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October 12, 1999


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End of innocence

M D Riti

Deviri Yellaru galaate maadi (All of you make noise)," commanded the kurta-pyjama-clad cameraman standing on the teacher's dais. Twenty-five small boys sitting in front of him were only too happy to oblige, breaking into delighted chatter and playful bouts of fisticuffs.

The slender young woman dressed in jeans, t-shirt and sneakers, standing on a corner of the platform, gestured with her hand, and a small, neatly dressed little boy got up from their midst, his head bent low, and ran out quietly from the back, seemingly unnoticed by all.

"Our boys must be wishing school was really like this," remarked an amused real-life teacher at the Government Middle School in Basavanagudi. "I am sure they will now fantasise about the day when they will be actively encouraged to make a noise without getting caned, or allowed to play truant without facing severe consequences!"

The classroom in question, and its usual incumbents, had been taken over for the day by the cast and crew of the Kannada movie Deviri.

"Do you want to meet our hero?" asked director and co-producer Kavitha Lankesh, the woman in sneakers and jeans. "Ley, Manja, baaro illi... (Hey, Manja, come here)."

The boy who surfaced from the middle of a jostling group of schoolboys looked neither like a film star, nor like the former street child that he really was. Kavitha gave him an affectionate hug, and let her arm lie around his shoulders as she introduced him to me as Manjunath, the main protagonist in her first full-length feature film.

Actually, Deviri is the name of Manja's elder sister, played by Nandita Das of Earth and Fire fame, in this film. This movie is based on a novella by Kavitha's father Paalyada Lankesh, the famous Kannada firebrand journalist, writer, poet, film-maker and playwright. The original story was titled Akka (elder sister). However, Kavitha, who is Lankesh's younger daughter, decided to call the film by the name of that character in the story instead.

Deviri The story actually gives you glimpses of life as seen through the eyes of a young boy Kyaatha, who lives in a slum in Bangalore with his elder sister, whom he adores.

The girl in question, Deviri, is actually a prostitute, but the boy does not know that. He only wonders about her strange calling, which requires her to dress up in style and go out at odd hours, apart from entertaining strange male visitors in their cramped abode.

The film is not going to be a Malgudi Days kind of feel-good film that just picturises the antics of a bunch of naughty schoolboys. Instead, it takes a serious look at all kinds of unpleasantness in the life of a small, poor boy, and at how he keeps trying to escape from one, only to get trapped in another.

Kavitha, whom Lankesh always used to refer to as his 'baby,' has made a few corporate films as well as documentaries so far. She has run an advertising agency Adrenalin, located above the editorial offices of her papa's popular and famous Kannada weekly, Lankesh Patrike, in the heart of Gandhibazaar in Bangalore, for over a dozen years now.

The best known of her six documentaries is one called Sthree Srushti, featuring six contemporary women including theatre personality and film-maker Prema Karanth, modern dancer and dance therapist Tripura Kashyap, actress and politician Jayanthi and writer Vaidehi.

Six months ago, Kavitha was talking to old friend Bharathi Gowda, a former journalist from Bangalore now working in Abu Dhabi, who had come down to India for a vacation. The two women suddenly decided to live out a longstanding dream to make a feature film.

Kavitha promised to do the slog work and send Bharathi at least two story proposals by summer, and she did just that. She says that Lankesh's story was one of the two choices by sheer coincidence.

The twosome decided to opt for the novella Akka, and roped in two more friends (as co-producers and financiers) -- namely, a former television announcer called Arathi Gadsali, now a home-maker in the US, and Hanumantha Reddy, a former Patrike journalist now studying environmental engineering in the US.

Kavitha, who had scripted the film, would also direct it, while Bharathi would help her handle the production. Their first task was to identify the boy who would play the male lead.

Kavitha began by viewing a couple of child movie actors, and found them entirely too artificial. So she moved on to small boys who had acted in plays, and found they tended to overact. "All these kids would mimic either comedian-hero Jaggesh, or action-hero Shivaraj Kumar, if I asked them to audition for me," says Kavitha. "They seemed to have lost the ability to emote spontaneously or behave normally."

So she moved on to the orphanages, but discovered that the children there were listless, submissive and simply lacked the joyousness and zest for life that her character needed to have.

That was when she first thought of street children. Her foray into the Bosco shelter for street boys in Gandhinagar again was a washout as the boys seemed far too rough and boisterous to suit her purpose, because they were all actually street-dwellers who just spent some time at the shelter every day.

Then, she found the shelter run by the same group of missionaries in Chamrajpet, which is a full-time residence for boys who have been taken off the streets. It was here, after trying out various little boys, that she finally zeroed in on Manja, as Manjunath is known.

Once she decided on him, she gave him a short term, intensive training in acting by a few chosen theatre artistes and teachers. When he was finally ready to be filmed, Kavitha found herself in for a particularly pleasant surprise. "The best method acting in the entire film finally is his," she says gladly now.

Kavitha with P Lankesh Once she had signed up Manja, Kavitha was left with the next task of fixing up an actress to play the title role of Deviri. "Since I was working with one new talent, namely Manja, I wanted a seasoned actress to play Deviri," she says. "But most of the popular commercial movie actresses that I considered were too expensive."

Then she thought of Nandita Das, who she knew had a reputation of wanting to do good movies, even if they did not pay too well. So she approached Nandita, who promptly accepted, although she does not know Kannada.

"We sent her tapes with the dialogues she was to speak," adds Kavitha. "We also gave her the lines written in Devanagiri script. I think we have her lip-synch just right."

But will a local artiste dub for Nandita, then? "Actually, her voice is so much like mine that she asked me to dub for her. I am not too keen to do that, though. I still want to see if I can make her speak the lines herself," she says. Manja too will dub for himself as Kavitha feels that he has a very distinctive voice that should be utilised fully.

The cast also has a new but already popular actress Bhavana, whose recent film Chandramukhi Pranasakhi was quite a hit, popular television and film character actor Vijayakashi, thespian and actress par excellence B Jayashree and several well-known faces from the Bangalore stage.

Both Kavitha and Bharathi are reluctant to discuss the budget of the film, and will only concede that it is "very low." Do they, then, visualise a commercial release or are they just targeting the film festival and award circuit? "I must finish shooting it before I plan what to do with it," laughs Kavitha. "I would like most to release it locally in the theatres, and my only serious goal is to reach the mainstream Kannada movie audience with it."

Happily for Kavitha, Nandita and Manja appear to have hit it off well together, and the ease of their off-screen interaction translates very well into the on-screen bond between brother and sister. The enterprise also has ace cinematographer S G Ramachandra, who handled the camera for her father's first film, Pallavi some decades ago.

V Manohar, who is the most "happening" music man in Kannada cinema just now, has scored the music for this film. There are three songs, penned by Lankesh himself. Kavitha has opted for new singers, including a little girl called Archana. She has received enquiries for the music rights of the film, but is yet to take up any of them.

On location Good music, a strong storyline and excellent production values should, Kavitha hopes, carry her film through the box office. This film, being shot in 35mm, will be two hours and 15 minutes long. The film is being shot entirely in Bangalore, and quite coincidentally in those parts of the city -- like Gandhibazaar -- which Kavitha herself is most familiar with.

The film is certainly bound to leave all its participants richer in experience, if not heavier in the pocket. But what will it do to Manja himself? "It would be silly of me to pretend that his life will not have changed at all because he acted in a film," says Kavitha. "I can only hope that it has changed for the better. My only fear in signing him on for this project was that the experience should have no long-term bad effect on him. I think I have certainly achieved that."

Manja himself, who was just off to Tumkur to mourn the death of his real-life mother, adds with child-like optimism, "I hope some really good film directors see my film and give me a break in cinema after I grow up. But for now, I will continue trying to study to improve myself."

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