Idol thoughts

Sushma Veerappa’s dual approach to viewing Bangalore city through Shankar Nag and the auto drivers comes through in her first independent documentary
 
In Sushma Veerappa’s documentary film, Shankar Nag Auto Stand in Basaveshwarnagar, named for the Kannada film star, is synecdoche, Bangalore. The two principal characters in the telling, Ramanna and Mahadeva, who ferry Bangaloreans in their three-wheeled black-and-yellow carriages, framed against the spit of land that serves as their waiting terminus, represent the city’s migrant population and the auto driver. There’s further symbolism at play here – Veerappa binds these symbols together by deploying Shankar Nag as a marquee emblem; his role as a rickshaw driver in the 1980 Kannada film Auto Raja has rendered him a prototypal proletarian.
 
Having established her mise-en-scène, Veerappa proceeds to record the many factors that have caused this city to creak and groan at its gussets. “The arbitrary transformation of my city over the last decade inspired this film, many of us still don’t know if we are Bangalore or Bengaluru,” said Veerappa. “All we know is that one has been ‘Bangalored’ for life.”
 
The documentary, When Shankar Nag Comes Asking (the original in Kannada is called Shankar Nag Kelkond Bandaga), which will be shown at the National Gallery of Modern Art as part of Cinema City this fortnight, places Bangalore’s struggle in becoming a global city and the city’s identity issues at the crux of its plot. “There is a deep sense of alienation that people experience while living in a big city, there is some kind of an intangible power that takes over one’s consciousness. Every day is a struggle against this power,” she said.“While on the one hand we protest against the state preserving RK Narayan’s house in Mysore because he wrote in English, on the other side, we don’t know the house in Kuppalli where Kuvempu, one of the greatest writers in Kannada, was born.”
 
After a year-long diploma course in Social Communications Media in Mumbai’s Sophia Polytechnic, which she finished in 1992, and later, while working as an assistant to the director MS Sathyu, Veerappa found herself drawn toward the documentary form of filmmaking. When Shankar Nag Comes Asking invites viewers to interpret the trajectory of Bangalore city’s growth since 1990, when the burgeoning economy led to its exponential growth. Veerappa employs the city’s auto drivers, those essential proteins that kindle Bangalore’s metabolism, to comment on the change the city has undergone with the coming of McMoney, and the concomitant McVexation.
 
As for Shankar Nag, he entered the realm of popular iconography immediately after his death in an automobile accident in 1990, which caused rickshaw drivers in the city to display his likeness on various portions of their vehicles as a means of remembering and immortalising their hero. Drawing from this, the film advances to its meta-narrative – about how auto rickshaws have become the prime constituency for playing out identity politics on the street using Shankar Nag as a metaphor for neglect, politics and belonging.
 
After an initial intense period of talking to people and reading, Veerappa sets out to spend a significant amount of time searching for characters that help her carry forward the basic idea. “I don’t try to know everything about them through my research,” she said. “I allow myself to be surprised by people, moments and events. The camera takes over. The film takes over.” The film’s main characters, Ramanna (also a junior artist in films) was “easy, gregarious and talkative and brought a vibrant mood during filming, while Mahadeva’s shy and very reluctant poise came across almost equally endearingly,” she added.
 
“The documentary has been with me for about six years now and requires the filmmaker to be a trickster of sorts,” Veerappa said. “Marrying a documentary filmmaker’s passion for social justice with good storytelling can be tricky.” Her film locates a boilerplate notion – the daily flow of human cargo across a city’s cartography – in a context that might not be immediately clear to a viewer unfamiliar with the changes that have been wrought on the city’s innards by the putative march of progress. Nonetheless, it forces contemplation. “Many times I find myself wanting to hold Bangalore by the collar and curse, ‘What a turncoat’,” railed the director. “But then, I don’t see the collar.”
 
Pratima Chabbi
TimeOut Bengaluru
23 November 2012 12.35pm
 
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