A young couple make an intimate video in their college classroom and it goes viral. What follows is a gripping social drama that raises questions on identity, privilege and institutionalised discrimination. All big words, but in Prithvi Konanur’s sensitively made Hadinelentu (2024), the characters defy easy categorisation and emerge as real people whose motives cannot be glibly explained.
A fan of Iranian cinema, the Pinki Elli? (2023) director spoke to Film Companion about why he made Hadinelentu (English title: Seventeeners), the numerous drafts of the script, and his hope to make a sequel for it in the future. Excerpts from the interview below:
Where does a story begin for you? Is it with the character, an incident, an issue or something else?
Sometimes, it’s the issue and sometimes it’s an incident. Never the character. In Pinki Elli? (which is about a child who goes missing), it was the incident. In Hadinelentu, it was the issue. It has been happening for a long time, and isn’t new. But, it hasn’t been explored properly in cinema.
When you say ‘issue’ for this film, do you mean the video going viral or the subsequent caste dynamics that stand exposed?
It’s the viral video. Everything else that happens later is research and my thought process following it. That takes a lot of time. But the idea of the viral video is what triggered something in me and stayed in my mind for a long time.
The film begins with the couple – Deepa and Hari (Neeraj Matthew) – making the intimate video, and things subsequently go downhill. Yet, they’re never apologetic about the video itself. That’s a refreshingly non-judgmental view to take in the writing.
We need to understand how this generation thinks about these things. They’re very vocal in their writing, their social media statuses, about their sexuality. They’re not apologetic about it. It was something I had to learn as well. People in my generation may not understand it, but this is how they are. I’m not saying all of them indulge in such acts, but those who do are very open about it. They express themselves without any hesitation.
What this video triggers – the system – that is the same for every generation. It is exactly what it was 50 years ago and possibly what it will be 50 years down the line unless something drastic happens. Change has to come from the top. Without that, everyone will fight for the status quo.
I loved the red streaks in Deepa’s hair. She isn’t particularly rebellious but you get a sense of her personality, and at the same time, it probably causes some to judge her even before they know anything about her.
The red hair wasn’t written into the script (laughs). It’s actually the one thing that wasn’t written about her. The actor (Sherlyn Bhosale) already had the streaks and we decided to retain it. But the rest of her personality – like her being slightly rebellious – was there. I’ve observed that sports people tend to be like that. They’re more outgoing.
Sherlyn isn’t into sports, but in the film, she plays a character who aspires to be a national level volleyball player. In the script, we had a lot of volleyball but we took it out because she couldn’t do it well enough and it would look odd.
Another interesting aspect of the film is how people read each other in social situations. The difference in caste and class, even before anything is spelt out. It's subtle but obvious. Where did you draw these scenes from?
From observation. I’d say the film is more about caste dynamics than oppression per se. In urban India, it is possibly money that matters more than caste. I come from an IT background and when I was in the corporate world, such issues about caste never came up. You end up thinking caste doesn’t exist any more and that it’s dead. When you read the news about caste violence, you wonder how it’s happening. But in the real world, when you are socially disadvantaged because of caste and class – and this combination is quite prevalent – it matters very much. It was only when I came into cinema that I realised caste is alive in the society.
Not only the protagonists, the supporting characters also have layers to them. Like Deepa’s collegemate who initially objects to Hari showing the video to the other boys. We get a sense of his social location as the film progresses.
Be it that character or the others, we didn’t make the motivations of these characters very clear on purpose. We don’t know the motivations of the board president who makes an important decision, for instance. We kept the motivations suspect because the moment you reveal it to the audience, the film loses its intrigue. The audience needs to keep guessing. That’s how it is in real life, too, because we don’t know the true motivations of people we meet. Keeping it that way makes the film closer to reality. We might also do a sequel for the film where we explore these motivations more.
There are no convenient heroes and villains in the film. It would have been easy to box someone as upper caste and therefore, evil, and someone else as Dalit and therefore, victim. Such rounded characters are very rare in mainstream cinema, which runs on a hero-villain narrative.
I’d say that even in parallel cinema, this has become rare. I think in parallel cinema, too, we need to draw a distinction between those who are genuinely trying to tell a story and others who just want to make films for festivals and awards. In the latter category, the hero and villain format is more common. There are, of course, several Bengali and Malayalam films that have rounded characters. I, personally, have learnt it from Iranian cinema.
The love between the young couple may look juvenile and foolish to an older viewer. But it's clear that they themselves believe in it – and it's only when Hari faces Deepa and utters a lie that her heart breaks despite all the transgressions earlier. What was your inspiration?
I honestly feel it’s a missed opportunity from my side. I didn’t think of it as a love story when I made the film. Within the drama between the rounded characters, all these elements came up, but the love story wasn’t intended. I feel I should have explored it a lot more. I should have turned it into something bigger.
Most of the film is shot in the college, the court, and the homes of the two protagonists. Though it plays out like a social drama, it also feels like a thriller because we don't know how things will pan out. What did the first draft of the script look like?
The first draft leaned more towards what’s happening with the families and less towards the college. That was a really bad draft! This script was written and rewritten anywhere between 50-100 times. I worked on it over a period of five to seven years. As I progressed with the writing, I felt there wasn’t enough conflict to keep an audience interested if I kept the story to the families. I also felt I must explore things that haven’t been done before. The college was more interesting for that. The legal elements weren’t part of the first draft.
I also considered bringing in politicians into the script, but then felt it would be cliched. The court and police aspects haven’t been explored in such a situation, so I took that route. It came after multiple drafts. My co-writer Anupama Hegde, who plays a judge in the film, is a High Court lawyer.
So, you must have had alternative endings too? I was grateful Deepa didn't end her life because that’s usually what happens in our films to women who explore their sexuality.
I actually did have a draft where she thinks about suicide (laughs). One of the drafts even had a religious conversion that takes place. In this draft, too, the original ending was in the car – when she returns from Hari’s home. But the feedback I got was that it was too abrupt. So, I decided to take it one step further and give the audience the sense that there is more to the story. That’s where the next case begins – the State Vs Deepa.
Tamil cinema has been witnessing an anti-caste wave for the past several years. Has that been an influence on your work? Would you say that has made it easier for other industries to also make films centred on caste?
I haven’t watched those films, to be honest. It is very rare for contemporary Kannada cinema to explore caste in a vocal way. In older films, particularly parallel films, it would be there, but it was very subtle. They wouldn’t spell out the identity of the people. I didn’t want to offend any particular community. I wanted to make caste a debate within the film, because then, even the CBFC cannot object to it.
When it comes to theatrical releases, I’d say that the Kannada audience isn’t so keen on cinema like the Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam audiences. It isn’t a must-do on their list. That hasn’t been a part of our culture. After the pandemic, people are even more reluctant to go to theatres. The numbers that people claim for their movies are exaggerated. That is the general trend.
A few big productions did make Kannada films for OTT in the past. But, those productions turned out to be really mediocre or worse. OTTs are at a loss when it comes to Kannada cinema. They have no idea what will work or not work with the audience. But I guess that will change. I know for a fact that when my film comes on OTT, I will promote other good Kannada films, too.