This Article is From Feb 02, 2023

Follower Review: Insightful Film Maps A Socio-Political Landscape That Breeds Unthinking Intolerance

Follower Review: The sure-handed independent film foregrounds the fissures between Belgaum's main linguistic groups.

Follower Review: Insightful Film Maps A Socio-Political Landscape That Breeds Unthinking Intolerance

A still from Follower.

Cast: Raghu Prakash, Donna Munshi, Harshad Nalawade and Hrishikesh Sanglikar

Director: Harshad Nalawade

Rating: Four stars (out of 5)

Writer-director Harshad Nalawade sets his debut film, Follower, in the battleground that is his hometown. Belgaum, located in Karnataka, is a Marathi majority city that has been the cause of a decades-long dispute between two states and communities.

The sure-handed independent film foregrounds the fissures between Belgaum's main linguistic groups. The divide is seen from the standpoint of a Marathi-speaking lad buffeted by a sense of being discriminated against and deprived of what should rightfully be his.

The young man, a journalist with an online media platform that is in the business of amplifying a community's anger, draws inspiration from the incendiary speeches of a demagogue who exhorts his followers to unite and fight.

Follower premiered this week at the 52nd International Film Festival of Rotterdam. Playing as part of the festival's Focus: The Shape of Things to Come? section, the insightful film maps a socio-political landscape that breeds unthinking intolerance and the otherization of a language and its speakers.

A sensitive and subdued drama that examines the cumulative factors that drive Raghvendra 'Raghu' Pawar (debutant Raghu Prakash) into the arms of a nativistic outfit that believes that Marathi speakers are being treated as second-class citizens in a city that belongs to them. It seeks to inflame passions against the people and government of Karnataka.

Raghu, facing a slew of emotional and work-related challenges that worsen with each passing day, becomes a social media warrior committed to whipping up ire at the injustice allegedly meted out to his people. He broods and bristles and is weighed down by a life that isn't going anywhere.

Raghu has an engineering degree but runs a gift shop. A prisoner of his own frustrations, he blames his misfortunes as much on his family - his widowed mother and an NRI brother as on the Kannada-speaking denizens of Belgaum.

Raghu is friends with Sachin (played by the director himself), a YouTuber who runs a campaign against a new Marathi leader who incites his flock to fight against discrimination, and Parveen Mujawar (Donna Munshi), a school teacher and single mother who often bears the brunt of Raghu's bursts of apparent unreason.

The film opens with Raghu in police custody. It then goes back a month and thereafter a whole year to throw light on the circumstances that have led to the protagonist's gradual descent into rage and despair.

At one level, Follower is about three friends - one of them is a tough-as-nails woman who knows exactly what she wants out of life and expects no quarters from anybody at all - trapped in a polarised atmosphere that repeatedly puts their camaraderie to the test.

The three represent the diversity of Belgaum in terms of social background and linguistic affiliations. Raghu is a middle-class boy, Sachin belongs to a more affluent class and Parveen is a Muslim woman who has rid herself of an abusive husband and moved on.

The film is also about the rabble-rousing leader (Atul Deshmukh, who is seen only on computer and mobile screens) out to exploit the disaffection of the city's Marathi speakers for his own political ends.

Most important, Follower, with its microcosmic tale of the personal fallout of divisive politics, probes the culture of hate-mongering increasingly being fuelled by hyper-ventilating politicians and their troll armies and lynch mobs.

Besides showing up a politician who spews venom without let and a young man who gets swayed by the rhetoric, Follower delves into the many social and linguistic faultlines that make it easy for scouts to find recruits for their troll farms.

Nalawade, who plays the Kannadiga character who is willy-nilly responsible for pushing Raghu over the edge, does not point a finger either at Raghu's proclivities or at Sachin's obduracy in the face of provocations. What the director does instead is dwell upon the reasons that make the protagonist easy meat for zealots looking for unquestioning foot soldiers.

Raghu's mother wants him to wed and settle down. His part-time job and the gift shop (taken on rent from a Kannadiga) does not fetch him enough money for him to contemplate marriage. He does not see eye to eye with is elder brother, who is comfortably ensconced in the US.

Left to fend for himself, Raghu finds what he thinks is a way out of the trough. As it transpires, it is only a shortcut to a dead-end guarded by a group that thrives on enlisting blind followers.

With director of photography Saket Gyani, Nalawade orchestrates uninterrupted verbal exchanges between the characters and films them with a static camera that is, more often than not, trained on Raghu, who is either agitated, confused or on the back foot and spoiling for a fight.

Not only does this kind of non-intrusive staging suggest the character's growing alienation and the continuing contraction of his worldview but it also points towards the fact that he is being pushed to the wall unbeknownst to him.

Raghu is drawn into many confrontations in the course of the 100-minute film. Each one of them gives the audience a glimpse into how his mind works. A girl he visits with a marriage proposal ticks him off: "Does a majority entitle you to power?" Raghu is stumped but not thrown off enough to change his thinking.

On another occasion, he gets into an altercation with the independent-minded Parveen. The reason: he is unable to see beyond his nose and presumes that he needs to play saviour to her. Without being overtly disdainful, Follower lays bare Raghu's innate awkwardness in the matter of dealing with women. Not that he feels that women are pushovers, but he does tie himself up in knots around them.

Raghu isn't a bad sort. It is just that he isn't sorted and is vulnerable to manipulation. That explains in part why he does what he does. But the film does not proffer simple, pat explanations. With all the volatility in his life, family and environs, Raghu is prone to flying off the handle, even with his best pal Sachin.

One of the defining aspects of Follower is the multiplicity of languages on the soundtrack. The characters speak Marathi, Kannada, Hindi (with a distinct lilt and phonetic slant anchored in the Belagavi soil) and English, creating a fascinating melange of tongues that flow in a delightfully conversational mode.

Follower is a finely textured, gentle essay, even non-judgmental in a way that such 'argumentative' films rarely are, but the statement that it makes about the perils of radicalisation is unwaveringly firm and pointed. It is a timely film that deserves the widest audience possible.