Director: Champa Shetty
Cast: Vyjayanti V. Adiga, Deepika Aradhya, Raj B. Shetty.
Women — the bonds they forge, and the bondage they are tied to — have often been portrayed on the big screen. But what sets director Champa Shetty’s Ammachi Yemba Nenapu apart is how the two fuse so beautifully. Each of the three women the film revolves around — Puttammatte, Akku and Ammachi — has been wronged by men, but finds reason to live.
The film, set in the 1970s and 1980s, is based on the play Akku, derived from three stories (Ammachiya Nenapugalu, Akku and Puttammatte Mommagalu) by Sahitya Akademi-winning writer Vaidehi. She has written the story, lyrics and dialogues for the movie too.
Puttammatte is born to an intelligent but a no-good father and a terrified mother who dares to voice her thoughts just once, fatally. She is married to a man who dies early, leaving her with a child. The daughter dies at childbirth and her son-in-law abandons the newborn, Ammachi, whom Puttammatte raises. Akku, the daughter of the lady who gave Puttammatte a sanctuary, is abandoned by her husband and seems to have lost her mind.
The film opens to a shot of children sleeping on mats inside a traditional sloped-roof home. Then on, art director Shashidhar Adapa takes you right into the home and hearth of a traditional Kundapura home. Food is cooked over firewood, the happala (papads) is sun-dried and packed in tins, batter is ground by hand, clothes are stored in tin trunks and brass and copper vessels gleam in the sun after being scrubbed clean. During Deepavali, the home is lit with nothing but diyas that cast a gentle glow on everything and everyone, disguising the heartbreak to follow.
Puttammatte, Akku and Ammachi try to make sense of life in the best way they can. Puttammatte ignores the barbs and sexual innuendos that came her way in her youth, working hard to raise her daughter, and later granddaughter. She can be fiery, but her heart melts when anyone in her benefactor’s home calls her for work.
Her story is a balm for the younger daughter-in-law, who looks lost. The elder one is unlike her mother-in-law; she believes she’s entitled to Puttammatte’s time.
An old, dirty towel in hand, Akku is lost in her own world, one where she’s pregnant or raising a baby in her mind. Her father seems to not care and her younger brother (Vishwanatha Urala) never hesitates to raise a hand on her. Her only comfort is a nephew who loves her and brings her an amla, in secret. Has she been defeated or is there still some spirit left?
As for Ammachi, who lives life like she owns it, a wedding does its best to tie her down, but will she let it? Her fights are for the small things – face talc, a blouse with back buttons…because she’s lost the big one, the right to study. Her best friend Seetha (Diya Palakkal) is the story’s narrator, speaking of the happenings in a traditional home in Kundapura, where a widow still tonsures her head, where a man thought it was perfectly acceptable to want to crush a girl’s spirit, and where women could be each other’s worst enemies.
It’s not very easy to translate a play on to the big screen, and it’s commendable what Champa has achieved. Probably, it helped that she directed the play herself too. Barring some element of theater, especially in the placement of songs, the film effortlessly flits among the lives of these three women with hearts that are both steel and molten wax.
The actors, many of them from theater, bring alive the characters. Vyjayanti V Adiga is the effervescent Ammachi, whose eyes lose their light when she’s married off to her tormentor, played effectively by Raj B Shetty. Yes, the same man who had all the audience sympathy in Ondu Motteya Kathe.
Puttammatte is played by Yakshagana and theater artiste Radhakrishna Urala, known for his streevesha (female roles); how easily his face quivers when Puttammatte speaks of the horrors of her life and how much his back bends with all that life has put Puttammatte through.
Deepika Aradhya plays Akku, the sensitive soul who loses her will to live. She seems like a defanged snake, but when she finally strikes, it shakes the very foundation of her home. Her father, his face and body holding within them both guilt and impotent fury, is played by effective Sringeri Ramanna.
Music by Pandit Kashinath Pattar is evocative of the region, and allows the lyrics to breathe. His ‘Holeva Holeyaachege’, featuring Ammachi and Seetha, is a treat to listen to. Naveen Kumar’s camera does justice to the phenomenal natural beauty of this coastal region, and it also captures human frailties and joy.
A film that straddles homes and time, flitting back and forth, makes sense because of how editor Harish Komme structures it. He paces it well, most of the time, yet allows the moment to linger. The film is in the Kundapura dialect that takes some getting used to, but what helps is the sensitive subtitling by Ravi Bhat.
The film is set nearly four decades before the #MeToo Movement, but is still relevant. A crying shame, and an indictment of how society has continued to crush women. But, Ammachi’s triumphant smile and sparkling eyes let you know there’s hope.