The burning and very current topic of radicalization of Indian youth is the core subject of Harshad Nalawade’s “Follower.”
The film has its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Focus: The Shape of Things to Come? strand that asks if the institutional success of what used to be right-wing Hindu nationalist groups but are now mainstream, and the persecution of dissenting voices, is a sign of the shape of things to come.
The project was a work-in-progress lab selection at South Asia’s top film market, Film Bazaar, in 2021, and participated in the Film Bazaar Goes to Cannes initiative at the Marche du Film in 2022.
The film follows Raghavendra, a young man with a technical degree who unwillingly works in the family gift shop. A few incidents draw him toward a charismatic Hindu leader and he becomes a meagrely paid keyboard warrior for a radical online outlet.
Nalawade, for whom “Follower” marks his feature debut after several shorts, grew up in the southern Indian city of Belgaum.
“Post 2014 in India, when a right-wing government came into power with a huge majority, I saw many of my friends and people I know become too passionate about their politics. Since then, their strong beliefs in one particular leader to get us out of misery was very interesting to notice. I was interested in what makes people believe in something or someone so strongly. But instead of getting into telling a story of the national politics, I wanted to tell a local story. And my hometown was the best setting to tell a story about people’s beliefs,” Nalawade told Variety.
Belgaum is located in the Kannada language-speaking state of Karnataka. The bordering state of Marathi language-speaking Maharashtra claims Belgaum belongs to them on linguistic grounds. The decades-old border dispute remains a political flash point with massive protests taking place periodically, the most recent one being in December 2022.
“Growing up in Belgaum, I have seen people from my community fighting really hard to claim power in the city. And how marginalized they feel. But I have also met people from my community who have embraced the culture and language of a different state. So I always sat on the fence about this issue and this film is a reaction to that,” Nalawade said.
“Raghavendra’s story is a microcosm of our country. I had a local story, but always knew that it had a national context. We have today a scenario, where people have blind faith in the leader. There is no nuance anymore – and I just wanted to thread the needle with a context which has tremendous relevance today – the problem of belonging and false narratives,” Nalawade added.
Nalawade’s narrative has plenty of nuance. The beating heart of the film is the three leads, Marathi-speaking Raghavendra (Raghu Prakash), Kannada-speaking Sachin (played by Nalawade himself) and Muslim single mother Parveen (Donna Munshi), who share a triangular friendship akin to François Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim” or Sudhir Mishra’s “Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi.”
For Nalawade, who had previously acted in his own short “A Return Gift,” playing one of the leads in “Follower” was a budgetary necessity. “We were shooting on a very shoestring budget and so we didn’t have enough money to spend on another actor. Also, while rehearsing with the lead actor, our chemistry really hit off and so I decided to play his friend,” Nalawade said.
“Follower” was initially crowdfunded. Production company HumaraMovie saw the rough cut and boarded the project and helped finish it.
Nalawade hopes to release the film in India, including in Maharashtra and Karnataka. “On the surface, it might look like a film that sheds light on the Marathi life in Belgaum. And the Kannadigas might hate the film for doing so. But the irony is that maybe the Marathis are going to hate the film more when they watch it,” Nalawade said.
Meanwhile, the film is set for its Rotterdam premiere on Jan. 29, with Nalawade present in person. “We are all thrilled to have a world premiere at IFFR – it’s a big deal for us and we are excited to share our special film with audiences. It will certainly help us a lot in terms of creating more awareness about the film on an international scale too,” Nalawade said.