Think language politics and you are likely to think of majoritarian entitlement or divisive parochialism depending on which side of the debate you come in from. With the National Education Policy reigniting passions regarding Hindi imposition and the suppression of regional languages, anger and acrimony pervades many reflections on this debate.
In such an environment, it is useful to have reminders that language politics does not need to descend into the chauvanisms that mimic the ugliness of impositions they seek to counter. Instead, they can bring to the fore a more fundamental plea for preserving the beauty of diverse cultures and ways of life. In that respect, itâ€™s useful to revisit the 2018 film Sarkari Hiriya Prathamika Shaale, Kasaragodu: Koduge Ramanna Rai, directed by Rishab Shetty, which won the National Award for Best Childrenâ€™s Film.
Set in picturesque Kasaragod, a border district in Kerala with a sizeable Kannada-speaking population, the film tells the story of a group of children who face an uncertain future when a government official shuts down their Kannada-medium school. Portraying their struggle to reopen the school against the backdrop of broader linguistic politics, the film makes a passionate argument for education in the mother tongue.
At first glance, the film may seem to take too long to get to this core issue, meandering through the ins and outs of the children's lives and introducing us to the collection of parents and adults that populate their lives. Yet, in so doing, the film lays the foundation for an intimate understanding of a fundamental principle of linguistic politics: language is not merely a medium for education, but the verbal universe that encapsulates our desires, hopes and dreams. So, we spend most of the first half of the film becoming immersed in the world of study and play of these children, seeing many glimpses of the cultural milieu through which they understand the world.
Given this foundation, the film helps us see the real stakes for these children of being able to learn in their own language. When a Malayali teacher gets appointed to the school (something that has actually happened in Kasaragod schools), one of the brightest students in the class, Pallavi (Saptha Pavoor), gets rebuked for asking him to teach in Kannada. This rebuke hits her strongly enough to make her not want to return to school. Later, when the school shuts down, we see many of the childrenâ€™s parents pull them into exhausting and low-paid work rather than find ways to secure them an education. And Pallavi gets sent away from her family and friends to distant Mangaluru so that she can receive an education in Kannada. The message in these scenes is clearâ€”amid the multiple challenges that make securing an education a precarious possibility for children outside metropolitan cities, apathy toward the needs of linguistic minorities can be one cruel blow too many.
One of the most endearing factors of the film is its refusal to play into a jingoistic Kannada-versus-Malayalam polarity. Thus, while there is plenty of anger towards the government official engineering the schoolâ€™s closure, this is not extended to the Malayali residents or to Malayalam as a language. Indeed, several scenes through the film reinforce the idea of a cultural landscape in which Kannada and Malayalam are tightly interwoven. In so doing, the film does not put itself in the difficult position of having to drum up a false sense of pride for the protagonistsâ€™ culture. Thus, the film insistently makes the demand for cultural equality as a right, without claiming superiority.
It also chooses to overtly reject a violent assertion of language rights by having Pallaviâ€™s mercurial father (Pramod Shetty) cool down his explosive responses to the situation in order to control his high blood pressure. Instead, the children must rely on social worker Anantha Padmanabha P (Anant Nag) to take the matter through the courts to cut through the bureaucratic indifference and corruption.
While the film thus provides a refreshing look at the issue of mother-tongue education, it stops short of exploring the broader issues of our flawed educational system by depicting the fight as one against a single corrupt official, rather than the problems raised by an inefficient and apathetic bureaucratic approach to education. So, the film introduces us to a new student, Rahul, who comes in with the obvious cultural capital gained from having previously studied in Mysuru. However, it does not do much more with this character.
The film also veers away from the more complicated debate raised by the presence of English as an overarching pressure on our linguistic cultures. It hints at this issue very briefly when one of the young protagonists Praveen (Rangan) expresses abandonment and anger when his crush Pallavi and his friends seem more taken with the confidently English-speaking Rahul. But this narrative ends with that outburst alone.
In choosing Kasaragod as its backdrop, the film does open us up to a further layer of complexity of language debates. While the overarching pressure of Hindi imposition does take centre stage, we should not forget that the linguistic division of states has not been and cannot possibly be a perfect distribution. With cases such as Kasaragod, or with minority languages such as Tulu, Beary, and so on, how to fluidly accommodate many layers of minority cultures and lives is a serious question to consider. We need, therefore, to devise newer and more inclusive ways of thinking of the diverse language cultures we inhabit.
Watch the film on YouTube here: