Dreaming in your mother tongue: Why Rishab Shetty’s new film strikes a chord with us

Rishab Shetty’s 'Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shaale, Kasargodu, Koduge: Ramanna Rai' speaks loudly at a time cultures, languages are being appropriated with impunity.
Dreaming in your mother tongue: Why Rishab Shetty’s new film strikes a chord with us
Dreaming in your mother tongue: Why Rishab Shetty’s new film strikes a chord with us
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Ten days ago, a small film set out to speak about a subject that would go on to touch a chord among a large swathe of people. Director Rishab Shetty’s Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shaale, Kasargodu, Koduge: Ramanna Rai is the kind of film that speaks loudly at a time when cultures and languages are being appropriated with impunity.

Set in Kasargod, a lovely place by the sea that has a sizeable Kannada population, but which has never been part of modern-day Karnataka, the film tells us the story of children studying in the only Kannada-medium school in the district, which is in Kerala. When an official from the Education Department issues orders to close the school, the children decide to take matters into their hands, and find someone posing as a social worker to help them win the right to be educated in their mother tongue, the language they think and dream in.

A film like this could have chosen to be politically correct, but director Rishab Shetty taps into the angst of a people who have been cut off from their home state, and are in danger of losing the last link to it – an education in Kannada.

This film is all the more pertinent now – long-standing murmurs against the imposition of Hindi, especially in the southern States, have grown louder, and many Kannada-medium schools in the border districts are closing down. In a sense, the core of the movie is something minority communities across the world will relate to – their fight for their right to retain their unique way of life.

The film was made on a limited budget of about Rs 3 crore, and stars child actors drawn primarily from the Dakshina Kannada region, where the dialect has a sing-song characteristic to it. The reception from the audience and critics has been overwhelmingly positive; the film minted a little more than its budget in just the first week in Karnataka, where it was screened in 75 theatres. This week, the film will be shown in Chennai too, and in another 30 theatres in Karnataka. The first weekend, the film got 33 shows in Mangaluru, second only to the 35 Rajinikanth’s Kabali got years ago. In the second, it’s got 34 shows!

Rishab Shetty’s confidence shines through in every frame. Some might complain about the pacing, but there’s a reason for the languid frames. By the time the conflict kicks in, you are so involved in the lives of the characters that you begin to deeply care about them – Mammootty,  who is actually a Mohanalal fan and whose father is a miser; Praveena, who is weak at his studies and has a crush on Pallavi; Pallavi’s trader father who is a Yakshagaana artiste and has a very short fuse, but who is rational enough to say that while learning Malayalam is fine, it should not be at the cost of one’s mother tongue; Bhujanga, who loves to eat and helps the children in their fight; Principal Nambiar, who is a Malayali but bats for education in Kannada … The list is long.

What works in the film’s favour is that it does not take the easy way out and pander to jingoism. Despite the apparent light-heartedness, the seriousness of regional-language education suffering a body blow these days is very evident in the film.

Rishab says he wanted to make a movie on the subject after reading about the decline in the number of children studying in Kannada-medium schools, and the number of schools shutting down. “I knew the topic was close to people’s hearts, and had no doubts it would do well. But, I had a particular treatment in mind that would ensure it did not stop with being an award-winning or a festival film,” says Rishab.

Helping him in this are the breathtaking cinematography by Venkatesh Anguraj, who brings alive the greenery and the beauty of Kasargod’s shoreline, and music by Vasuki Vaibhav (who is also part of the other gem at the box office, Ondhalla Eradalla) that makes your heart soar.

But, why did Rishab choose to set the film in Kasargod?

“This issue is peculiar to border districts, and this is a reality in Kasargod. I believe linguistic minorities must be allowed to live their lives and learn in their language. I also needed a beautiful location, and this suited it perfectly. Kasaragod is rich in culture – yakshagaana, mohiniaattam, hulivesha – and that made it a good background,” he explains.

He has a point; if you’ve lived in this part of the country, seeing elaborately made-up Yakshagaana artistes and others dressed as tigers walking around nonchalantly is a routine affair.

The children were real, and not precocious, part of Rishab’s conscious attempt to keep things real. “I did not want children to utter punch dialogues or lose their innocence.”

That paid off well to endear the children, through whom the conflict plays out, to the audience.

The film has a mix of dialects — voices from Dakshina Kannada, Mysuru and north Karnataka – another call Rishab took because not many understood the nuances of Ulidavaru Kandanthe (in which he acted), which was rich in the Tulu inflection.

Getting veteran Anant Nag on board, along with Ramesh Bhat, a fixture in the former’s films, was a huge plus too. “They play the two Padmanabhas, who can’t live with or without each other. “

“The making of this film, and its success, is inevitable,” says Anant Nag, who calls himself an actor and not a star. He has always mixed up genres in his filmography, and his portrayal of ‘Peacock’ Padmanabha is yet another addition to his long list of memorable characters.

“I’ve always wanted to do something on these lines. I’m glad Rishab did it, and I got to be a part of it. For five years, he thought about it, and struggled with it for a year-and-a-half. He held a workshop to train the children and make them comfortable in front of the camera, raised funds, stepped in to produce it … And he’s made a marvellous film. Decades have passed since the re-organisation of states (States Reorganisation Bill of 1956, now known as States Reorganisation Act) when Kasargod and Hosdurg became a part of Kerala, but even today, there’s a sense of sadness,” says Anant.

The film touched a chord in him too, because he grew up in what is present-day Kanhangad, near the Chandragiri River, hearing varied languages – Kannada, Konkani, Tulu, Malayalam, Tamil, Marathi and Byari.

The film is part of the veteran’s vast oeuvre, a happy mix of arthouse and commercial cinema. Of late, he’s also been a vital part of several new-age directors’ creations, and has stayed relevant to the changing times.

“Possibly because I always wanted to be an actor, and never carried the image of a star. An actor has to be malleable and adaptive, and my theatre background helped. Actually, I’m lucky. I’m going to be 70 and I got the opportunity to work with seven-year-old children. It was wonderful,” he smiles.

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