Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know: A metaphorical fable in Mani Kaul-Kumar Sahani school of filmmaking mould

The Kannada short film by Shivamogga-born Dr Chidananda S Naik bagged the Cannes' La Cinef Award for Best Short recently.

ByS Viswanath

Published Jun 18, 2024 | 1:20 PM Updated Jun 20, 2024 | 1:06 PM

Kannada short film Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know won Poster of the short film Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know Cannes' La Cinef Award for Best Short

No one stops to think, though – that maybe there is a reason for the darkness. Maybe people have to be reminded of it – of its power. At night, we go to sleep against the darkness. And if we wake up before morning, a lot of times we’re afraid. We need it all though – the darkness and the light.” —Jacqueline Woodson (American writer).

Deep within, every human being hoards a pitch-black riddle. The darkness of the iris is nothing other than the starless night, the darkness deep in the eye is nothing other than the darkness of the universe.” —Lars Gustafsson (Swedish poet & novelist).

Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance….at this place, at this moment, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us!” —from Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (Irish playwright).

Chidananda S Naik after winning the Cannes' La Cinef Award for Best Short

Chidananda S Naik (second from left) after winning the Cannes’ La Cinef Award for Best Short. (Supplied)

Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know (Suryakanthi Hooge Modalu Gottagiddu), the 16-minute course-end short film by Dr Chidananda S Naik, a student of Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), recently bagged the coveted Cannes’ La Cinef Award for Best Short at 77th Cannes Film Festival, France.

The first-of-its-kind feat brought laurels to the premier alma mater and the nation, as a whole, which feted the team and its success wholesomely.

This achievement comes after four years when another FTII student film CATDOG won an award at the 73rd Cannes.

Picked alongside 17 others, out of the 2,623 submissions received by the Cannes from 555 film schools worldwide, the short fetched a grant of €15,000 as first prize money for the talented 29-year-old Mysuru doctor-turned-filmmaker. Chidananda S Naik graduated from Mysore Medical College & Research Institute.

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Dirge of a Desolate Mother

The much thought-provoking and subtly allegorical short (shot entirely at night)—with its impeccable framing, shot scenarios, mise-en-scène and virtuoso play of light and shade that form its cinematic core to create a hauntingly milieu of mystery and wonder—could also be described as Dirge of a Desolate Mother, who fretting over the foreboding death of her son, circumvents nature by stealthily slipping away with the village’s rooster, ensuring the sun never rises and perpetual deathly darkness descends on the inhabitants.

Here is how the mother, or the grandmother of the narrator, laments about the impending loss of her dear one as foretold by the oracle:

Oh! How the marigold in my backyard is dying
Its branches are rooting but it still laughs at me
It says my son will die tomorrow
Even the stars that do not shine mock me
I sit before this shack where I gave birth to my son
The tailless lizards click and exclaim
That my son will die tomorrow
Then I won’t let tomorrow come
O! Hut! Witness of my life, tell me
Will my son die tomorrow

Even as she finishes her mournful elegy the thatched straw hut engulfs in fire and is reduced to ashes right before her eyes.

A certain edgy eeriness pervades the short, which works at several levels. It astutely brings forth the workings of the various minds of the inhabitants of the village that has descended into darkness.

The mother/grandmother in Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know

The mother/grandmother in ‘Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know’. (Supplied)

It is as if a solar eclipse has engulfed the earth with only the moon’s azure light the petromax lamps, and wooden torches, providing a glimpse of the happenings as the inhabitants contemplate the consequences and the remedial measures to be taken to bring back sunlight into their lives.

As the short slowly and surely snakes through the various phases of the deathly night and the grandson narrates the events that have unfolded leading to the pitch-black situation it seems as if it is nocturnal phantasmagoria of the son/grandson in his sleep state being enacted in a visual play of sound and sights.

Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know reminds one of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot.

In short, it is awaiting the rising of the sun again. A sense of hopelessness and futility of meaningless existence enwraps the village folks who struggle to comprehend the darkness around them and accept the inevitability of the sun never rising again.

Yes, the rooster may have gone. The old hag may have left home. The sun may have disappeared never to rise again. But then life must, and does, go on. So, also the diurnal duties in the village as each goes about his/her tasks in routine, clockwork fashion while looking skyward for the sun which has left them in a state of doom and despair.

Yes, conversations happen. Blame apportioned. Invectives hurled. Assumptions made. The fact of the matter, however, remains that as the film’s tagline reads: “Once upon a time, in a village, an old lady steals the rooster and the sun never rises again”, the fantastical idiomatic tale as narrated from the grandson’s perspective, making for a captivating and engrossing watch.

Also Read: Mysuru filmmaker bags Cannes La Cinef first prize

Banjara folklore of Karnataka

A still from the Kannada short film

A still from the Kannada short film. (Supplied)

Set in a quaint village and based on the popular Banjara folklore of Karnataka from which community Chidananda Naik belongs and grew up, the short takes on an ethereal quality engaging the audience in an enigmatic tour de force and contemplating on the reality or fiction of it all.

Even as the father and son brood over the cruel fate that has consigned the village due to the sudden disappearance of the matriarch along with the rooster, and a state of absurdness prevails, you have the disarrayed community invoking the occult which prophesies “when the granny’s descendants are exiled the darkness will be lifted.”

As a result, the people “who had lost faith now see a glimmer of hope”, exult in the new-found hope and force Mallappa and his son to venture out into the darkened forest to ferret out his mother/grandmother and most importantly the rooster, that will ensure the sun will rise and shine again bringing warmth and light into their lives again.

One may call Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know as a pictorial evocation of a grandmother’s bedtime folk fable with all its attendant mystery and tinge of terror to put the child to sleep.

It could also be read as a narrative that is subtly suggestive of the times we live in—especially the villages and their folks where faith, belief and inherited tradition have to contend with the modern-day political mechanics, which ensure they are perpetually in the dark despite progress and development all around.

In the exchange between the son and the father in Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know one can sense the fatality of the situation the village has been boxed in.

“What if we never find Granny & the Rooster?” poses the son to his dad, both of whom donned the garb of wild beasts to escape them as “the light from our torches sought out Grandma & the Rooster”.

The father Mallappa, who is the reason for the entire gloomy and dismal sufferings in the village, while cursing “If she sets foot back in this house, I will break her legs”, for he believes his aged mother “has done this to us, the old bitch, instead of staying at home. The old hag has gone to look for her lover”, replies “you cannot change destiny. We must not forget that the sun once rose. That it will rise again someday. A man can only lie about forgetting, but he can never forget”, trying to convince and soothe his son”s fears.

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Imprints on viewers’s minds

A still from Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know

A still from ‘Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know’. (Supplied)

What makes the short imprinted into the audience’s recess and to recall at leisure and mull over it is the final freeze of the old lady with the rooster and the lamp looking into the camera before departing into the darkness of the night. A superlative scripting piece of work indeed that leaves so many conjectures and confabulations in the audience’s minds.

Did she “act out of frustration or to escape the curse of God or in the hope that the entire village would be burnt to the ground”, the son recounts the stories the villagers made up about “my granny”. It is as open-ended as it could be.

Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know also reminds one of Rapture (2023), the Garo-language feature by Dominic Sangma from Meghalaya, where you had the entire village thrown into turmoil gripped as it is by the fear of a child-kidnapper, and more dreadful, the church has prophesied the coming of apocalyptic darkness lasting 80 days.

Rapture, too, starts with the disappearance in the darkness in the forest as the folks collect the cicadas, as part of the annual ritual, and thereon, begins the village trying to grapple with the situation and unravel the mysterious happenings around them.

Chidananda S Naik’s oeuvre

Shivamogga-born Chidananda S Naik, who is currently working on a Kannada feature film—having cut his teeth and honed his cinematic skills with shorts—has a body of shorts Whispers & Echoes (2021), Longing (Trishna; 2022), and To the Forgotten (Bhule Chuke Tules; 2023) under his repertoire.

The oeuvre speaks of the astuteness of his cinematic craft and aesthetics in the idiom of cinema evoking the filmmaking school of late Mani Kaul and Kumar Sahani, both alumnus of FTII.

Be it Suraj Thakur’s superlative shot compositions, the erudite editing by Manoj or the haunting and growing score by Abhishek Kadam, the art of Tejashree Dahibhate & Shubham Nikam.

Well, Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know turns out an ensemble piece of cinematic work that found due recognition and reward at the prestigious Cannes.

Kudos! For scaling the summit from over 2,500 contenders who sought to take a shy at it.

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(Edited by Y Krishna Jyothi)