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More hard facts and much less syrup, please

Both films end as abruptly as they begin, fragments of documentation on celluloid or videotape that aim, as one said at the beginning, at evoking pity and outrage.

 
By Sevanti Ninan
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- (Credit: Rustam Vania)HOW DO you go beyond mere attempts to evoke pity and outrage in films that purport to be about conflicts between common people and the state? It is so easy to make these: Let the camera pan from one lamenting tribal to another, sweep over their habitat, still picturesque despite the denudation and then do a contrasting sweep over the harsh, grassless, treeless, newly built settlements in which the tribals are being dumped.

Shoot the sloganeering and the protest marches, the police arriving in strength, the arrests, the angry speeches. Slip in for contrast some insincere promises from a politician. String it all together and you have what passes for an activist or a campaign film, call it what you like. If the camera has been particularly evocative, if the voice-over tosses in some word pictures from tribal lyrics, its saleability improves considerably. But what really matters above all is that it should be politically correct.

Is this an uncharitable view? Not really. Just a heartfelt plea for more clarity, objectivity, and some plain facts.

Take two films now on the alternative circuit. Follow the Rainbow made by Vasudha Joshi and Ranjan Palit, and Manibeli filmed, scripted and directed by Anurag Singh at Cendit. The first is about the Suvarnarekha project in Bihar, the second about a village affected by the Sardar Sarovar project. That they are uncannily similar in the sequences they shoot is not surprising. Both are about dispossession and resistance. They should be applauded for giving a voice to people over whom the state has ridden roughshod because they are poor and powerless. The film-makers' hearts are undoubtedly in the right place, but after that, what? Both films end as abruptly as they begin, fragments of documentation on celluloid or videotape that aim, as one said at the beginning, at evoking pity and outrage.

Big-dam conflicts and the accompanying resettlement are complex, spectacularly contentious issues and it is barely possible to do justice to them in an hour-long documentary. But even the effort to do so is not to be seen in these films. The objective in Manibeli is to air accusations by unnamed activists, without any effort to get the other side's perspective; to make out a case of police having run amuck through charges made on camera by one tribal after another. At the outset, there is a brief reference to why Manibeli, the first village in Maharashtra that will be submerged by the Sardar Sarovar project, became the scene of clashes. But that's all. For much of the 42-minute film, the voice-over is so sparing you can only guess at what is going on. And, then, it ends without any concluding account of what happened finally in Manibeli.

As for Follow the Rainbow, it works only as a chronicle of an incipient protest movement. If it is meant to be a case-study of a conflict over a big dam, it is far too one-sided and impressionistic to do justice to the subject.

The commentary says the film unit had been at that site for a year, waiting for the movement to take off, it almost gives you the feeling they were trying to nudge a nebulous movement into existence.

The second part of the film shows a major encounter with the police in which protesters courted arrest and were jailed for a month and how this becomes the turning point of the agitation, which then gathers momentum and takes off, winning new converts in every household. And, there the film ends. What happens thereafter? What is the status of that project today? Is it continuing or stalled? Has the agitation chalked up any gains, however small? Sorry, no answers there. Possibly it is meant for viewers who do not have such mundane concerns.

This film was made for Channel Four, UK, and has been telecast there. It is very lyrical in parts, romanticising at length a tribal community's bond with the forests in which they have made their home for generations and dwelling on the implied heartlessness of a state that wants to uproot them. But enlightening the film is not, being extremely short on hard facts.

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