Shankar Nag, auto-man for the people

Sushma Veerappa’s documentary ‘When Shankar Nag Comes Asking’ examines the Kannada star’s enduring popularity in a fast-changing city
 

Kannada multi-hyphenate Shankar Nag acted in and directed plays, made one of India’s best-loved television series, Malgudi Days, and straddled commercial and arthouse cinema with ease. He died in an automobile accident in 1990 at the age of 35. Given Nag’s several talents, it is perhaps appropriate that a documentary inspired by his enduring popularity among autorickshaw drivers in Bangalore should pack in more than one idea.

Sushma Veerappa’s When Shankar Nag Comes Asking places Nag’s iconic status at the intersection of sweeping—and potentially upsetting—changes in southern India’s maximum city. Over just 67 minutes, Veerappa packs in questions on Bangalore’s encounters with globalization, the reasons for Nag’s appeal, and an upsurge in nativist politics in the metropolis.

Veerappa did a diploma in social communications media from the Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai, assisted film-maker and theatre director M.S. Sathyu for about five years, and made films for non-governmental organizations. Her documentary, which has been screened in Bangalore, will be shown in Mumbai for the first time on Friday and Saturday. Excerpts from an interview:
 

You have knitted together several themes in your film: the relationship of the working class to cinema, the endurance of a star’s fame even after his death, the nature of fandom, the rise of nativist politics in Karnataka, the changing nature of Bangalore. Which idea came first?

I received a research grant from Majlis through their culture fellowship programme in 2007-08. That’s when I started filming—with my handycam, borrowed cameras from friends, rented equipment. I filmed everything from the Ganesh utsav on Shankar Nag Road in Domlur, Bangalore, to a CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) rally, of which the autorickshaw union is a member, Karnataka Rajyotsava celebrations across the city. Sometime in 2010, when I seriously started seeking funds to make the documentary, a structure began to emerge based on what I had filmed.

The documentary began with Shankar Nag on autorickshaw windshields. That’s something all Bangaloreans of my generation have grown up with.
 

Was the documentary originally meant to be about one specific theme but then became about many other things?

Yes, it was supposed to be about Nag on windshields. Except that the Suvarna Karnataka celebrations took over the city around that time in 2006. I noticed how autorickshaws became a prime constituency for the playing out of identity politics on the streets. It looked like quite a joyride—Shankar Nag and the Kannada flag riding together on an autorickshaw. But was it? The trajectory of Bangalore city’s growth post 1990 seemed very intertwined with lives of auto drivers, who are the lifeline of Bangalore. 1990 was also the year Shankar Nag passed away in a road accident. Fifty years of statehood, 20 years of globalization—all being played out in this city. It seemed like a good time to look into ideas about belonging in a city.

The inter-connectedness of things has always excited me. I find my head always making these maps. It was about bringing that map out of my head and putting it in a film.
 

Is it surprising that nativist groups want to co-opt the rickshaw drivers?

In Karnataka, identity politics is yet to become an ideology, unlike what evolved in Maharashtra. It remains as activism—sometimes about language, sometimes about a river’s waters, about borders. There are several groups, but without ideological differences. So I wouldn’t even call them nativist groups. They are more like power brokers.
 

The documentary is ambivalent about which way the auto drivers’ collective love for Nag will eventually turn. As viewers, we are invited to admire the drivers, but they seem to worship a kind of cinema that isn’t always progressive, and they practise a kind of identity politics that could easily harden.

There are many ways of seeing, remembering, celebrating. It is complex. The auto driver is also constantly redefining the idea of the fan. Shankar Nag may be disappearing from auto windshields. But auto drivers make space for him by the tail-light of the autorickshaw. The fact that this man still remains in public memory more than 20 years after he passed away cannot be just a socio-cultural phenomenon. This means that there is a lacuna in the political system that has created space for this.

As a documentarian, I am compelled to show the alternative to mainstream portrayals in which the state sets up a 24x7 call centre to help the citizen against harassment by an auto driver—as if the auto driver is not a citizen. If I am saying that not all auto drivers who are Shankar Nag fans align themselves with a language activist group, it means that the kind of language politics that plays out on the street is never black and white.
 

You have resisted the temptation to provide information about Nag or the context of the cinema in which he worked—you prefer impressions over information.

It was very important for me that Shankar Nag—the person, his work—gets articulated by the auto driver, and not by a subject expert. That didn’t quite happen. I could not get an auto driver to intellectualize his fanhood in so many words. But at the same time I was meeting several of them eking out a livelihood on his name. There were so many fantastic ways in which he was and is living.
 

Did you grow up watching Nag’s films? How did you react to him as a woman, given his ultra-macho persona in mainstream cinema?

I was more of a fan of his brother, Anant Nag. He was good-looking, and maybe I didn’t articulate it then, but the films he acted in had female actors with auteur-backed roles. Shankar Nag, despite the male sexual energy he exuded in his first film Ondanondu Kaladalli, allowed for his brand of macho to be hijacked by stereotypes laid out by mainstream cinema, which may not have appealed to me then.
 

Non-Kannadigas were exposed to Shankar Nag as an actor in Girish Karnad’s ‘Utsav’ and then as the director of ‘Malgudi Days’. The duality of Nag’s persona doesn’t get explored in the documentary.

In that way, yes, it is a very local documentary. It is an insider documentary. If one has to bring in a food analogy, the documentary is like this Kannadiga dish called chow chow baath—it sounds Chinese, but (in spirit) is the equivalent to Bombay’s vada pav. Much like Shankar Nag. It depends on how hungry one is.
 

Vinod Raja’s cinematography beautifully captures the tones and textures of Bangalore by day and night. What kind of Bangalore did you want in your film?

The film-making required the Canon 5D, which is a sensitive camera, to work like a PD 9 (high-definition camera Sony PD 170). He didn’t like that one bit. But the good thing is that Bangalore is in both our DNAs. Despite all the branding as a global city, if one were to sit at a street corner, across an auto stand anywhere in the city, all day long, one will see that even the argument of the local versus the global has many versions. That’s the Bangalore I wanted to capture.
 
Nandini Ramnath
LiveMint
11 April 2013
 
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