As I wrote yesterday, one of the challenges of attending BIFF and making the most of your time there is being able to pick up on the buzz and then responding to it. Observing the festival remotely, it’s very difficult to pick up on any buzz, but early on I heard good things about the Indian movie Pedro, which was supposed to make its world premiere last year in the Cannes’ Directors Fortnight section, but didn’t since the whole festival was cancelled. Consequently, it’s making its debut at BIFF as part of the New Currents lineup. As befits the section, it is 26-year-old director Natesh Hegde’s first feature film, following two shorts that, according to him, cover similar stories and themes.
The titular character, played by Hegde’s father, is an electrician in a small village in Karnataka in western India. His reputation as a hard worker endears him to one of the local landowners who runs a large farm. He is also introduced early on as a doting father to a young boy, meticulously bathing him in a scene that practically glows with familial affection. Also living in the same small house is the boy’s mother, Julie, and Julie’s mother. The first hint of drama arrives at night, with the mad, drunken shoutings of a man outside their home, most of which is aimed at Julie. Eventually, we learn that this man is Pedro’s younger brother, Bastyava, who is actually Julie’s husband. However, due to his reckless drinking habit, she kicked him out and Pedro has taken his place.
The landowner, who allows Bastyava to bunk on his property, hires Pedro to patrol his land when his regular security guard dies suddenly. Pedro has never handled a gun, but he reluctantly takes the assignment since he needs the money for his family. His inexperience, combined with what seems to be a low sense of self-esteem, leads to a stupid mistake whose negative resonance in the village Pedro compounds through his stubborn resentments. In essence, he trades places with his brother as the village black sheep, a situation that the landowner and Pedro’s few friends try to remedy through negotiation and expiation, but Pedro is too far gone in his anger.
As a story, Pedro is a classic tragedy, except that the protagonist who is brought down by a fatal character flaw is not high-born. In fact, one of the film’s nagging mysteries is Pedro’s origin. When the villagers turn against him, they start referring to him as an “outsider,” and while the Western provenance of his given name sets him apart from others, it’s not clear from Hegde’s bare bones exposition what makes him different. In a phone conversation with the director two days after the sold-out world premiere of his movie, he told me that Pedro belongs to a lower caste and had been raised by Catholics, while the dominant culture in this part of India, which speaks the Kannada dialect, is Hindu. Pedro’s “mistake” was basically an affront to this culture, which is even worse to the villagers since they see him as being from “outside” that culture. Moreover, the authority in the village is split among the main landowner and various village leaders whose interests often conflict. There is no overriding and objective legal authority to mediate his situation, and thus he is at the mercy of the villagers’ random feelings toward him and responds with equally bitter scorn. The story’s spiraling contours are like something out of Steinbeck, where one bad decision leads to another in rapid succession until the whole world spins out of control. But Hegde’s fatalism is the quiet kind. Though the emotional violence is palpable, all physical violence takes place off screen, except for one instance when Bastyava encounters Julie alone and starts beating her for abandoning him.
Hegde says that the village depicted is an “extension” of the place where he grew up, and most of the actors are acquaintances. When he tells me he wanted to explore what makes people go to extremes under circumstances that don’t really call for it, I ask him if his actors understood this theme and whether they accepted and appreciated it. He says that he never explained motivation or the overarching idea of the film to any of the actors. He simply put them in specific situations and asked them to “be in those moments.” He doesn’t believe they thought much about what the movie was trying to say, even though they understood the plot. The result of this kind of open-ended direction is strangely precise, from the way he incorporates the lush natural setting into the film’s emotional tone, to those scenes where the naturalism of the characters overflow into new modes of expression that convey not only how these people feel, but how the village as a whole operates. It’s an incredibly organic film, which is probably why it strikes so many people as being mysterious when, in fact, it’s so everyday.
Hegde says he did not study film. He studied journalism, and his desire to make films started after he wrote and published some short stories. He saw Abbas Kiarostami’s Closeup and, realizing film was a more “intimate medium,” decided to transmute his talent for storytelling to a visual form. He also mentions as influences Bresson and Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose penchant for stationary cameras and long master takes are evident throughout Pedro. Having never studied film formally—when I ask him if he used storyboards, he laughs and says the script was only 30 pages—he approaches everything personally. His goal was to tell a story that people didn’t have to think too much about in a “landscape” that he knew like the back of his hand.