Marriage and death are two diametrically opposite facets of life. While the former symbolizes the communion of lives, the latter signifies the culmination of life. Some would argue that marriage leads to the death of life (pun intended)! However, when it comes to death ceremonies in some parts of India, it becomes difficult to differentiate between them and marriage ceremonies. With some death ceremonies being so grand; having guests running into thousands and the best of cuisines, they sometimes eclipse the grandeur of many marriage functions! Though it appears a noble thought to celebrate the death of a well-lived life and bid adieu to the soul in style, the reality however can be a lot murkier. Like in marriages, the societal pressure to have a grand 'funeral party' plays mental havoc with many families.
In the 2018 Malayalam film Ee.Ma.Yau., a son's desperate attempts to cremate his dead father in the grandest way possible is met with chaos and frustration, making him lose his mental balance in the end. Things do not go to that extreme in the 2016 Kannada film Thithi in which the impending post-death function of the deceased centenarian merely forms the background story. The film spotlights the lives of the dead Century Gowda's son, grandson, and great-grandson, from the time of his passing away until his 'thithi' (11th-day ceremony after death). None of them are emotionally affected by the passing away of the old man nor are the villagers. Century Gowda seemed to have outstayed his welcome on the planet.
The only family member concerned by Century Gowda's death is his grandson Thamanna and that too purely for financial reasons. He wishes to sell the five-acre land that his father has inherited after Century Gowda's death. Gadappa (literally, Bearded Man), the father of Thamanna and eldest son of Century Gowda, is a free-spirited old man who lives from moment to moment. He wanders around the fields all day without a care in the world, drinking 'Tiger' brandy, smoking 'beedis', and engaging children in a self-invented marble game of tiger-sheep. Gadappa is the most interesting and unique character in the film whose detached 'I don't give a damn' attitude irks Thamanna, who is unable to coax his father into transferring the land in his name. On learning that the only way to sell off the land is to produce a death certificate of his living father, he persuades Gadappa to leave their village of Nodekoppalu for at least six months and lie low with the money given to him. The maverick Gadappa gets down from the bus he had boarded at the sight of the nearest liquor shop. He buys his brandy and roams around, eventually encountering a nomadic tribe of shepherds who have temporarily settled in the area neighbouring Nodekoppalu to graze their sheep. Gadappa joins them and becomes part of their group, even throwing them a chicken and alcohol party with his money.
In one of my favorite scenes in the film, Gadappa narrates a chilling and shocking personal story to the group of gypsies with absolutely no emotion on his face. We later learn that it was a joke pulled by him! Thithi's screenplay is periodically interspersed with dry and dark humour coming from different characters, infusing liveliness into the atmosphere of the village. While distributing funeral invitation cards to each home, one villager jokes with Century Gowda's great-grandson Abhi that Century Gowda was a playboy and had more women than he could count! Abhi has surely inherited these genes from his great-grandpa. He is a horny adolescent besotted with a girl who belongs to the group of touring gypsies. He relentlessly pursues her and makes her fall for him without realizing that his grandfather Gadappa has joined the gypsy group.
All these sub-plots converge towards the end of the film at the 'thithi' of Century Gowda for which guests have come in huge numbers from neighbouring villages. The incentive for most of them to attend the funeral ceremony/celebration is the lamb meat that will be served. The astrologer had advised Thamanna to invite a minimum of 500 guests and being from the Gowda caste, they are supposed to offer meat to the guests. Thithi maintains its grounded and realistic tone even through the climax without going for a bang or crescendo, akin to the zen-like state of its enigmatic protagonist, Gadappa.
With this gem of a debut feature, director Raam Reddy has created one of the best Indian films of this century. At the 68th Locarno International Film Festival, Thithi won the Golden Leopard in the Filmmakers of the Present category, as well as the First Feature award. Small-budget films like Thithi and C/o Kancharapalem serve as reminders to budget-hungry mediocre filmmakers that it is the content of a film that makes it truly world-class and not the lavish production values. Satyajit Ray proved this with his deeply-rooted Indian films made on tiny budgets that are reckoned among the best films ever made. With more new-age filmmakers churning out stories from the heartland of India, especially from the regional languages, can we hope for another renaissance era in Indian cinema? I certainly believe so!