Koli Esru review: Akshatha Pandavpura elevates this tender tale of love and resilience
Koli Esru (Kannada)(3.5 / 5)
In Champa P Shetty's new film, Huchheeri's simple goal of serving chicken curry or Koli Esru to her daughter Lakshmuu turns out to be a mighty ordeal. Consequently, the same event also sets her free from a life of everyday grief, disparagement, and discrimination.
Huchheeri (played by Akshatha Pandavapura), the protagonist and soul of Koli Esru, is tenacious, caring, as well as street-smart. She does odd jobs in her tiny village - from sweeping floors to cleaning rice - and despite a husband, she navigates life almost like a single mother.
In one of the early scenes from the film, she finds her husband drunk on the side of the street near their home and duly carries him home. Only moments ago, on one such empty street, she had to ward off the beedi-smoking Gende Kala who ogled her all evening. In a sense, Huccheeri always operates on her toes because the threat is posed to her not only because she is a woman, but also because she stands on the lowest rungs of the village's caste hierarchy.
The word 'caste', very interestingly, is never uttered in Champa P Shetty's film. But its significance is strongly felt just in the way Huchheeri lurks in the shadows at almost all times. When one of the village's dominant-caste homes has a feast for its guests, she is compelled to speak to hosts from the rear entrance of the house, away from all the festivities.
When asked about the significance of caste in the narrative, Champa P Shetty tells TNM that caste, as a subject, doesn't feature prominently in the film but it is definitely an inherent part of the narrative, the world.
"There was a particular sequence in the film that required a bunch of child artists to enter an upper-caste house and play in the backyard. But since those children belonged to lowered castes, the owners of the house refused to let them in. They offered to use child actors of a different caste but I chose to omit the scene instead of replacing my chosen cast,“ she explains.
But despite the strife, we see that Huchheeri's being completely revolves around her knee-high daughter Lakshmuu. The kid goes to the local government school and apparently wants to study further. But her mother, having herself been rendered illiterate, fails to recognise the value of education and instead wants Lakshmuu to lend a small hand in her jobs.
What Huchheeri recognises correctly, though, is the little girl's absolute love for Koli Esru. The only catch is that the dish costs money and the mother reckons if her daughter comes along for work, she can possibly demand extra cash and save up for their own little feast. In fact, the only time(s) we see a glint in Huccheeri's eyes is when she promises, in great hope, to her daughter to plate up the succulent chicken gravy.
"Koli Esru, the dish in itself, simply represents the mother's hope and desire to see her kid eat in joy. In many ways, it's a metaphor for the lengths she is willing to go to," says Champa Shetty.
In KT Chikkanna's short story Huchheeri Esarina Prasanga which serves as the source of the film, the focus is on the mother and daughter's impoverished life, their mutual love for koli esru, and little else. It is Champa Shetty who imbues the film with layering and authenticity, transporting us to a nameless yet highly identifiable Indian village.
That authenticity, no doubt, stems not only from the language that the characters speak, but also from the manner in which life unfolds in this place. On the one hand, we get to see an ensemble dominated by non-professional actors who carry the quintessence of the region. On the other hand, there is the vivid visual representation - no two characters, at any given point, in the film are seen sitting idle during a conversation. Champa Shetty shares that this is exactly how life is spent in rural India, where people, especially women, have a weird penchant to keep themselves occupied at all times. That eye for detailing is truly impressive.
On top of this, the use of sync sound effectively brings out the essence of the world of Koli Esru. The director's choice to use diegetic sounds, particularly the folk songs emerging from the small temples, adds to the flavour of rusticity. Champa Shetty keeps things fairly simple as far as cinematography (by Francis Rajkumar) is concerned and renders her film with a kind of stillness that resonates with the reality of the place it is set in.
The clincher, though, for the viewer is Akshatha Pandavpura's superb central performance. Those who are familiar with her work will identify her mainly for her role in Prithvi Konanur's Pinki Elli?, wherein she plays a single mother desperately on the hunt for her missing baby. If that film saw her essaying the role of someone who belongs to a well-defined economic and social strata of a metropolis, Koli Esru takes her to a world that's in complete contrast. Akshatha plunges into it headlong and is simply captivating.
As Huchheeri, she executes a strange balance of vulnerability and stoicism, letting her eyes and her gait do all the talking. Added to that demeanour are those occasional bursts of happiness, often resulting in her face beaming up for no longer than a second or two, just as life's cruelties come crawling back. There’s an ease with which she carries herself and more importantly, Akshatha‘s speech has an alluring cadence. It also helps immensely that she is in perfect sync, in terms of energy and timing, with her on-screen daughter (played by a wonderful Apeksha Nagaraj Chornahalli).
The rest of the cast, including Natana Manju as Gende Kala, Prakash Shetty as Huchheeri’s husband, and a host of non-professional actors, fits the bill quite well.
"I was particular about the dialect that's spoken in the film and didn't want actors who were "trained" to mimic that. That's why we have chosen local theatre artists from the T. Narasipura region who had that natural flair about them. If you look at my debut film Ammachi Yemba Nenapu, you will see that I want my actors to truly belong to that region," notes Champa Shetty.
"Akshatha Pandavpura came on board because I vividly remembered a performance she delivered on Bigg Boss Kannada. She was the only cast member who didn't audition,“ she further adds.
While Champa Shetty extrapolates on KT Chikkanna's modest idea and lends the story a new dimension, one might still opine that the resulting film still refrains from being ambitious. Could there have been more to the Gende Kala angle? And perhaps, is there an 'edge' lacking in the narrative?
Champa Shetty, however, stands confident that she has made the film that she always envisioned. She asserts that while there might have been a few possibilities with the narrative, the eventual outcome is a film that captures what she was truly chasing as a writer-director - a story brimming with love, hope, and resilience.
Swaroop Kodur is a freelance film writer, critic, and also a fledgling filmmaker.
Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Neither TNM nor any of its reviewers have any sort of business relationship with the film’s producers or any other members of its cast and crew.