather than the nitty-gritties of the shoot.
Please talk about the camera equipment – the camera, lights, lenses and filters used.
When we were planning the equipment we had a clarity that it had to be handy and hassle free. We also had clarity on how our film is going to look. We shot on the swedish-made Iconoscope cameras with a vintage lens. We contacted the C.E.O of Cooke for the particular zoom lens that we wanted. It was only manufactured in the 70’s and is one of the fastest Zoom lens ever made. For lights we used small L.E.D’s to create a natural look. We could not trust the power so we had lots of battery operated equipment. For filters we used ND. Most of the film was shot on ND6 and ND12 filters.
Compared to your previous works, what was the most interesting and different part of Thithi.
Personally for me living in a different culture for such a long time was an experience. In all of my previous work I was working in a familiar environment. An environment where I would know why people react a certain way. This was different. I was always inquisitive. We had a lot of fun. Since, we stayed for such a long time in the village, all of the crew bonded really well. On our off days we would go for a swim in the local river. It was a mixed crew with people from all around.
(On this note Raam (Reddy) jumps in and is all praise about Doron. He says, “Doron is so much more than a D.O.P to this film. He was on board at the script stage. Gave valuable feedback on storytelling. He did the story-boarding. Then he became the Associate Producer for the film. He has been there from the beginning till the post release-promotions. One thing I would like to add about all the technicians that worked on this film is that they are more talented than what shows in the film. We all could have made a much more beautiful looking film. But we held it back for the idea of authenticity. Because we knew that showing it just the way it was will eventually make the film really good as a storyteller.”)