Jaishankar Aryar’s award-winning Kannada film, produced by Rishab Shetty, offers a delightful peek into village life

Shivamma is the kind of woman you might have met in life, and not given a second thought to. You know, one of those travelling in a bus heading to or coming from the hinterland, someone with a stoic face that’s not easily prone to smiling, someone who resembles what resilience might look like. At first glance, you’ll never know or even guess their backstory — they remain unread chapters in a story. But Shivamma Yarehanchinala helps you read those chapters, it fills in the blanks of a life filled with gaping holes of despair with a little humour and a lot of empathy, and without an outsider’s gaze.

Like he did with the delightful Lachavva in the Rishab Shetty-produced Katha Sangama (2019), this time, too, Aryar trains his lens on the land he hails from — the Koppala belt of Karnataka, more specifically, the village of Yarehanchinnala. Rishab has produced this film, too. Kannada filmgoers are slowly getting used to the idea of films set in North Karnataka, and we depend on directors such as Jaishankar and Shrikanth Katagi (Kshetrapati) to shine the spotlight on stories from the region, its culture and practices.

An indictment of corporate greed

Shivamma is a cook in the local government school, and is desperate to make more money — her husband is partially paralysed following a stroke, her daughter Jyothi (Shruti Kondenahalli) is ready for marriage, her son Shivu (Shivu Abbigere) needs a livelihood and Shivamma needs… money. She decides to join a multi-level marketing company to sell Nuracle health drinks to unsuspecting village folk, and city dwellers. This bit is so reminiscent of the numerous party sales that have resulted in so many people of a generation carrying plastic lunch boxes to college and work!

Now, Shivamma is not your regular village woman, like cliches will like you to think. She looks hardened, yes, but gets hurt easily, and can also laugh when the situation demands. This seemingly hard exterior of hers is what gets her to attempt to recite the English slogan learnt from a Nuracle event, and what helps her sell these drinks as a panacea for all ills to people far from her town, away from her comfort zone, when her village bans her from selling it. She also has a little conscience, for when the caregiver of a special child asks her if the drink will cure the child, she remains silent.

At one level, the film is also a damning statement against companies that turn trusting village folk into hapless victims. Imagine a village where many people don’t eat the traditional rotti with onion and garlic for a meal, but blend a powder and drink it!

Sharanamma Chetti shines as Shivamma

The film, which has done the festival circuit and has been lauded with wins such as the New Currents Award Best Film in 2022 at Busan International Film Festival, begins with the scene of women exercising by the roadside. It makes for an endearing watch, and breaks the idea of rural women we have been fed for long. They do yoga and stretch and walk — a few moments of peace in a day filled with hard toil. The men mostly laze away their time. In such a situation, what will Shivamma do? Will she pretend all is okay with her lot or will she rebel against her luck? Especially when no one, including her children, understands her. Knowing Shivamma, you can be assured she rebels and learns to raise her voice, even if quietly.

Working with non-actors, Jaishankar manages to extract a credible performance by Sharanamma Chetti as Shivamma. You feel you’ve held someone’s hands and visited their village and been a part of their joys and sadnesses. Jaishankar has also handled editing with Chandan CM in this 100-odd-minute film.

It is evident that this playground is something Jaishankar is familiar with. The pivotal dirge, where references are drawn from everyday life, might leave city dwellers in peals of laughter, but the villagers look on, mourning in the only way they know. Helping Jaishankar here is sound designer Shreyank Nanjappa.

Where Jaishankar scores is in not lending any shade to Shivamma’s character. Is she white because she’s the victim or is she black because she’s also a perpetrator? She’s a classic case of throwing good money after bad, but even after everything, she’s full of enthusiasm for a life that she is convinced others have, and she needs.

When the end credits roll and the lights come on, it finally dawns that you were in happy company in a village far removed from your space. And that reality is a hot minute away. And that is Jaishankar’s success.

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