Sharanamma Chetti in the film
Sharanamma Chetti in the film

Shivamma Yarehanchinala review: A resonant tale of an unrelenting woman

Jaishankar Aryar's feature debut won the New Currents Award in 2022 at the Busan International Film Festival and has been a part of a host of other international film festivals.
Shivamma Yarehanchinala (Kannada)(3.5 / 5)

Director Jaishankar Aryar's titular character Shivamma (Sharanamma Chetti) is similar to your usual movie hero. Her build might be small and frail and her unassuming demeanour, coupled with her rural background, might elicit a few additional doubts about her heroic capabilities, but the 106-minute narrative reveals that she isn't any different from the classic movie hero archetype. Just as any 'hero' would, she, too, endures setbacks, gets rejected by her family and society, and is consistently forced to throw in the towel. And just as any hero would, she fights back and quashes those suspicions and proves her naysayers wrong, while setting out on an equally tall journey to redemption.

This hero, though, boasts a completely different profile in that she is middle-aged, apparently weighing at most 46 kilos, and also functionally illiterate. And that choice of a protagonist is only one of the many fascinating facets of Shivamma Yarehanchinala

For many, the film might first grab attention as an exercise in neorealism (with a large ensemble of non-professional actors), but Jaishankar Aryar, in his feature debut, uses the template to make small but effective subversions. Both his characterisation and the structure seem familiar to us, in that the narrative beats largely follow conventions of commercial cinema. But what separates it from all the other run-off-the-mill outings is its gaze. For instance, Shivamma's life is riddled with challenges but not once do we spot her venting either through a show of strong emotion or by confiding in a dear one, like we would in another film. Everything unfolds so matter-of-factly that the drama doesn't strike us in one blow but seeps in slowly and deceivingly, stirring up an unusual emotion deep inside.

Just as in his similarly-pitched drama-short Lacchavva, which was released as part of the anthology Katha Sangama (2019), Aryar opts for a simple and uncomplicated story to drive the message home. Shivamma is in the thick of things - she works as a cook in the local government school of the small village of Yarehanchinala (near Gadag), she aspires to get her daughter Jyothi (Shruti Kondenahalli) married very soon and she also plans to grow in her current side hustle as a member of a multi-level marketing company. Nuracle, the said company, makes this health supplement powder called BFresh which is claimed to be the cure for many a malady, and many people, like Shivamma, in the region are tasked with sourcing consumers for commission. A top-rung official tells her that he couldn't afford even a small piece of chocolate for his son at one point but now he can send the kid to school in his own private car. You invest money in this scheme, he adds, and you become rich before you know it. Shivamma gets on board instantly, not knowing that this could potentially be a Ponzi Scheme.

It's interesting how Jaishankar Aryar builds this world. The first few scenes almost solely focus on the benefits of BFresh as we navigate a series of 'patrons' of the product. In one of the earliest scenes, Shivamma showcases her salesmanship as she deftly turns her own daughter's marriage-alliance-meeting into a sales pitch for the health mix. Soon after, we see her among fellow Nuracle members in the regional office where they all rave to one another about the powers of this elixir.

For Aryar, this powder is a great instrument to highlight both the naivete and the rigour of the protagonist. Shivamma pledges all her savings in the wish to expand her business but she never stops to wonder about the dubious nature of the product she sells, not even when mishaps start to occur among her consumers. The reason for this insatiable optimism isn't spelled out by the narrative but what it strongly suggests is that Shivamma is convinced that she is on the right path despite all the booing. So, when the village panchayat decides that she is no longer allowed to sell the energy mix to the locals owing to all the health problems arising, she decides to shift her consumer base. Who knows, maybe people from a bigger town will be able to understand just how good this thing is. 

Another striking aspect is the interplay between sound and visuals in Shivamma Yarehanchinala. Saumyananda Sahi and Vikas Urs' cinematography doesn't try to beautify the setting but only captures it from unorthodox vantage points, allowing for the mundane neighbourhood sounds (sound design by Shreyank Nanjappa) to then reveal additional information. Jaishankar Aryar and Co. transport us to this seemingly nondescript village and gradually infuse personality into it by letting drama unfold at its own pace. They also get the job with a satirical edge, if you will, and raise more than a few important questions concerning corporate greed and consumerism - How easy is it to make addicts out of us all? 

But Jaishankar Aryar doesn't view Shivamma and her many, many ordeals with a bleeding heart. Hailing from the same region his story is set in, he views the world from within and handholds us into being bystanders to all the proceedings. He has likely encountered many Shivammas in his life and knows that they cannot be boxed into any archetypes or be painted with any particular moral shade. He knows how the caste politics work there, he knows how and where lovers secretly meet, and he knows how death is mourned there. He also knows that the story he wants to tell doesn't necessarily boast a conventional ending and thereby, leaves us with some food for thought.

Keep an eye (and an ear) out for the mixer grinder in this film!

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. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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