Transient truths

UNTO THE FOLD·Colour· 87 mins·Hindi with English subtitles·Directed by Pravin Kumar·Samanvaya Trust, New Delhi·1996

By Rohan D'souza
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

GIVEN the almost explosive interest in and proliferation of environment-related documentaries in India in recent times, it is perhaps possible now to explore a defmition of the niche or slot itself. Are environment-related documentaries primarily about wildlife, or investigative reportage on environmental degradation, or merely doc- umentaries of ecological complexes that mayor may Dot include a human ele- ment? Are they, in the final analysis, subsidiary to a broader design to generate a type of environmental con- sciousness with messages against modernity and argu- ing for restraint?

With rare insight, Unto The Fold (Kaun Lageya Rift: Hindi) explores a new range of possibilities for documentaries and films that can be broadly accommodated under the rubric of an envi- ronmental film. The theme revolves around the Caddis -a migratory community that follows a seasonal jour- ney across the Himalayan ranges. Their annual migra- tion, in quest of Alpine pas- tures for their sheep and goats, meanders across trails of awesome beauty and stag- gering ecological diversity. From the boiling summer plains in and around Punjab, to the raw moonscape of the rain-shadow regioQ' of the greater Himalaya, the Caddis travel through a veritable spectrum of topography. The task of capturing this grandeur would have been imposing enough, but the film moves beyond colour, light and cinematographic depth to catalogue, probe and sometimes simply reflect on the innumerable layers of the semi-nomadic condition.

The narrative is based on an eclectic yet riveting collec- tion of techniques that ex- plores the nuances of the Caddi lifestyle and its dilem- mas. In the absence of coni- mentary, the message of the film is subtly conveyed through stories, legends, rit- uals and scenes that convey the powerful simplicity of daily life, captured creatively with excellent timing and editing. The predicaments of the pastoralists is conveyed in the voice of the Caddis and Caddinis themselves - whether it is the loss of forests or pastures, conflict with government and rules, the future of their children and the fairly realistic danger of losing forever their routes and flocks to the imperatives of the present.

The film manages to avoid portraying the Caddis as exotic noble savages in harmony with themselves and their world and there is no attempt to romanticise their way of life. The often explicit brutality of the Gaddis' natural surround- ings and their social world makes the film a powerful one. The shot capturing the quick and efficient decapita- tion of the sacrificial goat, in the hope of appeasing the deity for safe passage across the mountain pass, is stun- ning and awesome. As much as the realistic portrayal of the Gaddis' negotiations with modern life involving levels of appropriation, surrender and rejection. The dilemma of wanting educa- tion and higher standards of living, and their link with their traditions is well portrayed.

A notable feature of this documentary is the effortless humour that is threaded throughout the film. The film begins with an arresting set of juxtapositions -a Gaddi spinning skeins of wool while a well-endowed sheep inadvertently crosses his path almost wondering if the wool came off its back. An old Gaddini, perhaps dropping her guard before the camera, whacking the goats and sheep, affection- ately taunting that all they do is "shit and eat, shit and eat". Or the fleeting shot of a school teacher telling Gaddi children a story in broken English of the 'hard working' shepherds Isabelle and Michael who lived in a 'cottage on the hill'. The sheer inconsequence of the syllabi to the children's world is most endearingly portrayed, with understated irony and overwhelming poignancy. Several other similar instan- ces captured in the film make this narrative strategy one of the pivots of the portrayal.

The grandeur of some of the shots deserve to be mentioned for what is surely a tribute to monumental patience and hard work. The crossing of the glacier is spectacularly film~d. The shot begins with a &heet of white ice cut by a ribbon of sky. In a few seconds, a drtb- ble of dark grey patches make their appearance fol- lowed by an overwhelming mass of goats, sheep and Gaddis almost as a denoue- ment. The cinematographic excellence of the film con- tributes to the general easy pace and allows viewers to soak in the colours and beauty of the landscape.

The film will be remem- bered not only as "~ gripping account of the" Gaddis and their natural world but more importantly as a significant exploration of the medium of film making itself. Praveen Kumar's debut is c~rtainly a rich addition to the genre referred to as environment film/documentary.

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