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Understanding Adivasis

Tapan Bose's Jharkhand, 10 years in the making, has a participative view of the timeless, unspoilt lives of Adivasis stripped of their land

By Sevanti Ninan
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

Exploring the social and econo INDIAN filmmakers have tackled the subject of Adivasis before, but the film under review this fortnight is the most ambitious in recent years. Tapan K Bose's Jharkhand was meant to be part of a trilogy, but the other two didn't get made because the filmmaker ran out of resources. Bose says that the three films he had planned were meant to explore the relationship between the tribal and the land in the first part, between the tribal and the tree in the second part; the third part was supposed to focus on what is happening to the culture of the Adivasi. Ultimately, Jharkhand dwells on the first of these, with some elements of the two subsequent themes featuring as well.

The film is ambitious because it attempts to examine, in the course of an hour, anthropology and history and the contemporary, exploring social and economic dilemmas in which these tribals are trapped today. It dwells at length on their religion, propounding the thesis that it influenced their whole life and their socio-economic system.

Bening spirits
Their religion was not animism but the worship of benign spirits that dwelt everywhere -- in trees, in rivulets, in huts. When people died, they changed into these spirits. The dead also continued to lay claim to the land they had used -- it naturally passed down to their descendants. The burial stones of the dead were in a sense the title deeds to the land.

Into this self-contained world of beliefs and cultural practices came the dhiku, the outsider, eventually wreaking havoc with the lives of the Adivasis. Jharkhand then goes on to document how these tribes lost control over the forests which sustained them and the land which, unfortunately for them, was rich in minerals coveted by the world outside their paradigm. Because there are so many dimensions to the alienation and displacement they have suffered from their ancestral lands in the Jharkhand region, it picks on a few examples of projects that ruined the land, exploited the natural resources and impoverished the tribals.

There is also a throwaway reference to the exploitation of Adivasi women, a point which is not developed any further. The footage available to illustrate this broad-brush documentary is limited to copious filming of their daily lives and rituals.

No etchings or photographs are used even when the commentary talks of the Munda uprising of 1899 and the later Adivasi rebellions. But even so, the cinematography is what makes this film worth sitting through. It has an unhurried quality which captures the essence of the timeless, unspoilt world of these tribes. It was shot over a span of 10 years.

The filmmaker says that at one point he and his team travelled across the Jharkhand region for two months moving form village to village, filming and getting to understand the Adivasis and their culture. There are many scenes in this film which could only have come from hanging around unobstrusively; but many others are routine -- tribal dance sequences and religious rituals, one of which is quite gory.

The soundtrack evocatively captures even tinny birdcalls. These are the best moments of the film -- that is, when the relentless voiceover lets up and lets the camera tell the story. The commentary is informative but not always welcome. Bose says he put it in because he couldn't afford subtitles. But it could have been far more spare than it is, the film could have been planned in a way that would have let the Adivasis tell their own story.

As it stands, they do so only for a fraction of the time. But on the whole, it is a long-overdue effort to understand India's exploited and hounded indigenous peoples, and to convey that understanding to the viewer.

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