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Looking back at the Chilika that was

Film>> Chilika Banks Commissioned by Public Service Broadcast Trust Director

By Krishnendu Bose
Published: Saturday 31 January 2009

-- (Credit: Divya)

In the past two decades, one mantra has held enormous sway on our policy makers from local to global. The India that is projected to the world by the media and in government brochures has benefited from this form of globalization. But the India rich in natural resources stands marginalized 'From local to global' has mostly meant outsiders poaching on resources protected and conserved by local people. Akansha Joshi's film Chilika Banks fits into this context. It maps the path of destruction of the Chilika Lake in Orissa. It tells the story of its use, and abuse, in the past three decades.

Chilika, the largest brackish water lake in Asia, is a perfect ground to breed prawns. The lure of easy money brought outsiders to Chilika. They came with their trawlers which scooped up the prawns.Other marine species could not cope with the excessive assault on the ecosystem and started to vanish. That set off a spiral. Migratory birds, which used to flock the lake in the winters, started deserting it for want of food. Gharials, turtles and dolphins were affected and the once biodiverse lake lost its riches to greedy outsiders. The destruction didn't finish there. Numerous gheries, artificial prawn spawning centres, came up. Those who had the resources to put up gheries started raking in dollars. This led to the further destruction of the natural system. Today, the lake has lost its wealth and the local people their life support system. Migration is the only recourse.

To this reviewer, Chilika Banks raises questions of development and development films, without answering them. A common criticism of some of us who make films on development politics is that we are anti-development we eulogize the past and do not look ahead. A lot of development films echo this critique of contemporary development by India's leading urban environmentalists. There is this strong message to go back to the old modes of productions and technology; there is an emphasis on conserving the culture of the past.

A lot of development literature also has a romantic notion of local communities. We seem to believe that, given a chance, communities would always protect their local resource--despite the fact that there are as many examples of local people protecting their resources as that of pillaging. In many instances, local people with control over resources and with access to markets have wrought as much violence on their resources as outsiders or the state.

Chilika Banks suffers from this characteristic naivet of developmental texts. Nowhere does the filmmaker hint that the local community dependent on Chilika had, in fact, built safeguards to protect their environment. The community is shown as a victim. It surely is one. But would the local people have behaved differently from outsiders if they had the trawlers to scoop up prawns and the markets to sell them? Nowhere does Joshi make a case for the environment-friendly acumen of local people. In fact, the characters of the film seem to rue the fact that they do no benefit from an economic system that uses their resources.

In this age of television literacy, people's comprehension of images and issues, is much sharper than what it was a couple of decades ago, when some of us set out to make development documentaries. An effective film today should speak from the standpoint of what people think constitutes good modern life. And then argue how unsustainable that can be. One should not deny the modern for the nostalgia of the past. In Chilika Banks, this doesn't merely restrict to the content but also to the style and the form. Documentary styles have changed enormously and lot of that is in response to the changing perception of the image conforming to the changing pace of our lives.

The filmmaker's heart is certainly in the right place. But if the film was rooted more in the times, it could have been a much more effective statement on the journey from the local to the global.

Krishnendu Bose is a documentary filmmaker

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