Director: Natesh Hegde
Cast: Gopal Hegde, Ramakrishna Bhat Dundi, Raj B Shetty
Uttara Kannada district is located in the central western region of Karnataka with a long coastline. The district is largely rural (over 70% as per 2011 census) and sparsely populated with a density of 140/sq km. The geographical conditions divide Uttara Kannada into two distinct parts—the coastal region and the densely forested interior region. The society here is an interesting mix of different languages (Kannada, Konkani, Urdu, Marathi), dialects and cultures. People from tribes such as Siddhis, Kunbis, Goulis and Sheeligas add to the diversity and have a significant presence in the forests of Uttara Kannada. The nearest urban centre for the people of the region is Hubballi. Although historically significant—earliest Kannada dynasty of Kadambas ruled from here—and dotted with beautiful landscapes, stories set in Uttara Kannada have rarely featured in Kannada cinema. Even more rare are stories from the non-coastal part of the district.
In this context, young writer director Natesh Hegde's debut feature Pedro, set in a village in interior Uttara Kannada, is a much-needed addition to Kannada cinema oeuvre. After a long wait, I finally got to watch Pedro at a special screening organised by the film crew.
Being a native of the region, it is not surprising that Natesh prominently features the local signifiers—the incessant rain, the undulating but empty roads and the verdant landscapes. Amidst this imposing geography unfolds the story of Pedro—a skilled electrician who lives with his mother and younger brother's wife Julie and son Vinnu as a tenant on the farms of an upper caste landlord—one Mr Hegde. Pedro's alcoholic younger brother Bastyav also works on Hegde's estate but is outcast from the family. When the landlord asks Pedro to take up the job of guarding the entire estate, he proudly tells his Boss Rajanna of this promotion ahead of his younger brother. But the joy does not last long; Pedro's attempts to shoot and kill the wild boar wreaking havoc on the estate results in him inadvertently shooting down his own pet dog, and more dangerously, a holy cow. Scared of repercussions, Pedro flees the village. This event leads to unravelling of all sorts of intrigues as we learn about Hegde's history with Pedro's family, and while these complicated truths of the feudal life on Hedge's estate are being revealed, the violent right wing forces of the village, led by Dattu (a migrant to the region), are getting restless to punish Pedro. This simmering situation builds up to a tragic climax completing an indictment of the violence perpetrated by various forces—feudal, familial and socio-political—present in this seemingly bucolic environment.
Interestingly, Pedro's characters and narrative can lend to multiple readings. At the surface level, the landlord Hegde's feudal powers and Dattu's unprovoked violent streak in the name of religion are representative of the oppressive powers that have continued to cause relentless harm to the lower caste and lower class people in our society, but a deeper reading of the plot might raise the question of an uncomfortable gaze of the privileged—Pedro and his brother both are portrayed as drunkards and outcast; Bastyav does not show any hesitation when asked to betray his brother; Julie also does not think twice before relaying information to Hegde; and the mother seems content to outcast the sons at the behest of others. Pedro's eventual fate could be read as a doing of his own kind. Of course, these characterisations could be a reflection of reality but the question is, could the filmmaker have exercised his artistic agency? There are moments of Pedro's resilience like his beating of Dattu during the Ganesh festival and the brilliantly filmed sequence during the idol immersion in the pond, but when it comes to being betrayed by his own, Pedro loses his balance and turns to the bottle for relief. At the very core of it, Pedro is the story of the powerful using the mutual jealousies and insecurities of the poor to inflict violence on their own and maintain the age old power hierarchies.
Natesh resists the temptation to over-dramatize and chooses to let the pace and rhythm of village life dictate the temporal quality of the narrative. This leads to long takes focussing on details such as Pedro giving his nephew a bath and in turn allowing us to interpret relationships through such mundane actions.
Sometimes the same long take is used to build tension as in the sequence in the local drinking shack where Bastyav loses his temper. While the static camera provides a detached observer view of the story unfolding, there are the intimate tracking shots which frantically follow a character's movement letting us anticipate the mental state and the foreboding action. Vikas Urs' stunning frames of Pedro's quiet brooding face reveal more about his character than the words he speaks and action he performs. Innovative camera work is aided by brilliant atmospheric sound design—marked by the electric humming, the night noise of the crickets, the sudden surprise of a gunshot and most importantly the silence—effectively evoke a sense of desolation in the life in this rural setting. The same imagery of rain, endless green fields, tall trees and the electric poles, which at the beginning of the film seem pleasant and welcoming, turn into a threatening landscape as the narrative progresses. Natesh's clever screenplay allows each character to emerge at the right times leading to a gripping narrative. Refreshingly, he relies on the visuals rather than the dialogues to reveal the intricate complexities of relationships, dilemmas of characters, power equations and the unbearable tension engulfing the setting.
It is admirable that the young director chose mostly untrained actors—Natesh's real life father (Gopal Hegde) plays Pedro—except for Raj B Shetty (Dattu) and Medini Kelamane (Julie) to play these complicated characters and deliver a thoroughly engaging film.
Pedro is a breath of fresh air amidst what looks like an assembly line of foreign cinema inspired thrillers in Kannada indie cinema. More importantly, it reminds us without explicitly preaching, that even after 75 years of independence, the rural state machinery is at the beck and call of the powerful, and that ordinary poor lives are being casually dispensed in the name of religion.
(The movie was made in 2021 and has been a part of festival circuit winning laurels at Busan International Film Festival and BFI London film festival. The film was part of the Work in progress section of the NFDC film bazaar in 2019 and also won the Prasad Lab DI award.)