Documentary Review: When Shankar Nag Comes Asking

As globalisation has taken over every aspect of our life –social, economic and cultural, and brought forth new opportunities, it has also created innumerable challenges. In the pursuit of progress, as cities embrace urbanisation and industrialisation, there’s a concomitant rise in social and economic issues that can lead to discontent and disillusion.
“When Shankar Nag Comes Asking” (The original version is in Kannada called ‘SHANKAR NAG KELKOND BANDAAGA’ with English subtitles), is a documentary by film maker Sushma Veerappa, that chronicles the transformation of Bangalore over the last decade through the eyes of the auto rickshaw drivers. The film described as an album of Bangalore, is a multipronged look at the struggle of the common man amidst the changing horizon and a resulting sense of loss and an urge to hold on to the familiar.
Since its coronation as IT capital, the city has witnessed an unprecedented prosperity and growth attracting people across the nation, who come in search of employment opportunities. But the economic benefits have not percolated to all strata of society, leading to rise in urban poverty. Most of these urban poor are workers striving to make a living in the informal work sector.
The filmmaker chose auto drivers as her subject because “The story of Bangalore city’s growth post 1990, when the country’s economy opened out seemed very intertwined with auto drivers, mostly migrants, who we all know have been the lifeline of Bangalore city”. The film revolves around the auto drivers of the Shankar Nag auto stand in Basaveshwarnagar, who narrate their survival stories: woes of repaying loans with high interest, no gas subsidies, lack of welfare schemes, and callous unions that don’t bother about their problems. As one auto driver puts it “Bangalore is a vast ocean- big enough for the rich and poor. But at the same time, because it has become an ocean, it is now difficult to make a living here.”
As one hurtles on the orbit of change, a proclivity towards nostalgia sets in, seeking the comfort of the familiar while adapting to the uncertainty of the unfamiliar. “I am more interested in preservation as a recess of the mind which one can draw from, to cope with the now. The Bangalore narrative about preservation is even more complicated because it is not just about the cultural”, says the filmmaker. Intangible objects become significant as all things tangible are in a state of constant transformation. Perhaps it is this reason that the auto drivers celebrate Rajyothsava with great fanfare. The red and yellow colours of the state flag and the Kannada language become a unifying identity for them as they ferry people of different cultures and religions across the city.
Shankar Nag is another symbol for identity and belonging. According to Veerappa, “That Shankar Nag, a visionary and champion of the common man, has been an icon for auto drivers ever since he acted as one of them in the film ‘Auto Raja’ is folklore. When he died in an accident in 1990, and auto drivers started putting his picture on their windshields, they were /are remembering and immortalising all this.”
The documentary showcases vignettes of life of a city in transition and the ubiquitous auto rickshaw drivers and Shankar Nag act as a medium in the narration of the survival story of workers with underlying themes of Memory, Identity and Belonging.
After a Post-graduate diploma in Social Communications Media from Sophia Polytechnic, Mumbai, Sushma joined the Bangalore Film Society. She conceived and executed a film education programme for school children. She has been making documentaries since 1998 and has worked as assistant to director MS Sathyu. Her focus has been on documenting the work of grass root organizations working in Karnataka’s remote villages. Her films have also been used as communication tools by these organizations to further engage with the people they work with. Her work encompasses a wide spectrum – about people’s co-operatives, leadership imaging as participatory research tool, issues related to rainwater harvesting, women and violence.
The city in transition has been her concern in recent years. ‘WHEN SHANKAR NAG COMES ASKING’ is the outcome of this engagement. It is her first independent work. Her previous films include ‘Bringing Home Rain’, an account of the village Kurubarakunte’s experiences with rainwater harvesting, and a set of films for the non-profit trust ASHA.
Deepa Padmanaban
The Alternative
15 March 2013
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