Director: Prithvi Konanur
Writers: Prithvi Konanur and Anupama Hegde
Cast: Sherlyn Bhosale, Neeraj Matthew, Rekha Kudligi
Available in: Theatres
Duration: 122 minutes
To term Prithvi Konanur a “serious filmmaker”, who makes serious social dramas, is perhaps a little reductive. His 2016 feature Railway Children, as the title suggests, follows a set of runaway children who take shelter in railway stations and are lured into a world of crime, drug abuse and whatnot. His follow-up feature Pinki Elli? (2020) talks about how a missing baby changes hands among a set of strangers from myriad walks of life, who each have a reason to commit a crime. His latest film Hadinelentu (English title being 'Seventeeners') is centred around a sex tape involving two college students and how it wreaks havoc in not just their lives but also in those of the parents, faculties, lawmakers, etc.
Would it be fair to call Konanur a “genre” filmmaker then? Railway Children has the makings of a gritty crime drama that boasts a few soft echoes of the Salim-Javed oeuvre. If you look closely, you will find an intricately drawn hyperlink narrative in Pinki Elli?, which keeps you hooked the entire time. And interestingly, it won’t be a reach to call Hadinelentu a ‘campus drama’ that unfolds slowly, but surely, like a mystery thriller of its own ilk.
But to categorise Prithvi Konanur in either of the two brackets would be extremely unfair. Sure, his films are serious in nature and tackle difficult subjects but they do not come to us seeking brownie points. Nor does he wish to make wishy-washy entertainers that misuse delicate ideas. You will definitely see his sensibilities being moulded by the doggedness of Iranian cinema or the liberation of Neo-realism, but what makes him a discerning filmmaker is that he (potentially) uses these influences only as tools to have tough conversations. There is no showing off here. His works, thereby, are born out of a balancing act between form and content (derived entirely from real life) and the result is a kind of cinema that is as engaging as cinema ought to be.
In Hadinelentu, a sex tape or an “MMS video” made by two pre-university college or 12th standard kids, Deepa (Sherlyn Bhosale) and Hari (Neeraj Matthew), gets leaked on the internet and before they know it, the “video” reaches the college principal. Respective parents/families are summoned and told about the scandal, but the word ‘sex’ is not uttered even once. A committee will be formed to decide the future of Deepa and Hari in the college, says the principal, hinting that things are not looking particularly bright for either. The two are suspended till then.
Konanur brings in a small footnote here - Hari is Brahmin and Deepa belongs to the Schedule Caste. Should things go sideways, the boy could be shipped off to Canada by his parents but Deepa, an under-18 national-level volleyball player, has nowhere to go. Her mother is a cook in a government school and quite possibly, she could end up doing just that.
Of course, the narrative then brings these stark social disparities to the fore and then gradually doubles down on the intensity. But that is not the film, per se. Prithvi Konanur is intensely probing at something prominent and we know what he is doing, what he wants to underline. And yet, we also gather that there is so much more to unravel and that the spotlight of this film isn’t only on the central idea of caste and gender-based discrimination. In fact, it has slowly been shifted onto how the characters, the microcosmic world of people and opinions, navigate this mess and only complicate it further through their individual prejudices. Yes, there is a “system” in place that is designed to be biased against Deepa and to help Hari squeeze out somehow. But Hadinelentu isn’t interested in making those broad-strokes judgments or simply laying all the onus on an abstract entity that all of us are part of. In turn, it wants to dig far deeper and therefore, gradually morphs itself to become a suspense-laden film that just keeps giving. And that subtle yet very, very significant switch in its point of view or intent is what makes this film work so well.
Fittingly, right on cue, the film starts to look like a tense human drama that is now firmly focused on its characters, as it forges on peeling layer after layer. It’s fascinating how Konanur and his co-writer Anupama Hegde relentlessly spring a series of bold suspense on us and yet maintain a sense of composure for the smaller moments. Almost every little detail in Hadinelentu is an effect of fierce juxtaposition. Deepa wants to be an international volleyball player and Hari, at one point, tells his father that he wants to be a sports statistician. But despite her being hailed as the best athlete in the college, it could very well be that he will have his desired career to his name and she does not. We also learn that Hari is an incredibly coddled child whereas Deepa, has gotten into physical fights with a few boys from her class in the past, because they teased her by saying she comes from the "slums". She is a fighter and he, in all likelihood, isn’t equipped to take on most ordeals of his life. Despite all this, there is an endearing bond (that the two refer to as ‘love’) that these two share that shines every now and then, without any effort. Neither of them regrets making that sex tape in the first place.
Hadinelentu is similarly respectful of each of its characters and even if it doesn’t dedicate a full-fledged scene or two to a handful of them, you still gather that there are well-defined personalities that exist there. Take the college sports coach, Abdul (played by Lakshmi Narayana). His impact on the film is remarkable but put together, he gets not more than 5 minutes in terms of screen time. Or the college vice-principal, Seetha (played by a superb Rekha Kudligi), who perhaps gets the biggest and best character arcs in the film. But at first, we do not see her being a valid component of this story. Every single actor in the cast — Bhavani Prakash, Lakshmi Murthy, Sudha Belawadi, Ravi Hebballi, Nagendra Shah, Sringeri Ramanna, Gunjalamma and even the group of college students — perfectly understands the pulse of this gripping drama/thriller.
Arjun Raja’s cinematography, which views the drama from such exciting vantage points, is another major highlight of Hadinelentu and so is Shivkumar Swamy’s editing. Prithvi Konanur, as the director, is in perfect sync with these two departments and even though his style isn't exactly noticeable, it adds a layer of simplicity that a film of this kind requires. For him, less is clearly more.
As already pointed out, Konanur might be a filmmaker who sets out to "raise important questions" through his cinema, but he doesn't condescend to us for taking up the task. Instead, he believes in making compelling stories out of everyday reality that almost all of us are intrinsically part of but aren't courageous enough to accept the fact. Maybe that is why none of the characters in his film could be classified as conventionally negative or positive. Hadinelentu, by all means, is one such statement.