Attempts being made create a new genre called ‘slow cinema’ could well be unfair to very movies that are intended to be slotted as such. Notwithstanding the noble intentions of such attempts, they could as well delegitimise the individual existence of the movies in question. Let me explain how, by getting into some basics. Slow or fast is something that is related to speed, which itself is a rate of movement in time, while time is described as a ‘continued progress of existence’. Low rate of movement in time can be identified only if you first define what high speed in time is. Thus if certain movies are dubbed as ‘slow cinema’, it would always be in relation to a certain other set of movies whose continued progress of existence, if I may say so, are dubbed as ‘fast’. So, by its very nature, by creating an artificial genre called ‘slow cinema’, we could well be judging movies on the basis of what they are not rather than what they are; the judgment criteria existing beyond the text. I strongly suggest that we read and experience MS Prakash Babu’s début Kannada language feature film, Attihannu Mattu Kanaja (Fig Fruit and the Wasps, 2014) and its ‘continued being of existence’ on its own terms, rather than unduly applying a rate of speed.
Consider the first shot of the movie that is about a minute and a half long. It is dusk with all its contrast; we see a village landscape in a tele-photo lens shot by cameraperson HM Ramchandra, green on either side and a long road that divides the frame right at the middle. Mahavir Sabannavar’s sound design lets us hear the chirping of birds and there are a variety of them. From at the far distance, a car with its headlights switched on makes its way up the slope towards the camera as we faintly hear its engine noise. The road has a slight curve at what seems to be a small village consisting of a cluster of houses. As the car approaches the camera, its engine sound increases. It dips into the landscape where the camera does not see that portion of the road. Slowly, we hear the title music, composed by Shrikant Prabhu, on what is now a ‘carless’ landscape. The sound of the birds chirping is lowered. Suddenly, the car appears onto the frame climbing up from below the earlier dip that it had taken on the road, the music reaches a peak and the birds are now no longer heard. As the car crosses the frame the shot is ended by editor MN Swamy and the main title of the film appears. This is an intense shot conceived by the director, the dynamics of which is created by the interplay of a host of audio and visual factors. It is what it is, but hardly ‘slow’. Unless you compare it with a hypothetical situation wherein the sequence having the incoming car had many cuts in it to make it ‘fast’.
One of the criteria that people use to identify ‘slow cinema’ is that the shots used are lengthy and possibly everything within it is minimalistic. Prakash’s first shot, like many others that follow in the movie, is long for sure but a lot of things happen within it. It is a fallacy to assume that all long shots are slow by nature; the tension building opening shot of Orson Welle’s Touch of Evil (1958) being a case in point. The intense choreography between the characters and the camera movement that happens in this three and a half minute shot ensures that the perceived pace of the events unfolding on the screen is never slow. On the other hand, it is also not necessary that the movie be slow if the shots are of a shorter duration. The Odessa Steps massacre sequence in the Russian film, Battleship Potemkin (1925) by Sergei Eisenstein, has a group of protesters running down the steps fleeing away from the military. In reality it would probably take a minute or so of a ‘continued progress of existence’ for somebody to run down these steps. But this sequence that has been constructed by using many shorter duration shots runs into a little less than five minutes till the time the fleeing protestors reach the base of the steps. It would seem that the apparent perceived pace of the film, through the rapid editing has increased but in reality, the ‘time’ taken for the events to unfold within the film has been slowed down. What would probably have taken a minute in a ‘continued progression of existence’, now takes five on film. So isn’t it a futile exercise to create the genre of ‘slow cinema’ solely on the basis of the length of its shots?
Dusting off this rate of speed criteria would enable us to look at NFDC produced Attihannu Mattu Kanaja on the basis of its own individual ‘continued progress of existence’ or in other words, on its own terms. The movie has a documentary filmmaker, Gauri (co-producer Bhavani Prakash), and her associate, Vittal (Ranjit Bhaskaran), undertake a journey to a village in Karnataka to do some research on rural folk instruments. But as the relevant musicians are not around, they stay put in the village for a couple of days. During this time they are compelled to fit into the serene-but-strange rhythm of the village where what seems to be real might not just be so. The beauty of Attihannu Mattu Kanaja is that the this synopsis does not represent the film in totality. Frankly, any synopsis for this movie is just a formal need.
In Attihannu Mattu Kanaja, it takes about twenty minutes for the couple to drive into the village and settle down in the room that has been arranged for them by their contact there, the local school teacher, Basanna (Manjunath Belakere). In this seemingly long journey that sees dawn break into bright day light, the couple wade through the rural landscape taking the occasional breaks from the drive and inquiring with random people about their destination. In between, they make way for a group of armed people who are crossing the road under the cover of the dark. At another point, their car is almost engulfed by hay stacks that are enormously piled up on an incoming tractor as they cross it on a narrow dusty road. Although the couple do not speak much, we do realise the deep sense of worry that oozes out of them might well be a result of some sort of a troubled past. Yet, they are letting each other just ‘be’ themselves. As their car reaches their destination, we see the first signs of the ‘unreal’ when we see a group of eight to ten villagers strategically standing in the middle of the village square, placed specifically for the camera, having no purpose and doing nothing. You wonder why are they standing there in that strange manner. Of course, they do guide the protagonist to Basanna and that is their plot utility.
I strongly believe that the amount of screen time given to a particular aspect of a film betrays its intent. The next one hour of the movie is about the wait that the couple undergo in the village. As Gauri enters the room given to her and keeps her bag on the bed, there comes another element of the unreal, this time in the aural mode. The sound of the bag being kept on the bed is extenuated, it almost looks like some music is added to that bang. Before you can even wonder what this sudden jolt is all about, the narrative moves on in the hitherto conceived way. In the process of waiting, the couple hunt for a tea stall to sip tea, they smoke cigarettes while staring at the serene landscapes, they take some preparatory shots of the village for their documentary film, they walk through the village, at times watched by unknown characters and at other times engulfed by the smoke of the mosquito fog machine. And yes, they also observe a tree that bears the fig fruits. Gauri is about to eat one when Vittal warns her of the existence of worms inside. A villager sitting nearby, almost in an existentially philosophical mode, advises her not to examine the truth but just consume it. The filmmaker then cuts to an extreme close-up of the fig fruit. Some time later down the movie, it becomes clear to us that the relationship between Gauri and Vittal is that of a superior and an associate. Vittal has taken leave from his job in the city to be able to assist Gauri, exercising his own free will. Banking fully on this free will is Gauri, who otherwise keeps getting unexplained and connecting calls on her mobile. They probably expect nothing from each other. Yet during one night, Vittal hesitantly slips (or imagines so) into Gauri’s bed with a possible intent of making love. Gauri, as a matter of fact, moves away from the bed. Vittal then goes to sleep. My guess is that the two characters throughout the movie, and more so in this sequence, despite being a team, are letting each other ‘exist’ on their own terms.
It is during this one-hour middle portion of the movie that we are also introduced to the inner life of Basanna, who seems to be an efficient fixer of sorts. He is an understating utility man who provides us (and Gauri and Vittal) all the information that is needed and he even offers to takes the money for his services only after the completion of the job. He does have his other side too. Every night when he gets drunk, his teenage daughter takes care of him post his drunkenness much to the subtle dismay of his wife. He wife always seems to be working on the sewing machine, even at night thereby suggesting that she is doing so to probably supplement her family’s livelihood. The teenage girl has her own little world involving a kitten that has a bell tied to its neck. But Basanna and his family are still only a part of what exists in the movie. Among other things we also see boys playing around with cycle tyres, men sitting in front of their houses killing time, folk songs being faintly heard at random times, flies gathering around tea stalls, cigarettes being demanded from others as a matter of right and leaves of small plants gently folding on a slight touch.
Woven around these mundane existences are a few surreal elements that we first observed in the positioning of the group of men in the village square and the extenuated musical sound of the bang of the purse kept on the bed. As the movie progresses, the occurrence of such elements increases strategically. When Basanna comes to their room to pick Gauri and Vittal up after they have had a good rest from the long journey there comes one such element. This time it is obviously surreal in nature. A couple of bottles kept outside the house suddenly get draped in mud, with a musical bang. And then as Gauri, Vittal and Basanna move around in the village lanes, a plastic tumbler roles onto them almost following them by will. Basanna picks the mug and keeps it aside. Ten minutes later, when the couple are waiting and doing nothing but staring at the peaceful landscape, a wooden chair mysteriously floats away into the horizon as if carried away by the force of the howling wind. Soon, these elements of surrealism gets integrated into the narration itself.
In his foray into the village, Vittal meets a well-educated local named Sadashiva (Ravi Phoenix). By his own free will, he had once made a choice to return to his village to do farming but by then his father had sold off their land. He is now a frustrated poet and a subject of ridicule for the village. One night at the tea stall, Vittal too listens to his poetry. The very next morning, Vittal is told that Sadashiva has been missing from the village for the past three days; it puts him in a quandary. Did the poetry secession happen for real or is he being lied to? Later one morning when the couple are oversleeping, as if having adjusted themselves into the quintessential rhythm of the village, they are rudely woken up by the police. Sadashiva has been found dead and his body needs to be identified. Following this, Gauri decides to go back to the city, but Basanna convinces them that they need go to where the musicians are. The three of them are then seen travelling in the car for quite a distance. At one point they take a journey break, come out of the car and do nothing but look around. We then see a well furnished house, presumably in a city. Gauri packs her bags as she is having a tiff with her partner (Achyut Kumar). On her free will, she walks away from him. Gauri and Vittal make the journey to the village yet again in the wee hours of the morning. This time they are stopped by a few policemen who are doing some serious checking in a similar road where we had earlier seen some armed men. After they are allowed to pass, the couple arrive at the very house that we had earlier seen them stay. It is now locked. They wait, presumably for Basanna. We see a few slow motion shots of a young girl blissfully playing all alone amidst the serene landscape. In a surprise ending, it is revealed that the girl is actually Basanna’s teenage daughter. Earlier in the movie, we had seen similar shots. Once, when the identity of the girl was hidden. The second time, it is revealed that the girl is actually Gauri, who is seen wearing the same dress and playing in the same way as the teenage girl does.
Is there a connection between Basanna’s daughter and anything about Gauri’s past, as the similarity of the dresses worn by the two in the playing shots would seem to suggest? Did the events in the movie leading to Sadashiva’s death and the subsequent journey of the trio of Gauri, Vittal and Basanna happen or is it yet to occur? Or in other words when we see Gauri and Vittal sit before the locked house waiting for Basanna to arrive by the end of the movie, is the future ‘waiting’ to happen or is it that the present is ‘waiting’ for the future? The movie rightfully provides no answers. The two characters in the movie, on their own free will, have made certain choices available to them as they set out on a journey to find some sort of essence to their lives. They are waiting in the beginning of the movie. They are waiting throughout the duration of the movie. Having responsibly reached one stage of their journey, by the end of the movie they are still waiting. We, of course as an audience will have to start our own voyages to extract the essence of this journey that is experienced by the characters. And to do that, just as the characters are letting each other ‘be’ themselves, while watching it, we too will have to acknowledge the ‘continued progress of existence’ of Attihannu Mattu Kanaja by letting it ‘be’ as it is.