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Thahraav of 'Photo': Why Kannada Cinema Is on the Cusp of Political Filmmaking

Kannada film Photo captures migrant exodus during lockdown through a boy's longing for a special photograph.

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Edited By :Nikhila Henry

Making a film on a political subject, making a political film, and making a film politically are three entirely different kinds of filmmaking. Utsav Gonvar’s debut film Photo, which will be screened at Bengaluru International Film Festival that commenced on 23 March, marks a milestone in Kannada cinema because it shows us for full 91 minutes that a film can be made well, politically.

The film captures the migrant exodus from cities to hometowns on account of the unplanned lockdown imposed, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, by the Union government in 2020.

To narrate this mammoth story of despair, the filmmaker has used an uncommon thread – the desire of a boy to get his photograph taken in front of Vidhana Soudha or the Legislative Assembly of Karnataka situated in Bengaluru.
Kannada film Photo captures migrant exodus during lockdown through a boy's longing for a special photograph.

A still from Photo.

(Accessed by The Quint)

The significance of Gonvar’s film lies in the subject he chose, the narrative he wove around the plot, and the aesthetics he employed to construct the narrative. It is rare for a debutant filmmaker to find such near perfect blend between craft and vision – especially in the times of political correctness, which urges films like Photo to be too woke, and in the times of technology-driven ‘aesthetic spectacle,’ which lures the filmmakers to become excessively (and at times, unnecessarily) stylistic.

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A Boy, a Photo, and the Seat of Power

Durgya, a school going boy, looks forward to school vacation for he has been promised a trip to Bengaluru where his father works as a laborer earning daily wages. His excitement over Bengaluru is fueled by his desire to get himself photographed against the backdrop of Vidhana Soudha, the state’s Legislative Assembly. When the pandemic hits, the school announces a two-week vacation. People mistakenly believe that things will soon get back to normalcy. Just before the lockdown is announced, Durgya is sent to Bengaluru with a family friend. His longing to get the photo taken first gets stalled because of his father’s work, and then gets destroyed because of the lockdown, for they have to get back to their village.

When the film opens, we see Durgya not just looking forward to getting himself photographed, but also looking up (literally) to photographs framed and hung on the walls. Why does Durgya fancy the photo, that forms the epicentre of the film? To him it is a matter of pride – a miraculous object which will infinitely upgrade his stature among his friends.
Kannada film Photo captures migrant exodus during lockdown through a boy's longing for a special photograph.

A still from Photo.

(Accessed by The Quint)

The desire, which seems achievable in the times of selfies, reveals how even the seemingly simple personal goals are indiscriminately created in a world which does not equitably offer everyone the means to fulfilment. Sans judgement, the filmmaker conveys that the boy’s desire to be respected by his peers is also a longing for dignity, which can be achieved by inching close to the citadel of power – the Vidhana Soudha.

Introducing an opposing track, without causing a narrative jerk, the film which begins with the child’s desire to go to Bengaluru goes on to dwell on his father’s desire to return to the village amid the lockdown. This narrative shift in fact reveals the abrupt upending of the lives of the central characters.

Through this narrative design, the film seamlessly reveals the larger design affecting the lives of its characters; the journey back home becomes the overarching subject of the film, exposing the larger concerns of the journeys taken by lakhs of migrant workers amid ruthless circumstances.
Kannada film Photo captures migrant exodus during lockdown through a boy's longing for a special photograph.

A still from Photo.

(Accessed by The Quint)

In the film, the tough, tedious, and terrible journey back home meets with tragedy. It couldn’t have been otherwise in a country where people attempt to escape the ‘fatal accident of birth.’ The journey back home reveals what makes the brief sliver of life, wedged between birth and death, fatal. The fatality of life is neither personal nor accidental – it is structural. Photo reveals this structural violence or the violence in status quo, as it tells the moving tale of a father and his son.

Composition, Rhythm, and Thahraav

The film’s narrative success is also based on the dignified cinematic construction of desire, despair and devastation. Photo uses the basic mise en scene – composition and framing – effectively and meaningfully to support storytelling and enhance the cinematic experience.

At the start of the film, we meet its characters closely as they get significant presence within the frame. As the film’s narrative moves to Bengaluru, the frame gets wider and the characters shrink within its bounds. Once the characters escape from Bengaluru, the frames are not just increasingly wider but also emptier, to make the characters appear small, isolated, and helpless. As it all goes down the hill, the film employs aerial shots to depict the characters being reduced to dust, turned almost invisible. In the end, when the ultimate tragedy hits, the film gets back to composing its characters as it did in the beginning – in a life-like manner – to complete the circle. This visual design of the film is worked out well and Dinesh Divakaran rightly gets the credit as Director of Photography and not Cinematographer.

Kannada film Photo captures migrant exodus during lockdown through a boy's longing for a special photograph.

A still from Photo.

(Accessed by The Quint)

Kannada film Photo captures migrant exodus during lockdown through a boy's longing for a special photograph.

A still from Photo.

(Accessed by The Quint)

Kannada film Photo captures migrant exodus during lockdown through a boy's longing for a special photograph.

A still from Photo.

(Accessed by The Quint)

The film’s victory is also in the rhythm it captures. Photo de-dramatises a dramatic moment in history without diluting the human condition it depicts.

The film is urgent without showing urgency, in that it creates a necessary distance demarcated by emotion and gaze (of the camera or the director), without getting too entangled in facts and information. The directorial grip of Utsav Gonvar is evident as the film captures moments of the characters’ lives without being intrusive or pretentious.

The ‘thahraav’ (tranquility) of the film and its images, achieved by the director and the editor Shivaraj Mehu, not just makes us feel the journey of the characters and workings of the system that pushed them to the limits, but also makes us ponder over the film’s narrative nuances. This is where the greatness of Photo lies and this is what makes the film one of the finest political films -- where the political aspect of the film is not just in the subject but also in its treatment and aesthetics – in Kannada. Photo exemplifies both political creativity and creative politics.

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Political Consciousness Over Political Correctness

The political edge of the filmmaker becomes visible in the smallest of detail. Mull on this sequence: a prominent character, through television news, learns about their village being fenced to prevent those returning home, on account of the lockdown, from other places. An acquaintance sitting by him says that the decision was taken singlehandedly by the landlords. This angers the man. While the scene shows feudal hierarchies at work, it also shows the woman of the house making rotis while the man eats, watching news, and getting angered by the village’s feudal structure.

Kannada film Photo captures migrant exodus during lockdown through a boy's longing for a special photograph.

A still from Photo.

(Accessed by The Quint)

The central focus of the film – the exodus of the migrants during the lockdown highlighting the imbalance between the state and its subjects – doesn’t blindfold the filmmaker from paying attention to the caste politics in the village, the gender politics in the house, and the class politics (in information flow, accessibility etc.). At the same time, the director does not make a statement about everything in his frame. The neatness with which this sequence is built, lets us know that that the filmmaker understands the order of things.

The film’s politics is obvious and not obscure, making this aspect its strength. Simultaneously, the film does not drill down its politics on the audience. When Janta Curfew is announced, Durgya’s father and other labourers get to know of it only when those around them perform taali and thaali rituals announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Kannada film Photo captures migrant exodus during lockdown through a boy's longing for a special photograph.

A still from Photo.

(Accessed by The Quint)

At this juncture, a director driven by political correctness may have mocked those who chanted the mindless slogan ‘Go, Corona, Go!’, but Photo’s maker handles the scene profoundly, showing class differences in the process even as he reveals the irony of the situation without indulging in mockery. This is just a glimpse of the film being driven by political consciousness and not political correctness.

The consciousness makes Gonvar humanise his characters. While some police personnel are cruel, we also see two policemen being helpful to central characters. While some passersby look away to safeguard themselves, there are some who make sure help reaches the father and son. The intertwining of selfishness and selflessness among people makes the characters and the world of Photo believable, humane, and a byproduct of circumstances.

Kannada film Photo captures migrant exodus during lockdown through a boy's longing for a special photograph.

A still from Photo.

(Accessed by The Quint)

In a scene in the film, just before the third act begins, we see the father limping from the left of the frame to the right. His entry and exit are against the background of an arid land. The scorching heat of the sun at that moment creates a haze. Soon after he exits from the right end of the frame, we see the son Durgya walking into the frame slowly and exiting from the right end of the frame. While the father’s slow movement is caused by physical injury, the son’s slow movement is caused by physical fatigue and an emotional injury. This scene is definitive in revealing the film’s craft that links physical and emotional worlds – the outer world and the inner world – seamlessly and effortlessly. It also is an example of how neatly the different realities of human world, human existence is woven in the film by its maker.

When the third act begins, it appears like the unbearable heat has caused a tragedy. The father blames himself for taking a bad decision that leads to doom. But by then, as we have journeyed with the duo, we realise that the tragedy is caused by something else – something bigger and invisible. What’s invisible – the structural fatality – is revealed to naked eyes through the film’s political gaze, narrative, and aesthetics. By telling us the story of Durgya and his father, Photo tells us the story of one of the most shameful events in independent India’s history.

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Edited By :Nikhila Henry
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