Harshad Nalawade’s Follower (2023) provides an insightful glance into how conservatism and disagreement derail strong bonds between people. The film depicts a reliable relationship between three characters until a turning point breaks it all apart. By truthfully showing the current political atmosphere in India, Nalawade’s work unveils how public debate is steered by sharing and skewing facts on social media. Nothing in his portrayal feels debatable; rather, it seems genuine and nuanced. Nalawade believes that social media can serve as a propaganda weapon and disseminator of falsehoods and disinformation. At a time when authoritarian rulers are easily offended when citizens exercise their right to free expression, it is a courageous act to be able to do so with such objectivity.
I recently had a conversation with Nalawade about the various creative choices that went into the making of such an informed and gutsy film.
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Dipankar Sarkar: How did the years spent at the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication in Pune help you pursue a career in filmmaking?
Harshad Nalawade: Before Symbiosis, I was not exposed to international cinema. Living in a small town, the only films that were available to me were the mainstream Indian films. In fact, the only international filmmaker I knew about was Steven Spielberg. But my college introduced me to world cinema and also some of the parallel Indian films, which really shaped my approach to stories.
DS: You made a few short films before making your debut as a feature filmmaker. How did it help you sharpen your skill as a director?
HN: Short films are the best way to improve your craft. It is the best way to practice your direction skills. You tend to experiment with different kinds of stories and storytelling techniques, and that eventually helps you find your original voice. Finding your voice is very important if you want to be a filmmaker. You also learn a lot about editing your story. In a short format, you have to be very economical about how you write your story. So when it comes to features, you will be able to approach your script with that kind of clarity.
DS: Follower is a complex and subtle story about a propagandized youth from a marginalized community who gets embroiled in a world infected with hatred and anchored by misinformation. What inspired you to make a film on such a subject?
HN: So, coming from a linguistically marginalized community in Belgaum, I was always on the fence about what my opinions were regarding the demands of my community. I wanted to understand why people latch onto causes so strongly and are not ready to accept any other point of view that challenges their narrative. But it wasn’t just about my city or community; it was also about how the majority of the country placed its complete trust in one populist leader. Any criticism of him is met with a harsh response. I wanted to understand their unconditional belief.
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DS: The death of an important character acts as a trigger point in both your short film A Return Gift (2017) and your feature film Follower. What is the particular reason behind such a narrative device?
HN: Death is inevitable, and yet we are never ready to accept it. When my characters experience the death of a loved one, it shakes them and changes something inside them. But does it have to be something as extreme as death to bring about that change? I think that is the question I am trying to address through my characters.
DS: Raghu is a Marathi, Sachin is a Kannadiga and Parveen is a Muslim woman. What was the purpose behind providing different linguistic identities to the friends?
HN: Because the film is about conflict between communities, I wanted my characters to represent those communities and see the world through their eyes.
DS: Raghu joins the radical online news portal Sanyukata Vaani and considers it to be a noble profession that serves the interests of his Marathi community. Throughout the film, he experiences various phases of psychological turmoil and discriminatory behavior in his life. Has such a bitter experience robbed him of the senses to blur the line between journalism and hate-mongering?
HN: Yes. Raghu’s vulnerability and insecurities were exploited by hate-mongering people. That is how many of us become victims of hate politics. And at our lowest point, when we aren’t thinking straight, we can fall for anyone who provides us comfort.
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DS: On the other hand, at the restaurant, when Sachin is not served the food item of his choice by the waiter due to religious reasons, he transforms into a quarrelsome person. He threatens the helpless waiter and insults Raghu. Does such behavior stem from his awareness of belonging to the majority community as well as his privileged upbringing?
HN: I think that behavior stems from a general culture of wokeness that has now surrounded us. Sachin has progressive ideas, but being militant about them makes the situation worse. It polarizes people more. Raghu goes to one extreme, while Sachin goes to the other.
DS: Parveen is an independent woman and a single mother. She is a divorcee and does not entertain unnecessary sympathetic and patronizing behavior. At the same time, she also becomes the subject of discord between Raghu and Sachin. But unlike her two friends, we never find her alone with herself for the entire length of the film. Why is it so?
HN: This was due to an editing decision we made in which we cut out some scenes involving Parveen and Sachin. We wanted the story to just focus on Raghu.
DS: Besides this, were there any other changes in the structure of the film during the edit?
HN: We did restructure a little bit according to the feedback we got and that helped our narrative a lot. During the editing process, there was a lot of writing. After all, editing is a form of writing as well.
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DS: The polarizing speeches of demagogue political leader Atul Deshmukh can only be heard on television and mobile screens. We never watch him spew venom in a public meeting or meet him in person. What were you trying to symbolically denote with this character?
HN: We are now living in times where spreading hate in any media is common, and hence Raghu is watching the leader only through TV, where he is using that media to just spread his narrative. If Raghu were to meet the leader personally, he would have been introduced to other characteristics of the leader as well. For example, there is a populist leader who is famous for spreading hate towards other communities. But personally, he is a big fan of writer and comedian P.L. Deshpande. There is no chance that someone who loves the work of such an artist will believe in hate.
DS: Similarly, Raghu’s NRI brother, Rakesh (Ankit Joshi), also makes his presence felt in the family through a laptop screen over video calls.
HN: This was only because he was living abroad. Video calls were the only way we could incorporate his character. Also, it helped us maintain an indifferent relationship between Raghu and his brother.
DS: What was your process of casting the actors for the film?
HN: I wanted to cast local actors who could speak Kannada and Marathi fluently and with the appropriate accent. So, we auditioned a lot and met many people. There is also a theatre scene going on in Belgaum, and we got many of our actors from there. I found my lead actor near my house. I had known him since my childhood as a very good dancer who performed at our local Ganpati festival. He was a great performer. But this role demanded a very nuanced kind of performance. Raghu — his real name — gave an audition, and he absolutely killed it. He made the character much more interesting.
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DS: Since you played Sachin in the film, did you face any difficulties in juggling the roles of actor and director?
HN: Because Raghu and I had rehearsed the scenes so many times, it was easier for me to concentrate on the direction on set while acting the scenes.
DS: Some scenes in the film are shot from various angles, while others are staged with the camera kept in a static position. What sort of decisions led to these choices?
HN: The camera always reflected the character’s mental state. So, we use different kinds of shot techniques to portray different moods of the character.
DS: The film is layered mostly with ambient sounds, and in some of the scenes, background score has been used to evoke our emotions. What sort of sound design did you have in mind for the film?
HN: We decided to have two different kinds of mood for the sound in the film. The first half has more drone sounds, and the score is very aggressive. But in the second half, we took out the drones from the score and had a very simple composition with a melody. This was done to portray the character’s two different personalities in both halves.
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DS: How did the film benefit from participating at the NFDC Film Bazaar?
HN: NFDC Film Bazaar helps garner the attention of festival programmers and sales agents around the world. That is something very important in a country where at least 200–300 independent films get made every year and many get lost in the crowd. Film Bazaar helps us get noticed.
DS: How did HumaraMovie come on board to be a part of the film?
HN: We made a rough edit of the film and started showing it to people. During this period, Vinay Mishra from HumaraMovie saw that rough cut. He instantly related to the film and decided to fund the rest of the film.
DS: Follower is your debut feature film, and it had its world premiere at the 52nd International Film Festival of Rotterdam. How do you feel about it?
HN: I can’t really put it in words. Being selected at such a prestigious film festival was a huge boost to our confidence. We were happy that our film would finally find an audience. And that wish exceeded our expectations too. Two out of three shows were 90 percent full, and our last show was sold out! So, it was very rewarding.
DS: What is your plan for the release of the film?
HN: We want to try for a limited release in theaters and are also hoping for an OTT release.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.
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Categories: 2020s, 2023 Interviews, Drama, Featured
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