Director: Karthik Saragur
Cast: Siri Vanalli, Lavanya Natana, Chitra Venkataraju and Suman Nagarkar
This year has seen quite a few slice-of-life Kannada films set in locales far away from the metros. After last fortnight's Ammachi Yemba Nenapu in Kundapura comes Jeerjimbe set in the fictional village of Byakalahalli in Thippasandra, surrounded by rocks and bathed in cold mist in the mornings. It's just 78 km from Bangalore but seems a whole continent away.
The film, directed by Karthik Saragur, won the Best Children's Film at the 2016 Karnataka State Film Awards. And, nothing much has changed in the two years it took to reach the big screen, if you go by reports of crushed childhoods in the recent past.
The opening scene has two friends, Rudri (Siri Vanalli, who won Best Child Actor at the Karnataka State Film Awards) and Dakshi (an effective Lavanya Natana) walking to school, calculating how they've walked almost 1000 km in the past few months just to get there. A scene reminiscent of the 2017 Tamil film Magalir Mattum, where women calculate the lakhs of dosas they've made in their lifetime.
This then is another India, where children walk long distances to school, along wooded paths and ponds. The local school decides to gift bicycles to the children of class eight. In a hat tip to late actor Robin Williams, the title card quotes him: "Cycling is the closest you can get to flying".
Rudri and her classmates are delighted, but their seniors in classes nine and ten, including Dakshi and the gang leader Kotri (a menacing Chitra Venkataraju who has a poignant back story) are livid at being left out. The film breezes through these portions, as the girls struggle to learn to pedal, fall, and rise again. Ironically, Rudri is the last to learn. This stretch had to be the most effective, but poor sync between audio and video mars the impact. You hear Rudri scream in fright as the cycle hurtles down a road, but the visuals show a calm girl riding a well-behaved cycle.
Rudri and Dakshi are full of angst. Rudri does not understand why her elder sister is unwell all the time and stays with them even after her marriage; eventually, she's the one who nudges Rudri towards freedom. She also fobs off the attempts of her no-good brother-in-law to swindle her cycle, and his desire to marry her. Dakshi wants to learn the traditional dance form her father is a master of, but he's unwilling to let a girl learn it. She loves dance so much that a chance slur from Rudri sees her temporarily crush their friendship.
When Nivedita (the ever dignified Suman Nagarkar), an engineer from Bengaluru, volunteers to teach at their school, the children are made aware of another world. She tells the children that their dreams are theirs alone and that no one can crush them; this seeps into Rudri's mind.
An incident between Rudri and Kotri has Nivedita organise a street play, where children are taught about the ills of child marriage and how the toll free number 1098 works. This had all possibility of turning into a propaganda film, but all credit to the director for reining in the script and performers.
He ably directs the child actors, most of who are said to be from a theater background. The patch-up between Rudri and Dakshi happens in a micro-second — for girls with a long history, that's time enough to pick up the fallen strands of friendship. Dakshi is set to be married off to a man much older than her, so that her father can teach him his craft. Rudri calls 1098 and stops the wedding, but soon it's her turn to get married.
Will Rudri allow society to crush her dreams or will the girl who has a huge butterfly prop in her room learn to fly and seek a new life? Will Dakshi get to dance?
Director Karthik addresses these important issues in a manner that's not preachy; remarkable, considering the film speaks of a number of them — child marriage, dowry, 1098 and sexual harassment, among others. The main reason for this has to be the cast. The children are spot-on, and Rudri and Dakshi are just the kind of girls with spunk who will flag down a car and rightfully take their seat. The supporting cast is rooted in the milieu, hardworking folks who hope for deliverance some day. Nivedita is the mentor every student needs, the kind who ignites the mind and steps back to see him/her bloom.
The climax might seem deeply cinematic, but you forgive that in a film that ticks all the right boxes so well. But then, Rudri is also the kind of girl who can cycle all night to meet the Chief Minister; after all, angered by her brother-in-law's presence, she shifts to the pump room on their field, making it home for her, her cycle and her dreams.
Cinematography by Balaji Manohar packs in the greens, the rocky landscape and the mist with equal grace, while music by Charan Raj MR is the kind that demands a repeat listen. Do keep the ears open for the BGM when Rudri and Dakshi race each other through the dirt path. The film is lyrically rich too. 'Yaako Yeno', written by Karthik and rendered by veteran actor B Jayashree is an ode to the mind of a happy child who's learnt to cycle. Sample these lines: "The earth seems lower, the hill seems to have shrunk two feet" — all because of a cycle, especially one that belongs to the effervescent Rudri.
While criticising any largesse by the Government is par for the course, this film is proof that without some of these incentives, it is difficult to get the girl child to school. The film concludes with statistics that speak of how Karnataka is among the States with the highest incidence of child marriage, but also throws the spotlight on girls who've fought the system and continued to study instead. Rudri has exercised her choice. Hopefully, others will too.