The recently concluded 47th edition of the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) had a considerable Indian presence, which made my first trip to represent Jio MAMI with Star at the festival even more special. Nothing tugs at the strings of national pride more than a trip out of the country to a place where the world is competing or showcasing their artistic talent. You want your A-team there and you want to be batting for them louder than anyone. The icing on the cake was that except the creators in the special Tamil focus (House on Fire) at the festival, all the other four filmmakers at IFFR are Mumbai Film Festival alumni (Gurvinder Singh, Arun Karthick, Aditya Vikram Sengupta and Ere Gowda). The Indian piece at IFFR (led by Artistic Director Bero Beyer) was primarily curated by programmer Peter van Hoof and programme advisor Rada Sesic.
Icy winds and sheets of rain good enough to knock all the love for cinema out of you were the first to hit us in Rotterdam (my colleague Kalpana Nair was my partner in crime on this expedition). A shattered umbrella later, half wet, bundled up in heavy coats, mufflers, gloves and warmers, looking like space women, we entered De Doelen (the main festival hub) and within a few hours we were glowing in the warmth and intimacy that this festival has managed to retain despite the scale and scope of it. The place was buzzing without the fuss that comes with "buzzing".
We attacked meetings and screenings with renewed vigour. There was much to watch and many to chat with but the pièce de résistance for me was Ere Gowda's sparkling directorial debut Balekempa (It won the FIPRESCI Award at IFFR 2018). The story is set in the director's village in Karnataka with almost the entire cast consisting of non-professional actors (most from his family and villagers that he grew up around) except one, the female lead Bhagyashree. Reason being, the women in his village are extremely shy. The film has insight, humour and a subtlety that is borne out of the gaze of an insider.
Ere's characters are fascinating and flawed. His seemingly effortless telling of them lies in his deep understanding of both them and the craft. "Isn't that the purpose of stories? Of cinema?", he says when I ask him what he hopes Balekempa would do or accomplish. "Empathy, understanding and dignity above all is what I want for the people and the place where I come from. The people I have met in my life are my film school. They are my source material. I hardly watched cinema before I actively started working on films. My influences are my life and the people I meet. I am constantly studying people. I talk less. I mostly only listen and observe."
This is also the reason the screening theatre burst into applause and Ere was pelted with questions. His characters are honest and their lives lived in. The connect with the audience is instant and organic. It was a dream reception for a debut filmmaker who had stepped out of his country for the first time and landed straight at one of the most renowned film festivals in the world as part of the Bright Future section.
But what the film's first audience don't know is the story of grit and determination that Ere's own life is. Born into a farming family in small town Karnataka (Nodekopplu), dreams were a distant fantasy. Basic survival trumped everything. Ere had to cut short his education at the age of 16 because his mother was diagnosed with cancer. He immediately started working to pay the medical bills. Soon he left for Mysore to better his prospects. But the paltry salary of a security guard was not enough. Ere started picking up odd jobs in addition to the punishing hours he kept as a security guard.
From house help to working as a domestic help to plucking coconuts to loading and unloading material in transport vehicles, sleeping for a month in an ATM kiosk to save rent, Ere did anything and everything to send more money home. But his mother's health worsened.
In a desperate attempt to earn more he moved to an even bigger city, Bengaluru. By now he was 19 years old. The move to Bengaluru changed his life. A random visit to a film set ignited a fire in Ere to become a director. The physical experience of being on the set demystified the people working behind the scenes for him. He saw that they were just people like him. A dream began to take shape in Ere's mind and heart.
Empathy, understanding and dignity above all is what I want for the people and the place where I come from. The people I have met in my life are my film school – Ere Gowda
Meanwhile, the job he moved to Bangalore for was in a company owned by filmmaker Raam Reddy's (all of 11 years old then but would grow up to be his key collaborator on his first project as a writer) father. This is the place where Ere discovered computers. Google became his guru and Raam's mother Anita Reddy, an accidental mentor. Ere and Raam's friendship led to Raam's first film as director and Ere's first film as a writer, the critically acclaimed film festival favourite of 2015, Thithi.
Balekempa's journey began where Thithi's ended. A bad run with the initial producer of Balekempa and a dexterous rescue of the film by the joint creative force of producer Vivek Gomber, director Chaitanya Tamhane and music composer Naren Chandavarkar later, Balekempa started to get ready for its leap. As much a leap of faith as the journey of its indomitable director: Ere Gowda.
I hope Ere keeps telling compelling stories, finds fame and success on the road ahead. But most of all I hope he finds, for the people he wants to give a voice to, what he never got in the 21 years that he struggled to keep himself and his mother alive: Dignity.
Section: Bright Future
Balekempa (The Bangle Seller) / Ere Gowda / Bright Future
Jonaki / Aditya Vikram Sengupta / Bright Future
Ajji/ Devashish Makhija/Voices
Sub-section: House on Fire
Aviyal / Alphonse Putharen, Shameer Sultan, Mohit Mehra, Lokesh Kanagaraj, Guru Smaran
Cold Heart (Jigarthanda) / Karthik Subbaraj
Evil Engulfs (Soodhu Kavvum) / Nalan Kumarasamy
I Am God (Naan kadavul) / Bala
Metropolis (Maanagaram) / Lokesh Kanagaraj
Kodi / R.S. Durai Senthilkumar
Pisasu / Mysskin
Resurrection (Peranbu) / Raam
Ruthless Man (Polladhavan) / Vetri Maaran
Speak with Your Mouth Shut (Vaayai moodi pesavum) / Balaji Mohan
Section: Deep Focus
Such a Morning / Amar Kanwar
Qaim Deen by Gurvinder Singh
Hubert Bals Fund & BoostNL
Nasir by Arun Karthick