Two years after he directed the blockbuster college romance Kirik Party, Rishab Shetty is going back to school with Kannada film Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shaale, Kasaragodu, Koduge: Ramanna Rai. The August 24 release tells the story of students at a Kannada-medium government school in Kasargod, a town on the Karnataka-Kerala border.

“Ours is a really good school,” says Mammootty (Sampath Kumar), a student and fan of Malayalam actor Mohanlal, in the trailer. “I don’t ever feel like leaving this school.” But Mammootty is in for a rude shock when the government orders the school to be shut down as it doesn’t have enough students. What follows is a dramatic effort by students to save their school, with the help of a petitioner (Anant Nag). The film also stars Ranjan, Pramod Shetty, Saptha Pavoor, Mahendra, Sohan Shetty and Prakash Thuminad.

“We’ve narrated the entire story in the trailer itself,” Shetty joked during an interview. “The idea for this film came when I was shooting for my first film Ricky. I got a chance to work with a few children and loved the experience. I thought it would be great to make a full-fledged commercial feature with children at the centre of it all.”

Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shaale, Kasaragodu, Koduge: Ramanna Rai (2018).

The film draws from the frequent attempts in Karnataka to shut down Kannada-medium schools because of poor student strength, which have been met with strong opposition from academics, children and opposition leaders. “But I was clear that I did not want to make a festival film, you know?” Shetty said. “What I have aimed to create is a complete entertainer, a film that will take you on a trip down memory lane all the way back to your childhood.”

The characters are derived from people the director grew up with. “I normally write the story first and then create the characters,” he said. “While writing this one particularly, characters from my own childhood started coming back to me. The children that you see in the film are actually versions of me, my elder brother and my friends back in school. For instance, Mammootty is a lot like me. Then there’s Praveena in the film, who is like my elder brother, who’d always struggle to pass his exams.”

By setting the film in Kasargod, Shetty threw an inter-state linguistic and political tussle into the mix. Until 1956, Kasargod was considered a part of Karnataka. On November 1, 1956, following the reorganisation of states, the district was added to Kerala owing to the predominance of Malayalam speakers in the district.

“There are a few Kannadigas there who feel the district should ideally be in Karnataka,” Shetty said. “There are Malayalis who are also fighting on the Kannadigas’ behalf. And then there is also the fact that language is being used as a pawn in the hands of political leaders. I wanted to explore what would happen to this story about a small Kannada medium-school if it is set in such a politically and linguistically complicated location.”

This film also examines how this row is seen by children, who are innocent spectators. “The confusion of a child like Mammootty about Kasargod’s status – whether it should be in Karnataka or Kerala – can be seen in the trailer as well,” Shetty said.

Sarkari Hi. Pra. Shaale, Kasargodu (2018). Courtesy Rishab Shetty Films.

However, Shetty clarified that these tensions are not the film’s focus. “It is all in the backdrop,” he said. “That said, a number of things that I have shown in the film, like Malayali teachers being recruited to teach in Kannada schools have all actually happened and continue happen in the area.”

After doing his research in Kasargod, Shetty went to Mangalore to meet filmmaker Raj B Shetty (Ondu Motteya Kathe), who translated the dialogue into the dialect of Kannada spoken in Kasargod. He then conducted auditions in Kasargod to cast the child actors.

There was one actor whom Shetty wanted right from the start. “I wrote the role of the petitioner with Anant Nag in mind,” Shetty said. “I wanted no one else. When he heard the script, he told me about how he too grew up in Kanchanagada in Kasargod, which is now in Kerala. He could relate to the story completely. He recalled how in his childhood, suddenly, the boards of shops and streets began to change and adopt a new language.”

Anant Nag and Rishab Shetty. Courtesy Facebook.

Does Shetty have an affinity with the college or school film genre? Kirik Party (2016), starring the filmmaker’s brother, Rakshit Shetty, along with Rashmika Mandanna, Samyuktha and Aravind Iyer, was a coming-of-age drama set in an engineering college in the Malnad region in Karnataka. It is one of the highest grossing movies in Kannada cinema and was remade in Telugu earlier this year as Kirrak Party. A Hindi remake starring Kartik Aaryan has been announced.

“I don’t look at a film in terms of its genre when I’m writing it,” he said. “I just write the story. There isn’t a plan, really. I just love to tell a new story each time.”

Kirik Party (2016).