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Sudheer Karamana plays the lead in Onkara

Sudheer Karamana plays the lead in Onkara

Onkara — a film about Mavilan community — an obscure tribe of Kerala and their love for theyyam, a ritualistic dance form of the state, was recently screened at the 15th edition of the Bengaluru International Film Festival (BIFFES) in Bengaluru. The tribe of hunters, gatherers, and herbalists regard theyyam as sacred.

Director Unni KR says that theyyam is significant to the Mavilans. “That’s what I have tried to show in the film,” says the filmmaker.

Onkara reminds of the blockbuster Kannada film Kantara as far the theme is concerned. Both deal with theyyam, but the portrayal in Onkara is subtle.

Onkara is reportedly the first film in Markodi, a dialect of the Tulu language, which doesn’t have a script.

From Onkara

From Onkara

The film follows the life of Karumban, a theyyam artiste and the son of Chinkam, the village head. Chinkam in Markodi means lion, and Chinkam leads the Mavilan community, akin to the king of the jungle. Karumban wants to follow in the footsteps of his father and become the next Chinkam. He and his family lead a life of poverty. Karumban’s wife suggests that he should take up farming but he is consumed by his passion for theyyam. His elder daughter Manikyam falls in love with a bangle seller and elopes. The villagers turn against Karumban and question his right to become the next Chinkam. Meanwhile, Manikyam returns to the forest after being sexually assaulted. Chinkam orders the villagers to severe ties with Manikyam.

The film is peppered with theyyam performances by Karumban, essayed by Sudheer Karamana, making it a visual feast.

Theyyam is derived from the word daivam or god. The dance form was never meant to entertain but to invoke the deity and seek blessings for prosperity. That’s how Theyyam has come to be the dance of gods. It is believed that during the performance, the artiste transcends his/her body and connects with the divine.

With the face painted in bright colours and dramatic eye-make up, donning an elaborate costume, a huge bamboo headgear and unique jewellery, the male dancer performs to the beats of musical instruments such as chenda (percussion), kuzhal (double reed wind instrument), elathalam (cymbals). In an open-air setting, he then enacts the stories of Kari Chamundi (goddess of disease), Vishnumoorthi (a representation of Vishnu), Bhagavathi, Raktha Chamundi and other gods.

The audience is immersed in bhakti rasa while watching the dancer perform with energy and vigour. The costume, performance, open-air setting in the night and lighting come together to make it an enchanting experience.

There are more than 400 styles of theyyam. “This tribe’s theyyam is different and difficult as well. Our lead actor, Sudheer, trained in it for six months,” says Unni.

The film’s catalogue gives a holistic description of the role theyyam practitioners play in the Mavilan community. It says: “Theyyam artistes in the community create wonders and are deemed to possess all-encompassing knowledge. They leave behind their homes and loved ones to take up residence in the jungle and perform miracles. Their abode, known as ‘Pathee’ is sought out by people who want guidance in life. Their visions of the future set a rhythm to Mavilan life.”

Apart from theyyam, the film goes on to spotlight other folk songs and dance forms like Mangalamkali (wedding dance ritual) and Eruthkali of the Mavilan tribe. The film documents their musical instruments as well such as thudi and bamboo drums.

While the film was shot in 30 days in forests, the research by director Unni KR and Rajesh Thillenkeri, who has written the story, screenplay and dialogue, took three years. “The tribals have a difficult life but they don’t complain. They want to live like free birds. Onkara is an effort to document the Mavilans culture,” says Unni.

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