She is the unlikeliest of entrepreneurs, this middle-aged woman from a village in Karnataka. But Shivamma, who zealously hawks health supplements, can neither be underestimated nor ignored.
The titular heroine of Jaishankar Aryar’s assured debut feature is a juggler of jobs and dreams. Shivamma throws every one of her 46 kilos at balancing her responsibilities as a cook at the local school with round-the-clock evangelism about the merits of the fictional products B Fresh and Nuracle.
Aryar’s Kannada-language movie follows Shivamma on a journey that winds past domestic responsibilities (including a daughter who needs to be wed), steep debt, and naysayers. Despite several setbacks, some of which are a result of her own making, Shivamma is dauntless, her iron will sheathed in brightly patterned saris.
In mapping Shivamma’s journey, Aryar provides a dispassionate view of aspiration, the mechanics of the direct selling business, the economic challenges facing a rural community, and the resilience of women fighting battles not of their making.
“The original idea was to have a protagonist who is very persistent, who believes in what she thinks and doesn’t care for what others say,” said Aryar, who has also written and edited the film.
Produced by Kantara director Rishab Shetty – who also bankrolled Natesh Hegde’s Pedro in 2021 – Shivamma was premiered at the recently concluded Busan International Film Festival. Shivamma shared the top prize in the New Currents competition category with the Korean feature A Wild Roomer.
The Busan jury said in its statement about Shivamma: “Here documentary and fiction meet in an organic and spirited way of making cinema. The generosity of the actors and the scenes create a closeness with this universal story that takes place in an Indian village.”
Aryar, 31, is a juggler of sorts too. He works as an engineer at an information technology company in Bengaluru. Shivamma was gestated during a year-long break in 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic spread through the country.
The story idea emanated from a series of characters and encounters. These include Aryar’s uncle, the kind of enthusiastic salesman who would “pitch to anybody and everybody”, Aryar told Scroll.in.
Aryar was also keen on telling a story about women from his mother’s generation – a demographic often ignored by filmmakers.
Among the persons who contributed to Aryar’s script was a visitor to the actor-producer Rakshit Shetty’s office. Aryar happened to be there when a man walked in selling something that nobody wanted. As the man packed up his belongings and left the office dejected, Aryar felt a surge of empathy for the visitor.
An aunt, who valiantly supported her husband through his cancer treatment, was among the inspirations. A woman in Aryar’s ancestral village Yerechanchinala, who had borrowed money from a host of people, similarly fired the filmmaker’s imagination. Shivamma was shot in Yerechanchinala, with a cast that entirely comprised locals, in 2021 and 2022.
Aryar’s research for Shivamma included working for a few health supplement companies. There, he observed the “hunger and drive” that motivated people to “Always Be Closing”, as David Mamet memorably put it in his play Glengarry Glen Ross.
Aryar clarified that Shivamma doesn’t take a stand on whether nutritional supplements are actually effective or whether direct selling businesses resemble Ponzi schemes. He was more interested in examining the human endeavour to overcome hardscrabble circumstances using every available method.
As his film reveals, the lack of economic opportunities is among the unchanging features of places like Yerechanchinala, where young people have cellphones but few means to move up the ladder. “Had my father not moved from Yerechanchinala to Bengaluru, I wouldn’t have become an engineer or filmmaker,” Aryar observed.
Aryar is a self-trained director, who says he picked up filmmaking tips by watching instructional videos on YouTube. His first short film, Narasimaiahan (2019), was selected for a festival in Bengaluru, where it won awards and impressed jury member Rishab Shetty.
Aryar was roped in to contribute to Shetty’s anthology film Katha Sangama (2020). “I had won Shetty’s faith, so when I came up with the idea for Shivamma, he said, work on it,” Aryar said.
The films that Rishab Shetty acts in and directs are from a different universe from the likes of his productions Pedro and Shivamma. “The very good thing is that Rishab Shetty gave my project the strength and backing,” Aryar said. “He lends his own market value to his productions. It’s important to have a producer who understands that such films take time and will have a long journey ahead of them. He has the energy to wait. He also gives creative liberty – he knows his style is different, and he doesn’t interfere in your process.”
Kannada arthouse cinema has a rich legacy, which has been strengthened in recent years with such films as Pawan Kumar’s Bengaluru-set thriller Lucia (2013) and Raam Reddy’s Thithi (2018), the rambunctious comedy written by Mandya native Ere Gowda.
“Lucia was a pathbreaker for Kannada cinema, while Thithi showed us what was possible with non-professional actors,” Aryar said. “And Natesh Hegde’s Pedro inspired people of my generation to make a film in our own voice.”
Shivamma draws its vernacular realistic aesthetic from its setting. “I met so many people during the making and casting, and improvised the screenplay according to the place and the culture,” Aryar said. “The entire cast is from Yerechanchinala, and none of them has acted before.”
The most compelling cast member is its central character. As Shivamma, Sharanamma Chetti is a bundle of authenticity, toughness, vulnerability and canniness. Chetti’s unselfconscious performance is all the more mesmerising when you consider that like the rest of the actors, she has never faced a camera before.
“She is a distant relative from my village,” Aryar said about Chetti. “I had shortlisted a few women for the role. I overheard her talking to my aunt and cast her on the basis of her intonation, the way she paused and stressed syllables. She had the body language that was required from a business person. She was also the same age as my protagonist.”
Some portions of the film were shot by Saumyananda Sahi and later by Vikas Urs. Aryar pursued a documentary style of shooting, replete with local detail and the rhythms of actual village life.
“I wanted to shoot things as they were happening,” Aryar explained. “We used two cameras and mostly handheld shots.”
The screenings in Busan elicited curiosity from the largely Korean audience about the film’s depiction of rural Karnataka. Why is Shivamma saddled with arranging her daughter’s wedding? Is her son Shivu, who opposes her efforts, a chauvinist? And why does her extended family’s opinion matter so much?
Aryar’s replies appear to have gone down well enough. A few audience members approached him for the ultimate proof of acceptance: his autograph. As Shivamma continues on its journey through the film festival circuit, there may be many more such occasions for its talented creator.