Cinephile and film critic Manu Chakravathy has termed the film Naandi and its director N Lakshminarayan as the ‘progenitor of the Kannada New Wave Cinema’ for the way it has picked up its social issue and the way it has shunned melodrama to look at the inner spaces of its character. Along with MV Krishnaswamy and SR Puttanna Kanagal, N Lakshminarayan is seen to have brought a certain amount of dignity to the creative role of the director in the Kannada film Industry.
What is Naandi about?
Getting right into the text, Naandi can roughly be divided into three parts. The first describes Murthy’s life with his first wife Nirmala. The second deals with Murthy as the widower and the third, describes his life with his second wife Ganga.
In the first part, a lot of screen time is given to the newly married blissful life of Murthy and Nirmala.
Similarly, considerable time is also given to Murthy’s commitment, zest and success in taking upon himself to set right an unruly group of students and teachers. Like most idealists in post independent India, as the song that he sings to his students in their study tour suggests, he too would believe that, by doing so, he would be engaging himself in the social service of nation building.
The second part is about how his commitment to this task is getting effected by his personal tragedy. And in the third, like in the first, considerable screen time is given to both his married life with Ganga and as well as to his social service work at the deaf and dumb school.
Normally what the film is about is directly related to how much screen time is given to what aspect of the film. So, is the film about how one young man reacts to the vagaries of the personal tragedies that affects his life and over comes them? Or is it about how one man involves himself in social service by running a deaf and dumb school? If you ask me, Naandi is about how one man overcomes the vagaries of his personal tragedies by getting himself deeply involved in a social cause that goes beyond him or his personal life.
But I won’t dwell upon what the message of the film Naandi is – enough has been written on it. What interests me is something else. It is a certain pattern in the film’s mise-en-scene – a pattern that is unobtrusive and subtle; and it really works, at least for me.
The first and the third segments of the film are quite similar in its plotting - in the sense that both sections deal with the life of a newly married couple till the birth of their child. At the macro level, the structure of the film is therefore circular in nature. I feel that this is the key to the aesthetics of Naandi. Patterns and motifs are introduced and are repeatedly brought back again and again in the film – be it in screenplay, or shot taking, or lighting, or the usage of properties, or even in music or any other micro level devices.
A Mid Long Shot of a child drawing a cat on the blackboard; another is fooling with him. Pan to the front bench. A few unruly kids are playing. Pan further to the rear. Near the window two kids are playing with a football. Tilt Down and Track. We see many unruly students and a kid sleeping on the desk. Tilt Up during the track to show the playing front benchers, yet again. Pan to the blackboard. The kid is still drawing, this time in long shot. Another announces the arrival of the teacher. The kids run back to their seats.
This is the opening shot of Naandi. The beginning and the end of the shot are almost similar – except for the image size. In a sense the design of this shot betrays the director’s preference for the circular motif used in various forms throughout the film. The beginning and the end look similar but there is a subtle difference. In fact, the first frame of the film, over which the credit titles appear, is a still of the last shot of the film - where the Murthy family is walking into the horizon.
There are other examples too - When Murthy is teaching, we see a few wide eyed kids listening to him. The camera slowly Pans to the other kids and goes to the other end of the class and stops. Just as we think the shot would end here, the camera Pans back in the same way, to go back to the first set of kids. And just as we think that the camera would halt now, there is a dissolve.
The camera zooms out from a monument. Murthy and a tourist guide walk down the steps. A colleague Sitaapati and the students are also revealed. Sitaapati moves towards the guide to ask for a loan, the camera zooms in again. As Murthy skillfully avoids the situation and takes the guide away from Sitaapati, the camera zooms out again.
Murthy enters Ganga’s house to be greeted by her father. As they sit, the camera tracks in and the image size increases. The father then comes towards the camera. The camera Pans with him to leave Murthy in the background. Ganga is revealed in the foreground. After a brief communication Ganga exits frame into the house and her father comes back to sit with Murthy. As he does so, the camera Pans back to the original composition.
The film is riddled with such not so obvious circular motifs not only in its shot takings, but elsewhere too – like there is a play with lights too. There were many shots in the film where the source of the light, normally an ordinary hanging bulb, is visible and artistically composed - the bulb being switched on or off.
For instance, Murthy hears the baby cry. From the well lit hall, he comes into its room, switches on the light. The foreground gets lit up. We see the cradle. He pacifies the child. Ganga is not there. From the well lit hall he goes away into the dark background and switches on the light. It is the kitchen where an overworked Ganga is sleeping. A few shots later, Murthy and Ganga are sleeping; the background is dark. The baby cries, Murthy wakes up Ganga, who goes into the dark background, switches the light to reveal the cradle and the child.
Then there is a play with certain actions too – like Murthy wearing and removing his coat when he gets ready to go to or comes back from school. It is the habit of Nirmala to give him or take off the coat. Later on when Nirmala is no more, Murthy has to do it all by himself. And then further into the film, Ganga does it for him. Yet again, when Ganga is saddened by the thought of the dead child, Murthy wears his coat all by himself without even informing her that he is going off to work. All this with not an iota of melodrama from the filmmaker – as a matter of fact approach.
Initially in the film, Murthy wears a ‘peta’, a traditional Mysore turban. But Nirmala who dislikes the ‘peta’ makes him wear a black cap to which Murthy readily agrees. Later on, when Ganga gives him the ‘peta’ he tells her that he wants the black hat and not the old fashioned ‘peta’. Later on in the school, oblivious to a lazy teacher, some naughty kids play with his ‘peta’.
Small little properties are used differently in various occasions… The Murthy household has a chair that has only three and a half legs. Only Murthy knows how to comfortably sit on it. He promises not to make any guest sit on it. Yet later on, a prospective father-in-law comes into his house, sits on it and becomes uncomfortable. Murthy’s friendly colleague, who by now also knows how to sit on the chair, saves the situation by sitting on it.
Or the tampura - Nirmala is fond of the musical instrument. It is established in an earlier sequence that she likes music and she used to sing. Murthy even makes her sing for him. Later on in the second half, when the deaf Ganga is wiping the dust of the unused tampura, she fingers the strings in curiosity and is thrilled to feel the resultant vibration.
The Murthy family’s relationship with music too undergoes such cyclic patterns. In the beginning of the film Murthy and Nirmala quite enjoy the music and the company of their neighbor Pranesha, the music playing ever talkative child. But in the middle part of the film, the same music becomes a nuisance to the now single parent Murthy when he can’t put his baby to sleep.
Earlier, a pregnant Nirmala is worried that the baby within her would grow up to be a musician listening to Pranesha’s music. She wants the child to be a doctor. Murthy would not mind it to be a singer. Later, Murthy sings a song to a pregnant Ganga, with an intention that the baby in the womb would become a musician. Ganga is sleeping during the song and even if she were not, she could not have heard the song.
Milk too plays an important motif in the film. The night Nirmala gets sick and vomits, a cat spills the milk in the kitchen. The next morning Nirmala goes to her friendly neighbor’s house to borrow some milk. It is there that she realizes that she might be pregnant. Later on after Nirmala’s death, Murthy has to be reminded by the friendly neighbor that the baby in his hands is crying because it needs milk. The milk is on the stove, over heating itself. The baby stops crying when it gets the bottle milk.
Normally, the film employs a simple single shot treatment, with a bit of camera track movements thrown in here and there. But there are also a few sequences where the conventional cutting of Long Shot, Mid Shot, Close Up and then back to Long Shot pattern is used. For example, such a pattern is seen in sequences where both the heroines are introduced, or in sequences that lead up to the songs, or in sequences that are longish in nature, or when there is no shooting space to use a track shot like in the Pranesha sequence or in the deaf & dumb school.
If an emphasis is needed or if the inner state of mind of the character needs to be dwelled upon, then too this pattern is used. Like the sequence where Murthy meets Nirmala for the last time, or when a prospective father-in-law rejects Murthy as a groom, or when Murthy teaches Ganga lip reading, or when Murthy confronts Ganga over the stolen jewelry, or when Ganga spends some time with the deaf and dumb children. Such sequences are infrequent, spreading themselves all through the film.
Dramatic fast cutting of the Russian kind is hardly used – three times in all; and all in the later part of the film. First, when Murthy decides to marry a deaf and dumb girl, then when the child dies in the fire accident and finally in the climax when an anxiety ridden Murthy goes back to his past during Ganga’s child delivery. Close Ups of rotating fans, hospital posters, close fisted hands, perspiring faces etc. play a role here.
Naandi is most vibrant in its song sequences. Unburdened by the lack of dialogues that the characters have to utter, it seems as if the camera and the character movements, the cuttings, the angles, the image size - the entire mise-en-scene suddenly gains a certain amount of variety and flexibility.
This flexibility is a necessity because except for two songs, all the rest of them were shot within the rigid confines of Murthy’s house – that too in a studio set. With no vast visual canvas to fall back upon, as is the case with the study tour song which was shot in the picturesque location in Nandi Hills, the director had no choice but to make the mise-en-scene vibrant.
There also seems to be a conscious effort to create a natural situation to the songs and blend them into the narration of the story. Like as a part of his post-married courtship, Murthy forces his talented wife to sing a song, or the neighbors sing the mandatory song during the ‘pregnancy ritual’ or the children sing and dance to a song played on long play record as they pacify the small child. The climax song is a stage performance.
Almost all the songs in the film have characters visually playing some of the instruments that were played in the background song. Murthy uses a pot as the ghatam, the ritual singers play the Veena and the children at the study tour as well as at the stage song play the bugle and the drums. When there is none, like when Murthy softly sings a song to his unborn child, the song itself has minimal instrumentalisation. It looks as if this is the director’s way to ‘naturalise’ the song situations in his cinema.
It also looks that there is an attempt to bring naturality in the acting. Actors in the film try and underplay their characters. It works well with those who have internalized their characters like with Vadiraj – the actor who plays the role of Pranesha. Even actors who believe in the physical method of acting, like believing that holding your head with your hands would depict stress, do not often take their acting to the level of high melodrama.
Naandi is the Murthy family’s story, but the peripheral characters also do get their due - the neighboring girl’s attachment towards Murthy’s child, Pranesha’s experiment with music and plants, the neighboring aunty donning the role of the mother, Murthy’s colleague’s unmarried status vis-à-vis the home food his brother misses, the teacher begging for money from all and sundry to feed his large family – small characters whom we could have also seen in our daily lives, enhancing the realistic feel that the film proposes to provide.
Some interesting patterns are recognizable to me within the body of the film Naandi. And they work for me. I would like to presume that they were probably the foundation upon which the film was constructed. Like the patterns of the musical notes followed by a singer, these patterns and motifs in the film have no meanings in themselves except that they are patterns that were possibly followed by the filmmaker.
When we look at a film we do look at the story, the characterization, the cultural connections and the social messages portrayed in the film. Can a film also be read in accordance with the cinematic patterns and motifs upon which it is created? If the film lends itself, can this approach also be one of the primary ways of looking at films?I believe it can.