Cast: Raghu Prakash, Donna Munshi, Harshad Nalawade and Hrishikesh Sanglikar
Director: Harshad Nalawade
Classification: Four stars (out of 5)
Writer-director Harshad Nalawade sets the scene for his first film, Follower, on the battlefield 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 safe-handed independent film highlights the rifts between Belgaum’s main language groups. The division is seen from the point of view of a Marathi-speaking boy plagued by the feeling of being discriminated against and deprived of what should be his by right.
The young man, a journalist with an online media platform dedicated to amplifying the anger of a community, is inspired by the incendiary speeches of a demagogue who urges his followers to unite and fight back.
Follower premiered this week at the 52nd Rotterdam International Film Festival. Playing as part of the festival focus: The shape of things to come? In this section, the insightful film maps a sociopolitical landscape that breeds unthinking bigotry and the otherness of a language and its speakers.
A sensitive and subdued drama that examines the cumulative factors that drive Raghvendra ‘Raghu’ Pawar (newcomer Raghu Prakash) into the arms of a nativist group who believe 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.
Facing a myriad of work-related and emotional challenges that worsen with each passing day, Raghu becomes a social media warrior committed to sparking anger over the injustice allegedly inflicted on his people. He rears up and bristles and is weighed down by a life that is going nowhere.
Raghu has an engineering degree but runs a gift shop. A prisoner of his own frustrations, he blames both his family (his widowed mother and an NRI brother) and the Kannada-speaking inhabitants of Belgaum for his misfortunes.
Raghu is a friend of Sachin (played by the director himself), a YouTuber leading a campaign against a new Marathi leader who incites his flock to fight discrimination, and Parveen Mujawar (Donna Munshi), a schoolteacher and single mother who she often bears the brunt of Raghu’s outbursts of apparent unreason.
The film begins with Raghu in police custody. He then goes back a month and then an entire year to shed light on the circumstances that have led the protagonist to gradually slip into rage and despair.
On one level, Follower It’s about three friends, one of them a tough-as-nails woman who knows exactly what she wants out of life and expects no quarter from anyone, trapped in a polarizing atmosphere that repeatedly tests their camaraderie.
All three represent the diversity of Belgaum in terms of social backgrounds and language affiliations. Raghu is a middle-class boy, Sachin is from a more affluent class, and Parveen is a Muslim woman who got rid of an abusive husband and moved on.
The film is also about the agitator leader (Atul Deshmukh, seen only on computer and mobile phone screens) who seeks to exploit the disaffection of the city’s Marathi speakers for his own political ends.
The most important, FollowerWith his microcosmic story of the personal consequences of divisive politics, he investigates the culture of hate speech increasingly fueled by hyperventilating politicians and their armies of trolls and lynch mobs.
In addition to showing a politician who spews venom incessantly and a young man who gets carried away with rhetoric, Follower delves into the many social and linguistic flaws that make it easy for explorers to find recruits for their troll farms.
Playing the Kannadiga character who is responsible for pushing Raghu to the limit, Nalawade does not point a finger at either Raghu’s proclivities or Sachin’s stubbornness in the face of provocations. What the director does, instead, is dwell on the reasons that make the leading man easy meat for fans looking for hardcore foot soldiers.
Raghu’s mother wants him to get married and settle down. Her part-time job and the gift shop (taken on lease from a Kannadiga) do not give her enough money to contemplate marriage. She disagrees with his older brother, who is comfortably settled in the United States.
Left to fend for himself, Raghu finds what he thinks is a way out of the trough. As it happens, it’s just a shortcut to a dead end guarded by a group that thrives on recruiting blind followers.
With cinematographer Saket Gyani, Nalawade arranges non-stop verbal exchanges between the characters and films them with a static camera that is, in most cases, focused on Raghu, who is agitated, confused or defensive and ready to fight. .
This kind of non-intrusive staging not only suggests the character’s increasing alienation and continuing contraction of his worldview, but also points to the fact that he’s being pushed against the wall without his knowing it.
Raghu gets involved in many confrontations over the course of the 100-minute movie. Each of them gives the audience a glimpse into how his mind works. A girl he visits with a marriage proposal scolds him: “Does the majority entitle you to power?” Raghu is puzzled but not puzzled enough to change his mind.
On another occasion, he gets into an altercation with the independent-minded Parveen. Her reason: she can’t see past her nose and figures she needs to play save her. Without being overtly dismissive, Follower lays bare Raghu’s innate clumsiness in dealing with women. It’s not that he feels women are pushovers, but he wraps himself around them.
Raghu is not a bad guy. He’s just unclassified and vulnerable to manipulation. That partly explains why he does what he does. But the film does not offer simple and straightforward explanations. With all the volatility in his life, family and environment, Raghu is prone to losing his temper, even with his best friend Sachin.
One of the defining aspects of Follower is the multiplicity of languages in the soundtrack. The characters speak Marathi, Kannada, Hindi (with a distinct cadence and phonetic bias rooted in Belagavi soil), and English, creating a fascinating mix of languages that flow in a delightfully conversational fashion.
Follower it’s a smooth, fine-textured essay, even without bias in a way ‘argument’ films rarely are, but the statement it makes about the dangers of radicalization is unflinchingly firm and pointed. It is a timely film that deserves the widest possible audience.
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