Aug 2, 2007

Mahua Memoirs

The reality of everyday life is so consuming that we fail to see anything beyond our immediate travails. The corporatized media is not interested in anything other than the daily dose of ticklish gossip that goes on as news. It is here that Mahau Memoirs a film by Vinod Raja arouses us from the apathy and opens to a struggle that we are comfortably oblivious of and in which we have high-stakes.

The documentary opens with a solemn scene of an Adivasi lighting a fire. The act of churning twigs stuffed in cut bamboo shoot and blowing it as it smokes in both hands is so magical and gracious that lighting a fire becomes a prayer. In fact it is. The stark contrast is so evident, that I was trying to recollect when I lit a matchbox in the most crass way. The film is replete with such imagery and messages that it prompted a gentleman in the audience to wonder whether we really deserve to be called civilized in comparison to the Tribals depicted in the film. It took five hundred years of industrial activity, research and colossal damage to the environment for us to realize how entwined we are with this planet and now we really do not have a clue as to how to untangle this mess.

Mahua Memoirs portrays the struggle of indigenous people against big money and the powers that be who destroy their natural habitat and way of life for centuries by granting mining leases. The region around Orissa, Chattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand
is rich in bauxite, iron ore, chromite and other mineral deposits that national and international corporations are scrambling to secure mining leases and create plants to process them into aluminum, iron or other metals. At a cost benefit ratio of 1:100 odd this is big money for the global conglomerates with the Indian government getting only a miniscule portion of the proceeds. The original dwellers of the land are hustled out of their natural habitats and shoved into settlements and an existence that they are absolutely not tuned to.

The divergent approach to land use by the Tribals and the mining companies paints a picture of contrast and proves how uncivilized the civilized really can be. While the Advasi’s have a rotation based agricultural pattern where they farm the land for three years and then leave it untouched for a couple of years to rejuvenate, the company digs the land from its heart making it infecund for generations to come.

Such naked plundering and huge factories, which process this ore into metal, affects the immediate and long-term well being of India's environment and leads to mass dispossession. Jhorias, Konds, Dongria Konds and many such tribes lived at peace with the nature for centuries and have evolved a system that sustains and nurtured the terrain. The theoretical framework of anthropology was always evolutionist, promoting the idea that tribal society represents a primitive stage of development. Modern anthropology however rejects this view, and looks on tribal societies as no less sophisticated than mainstream society: more developed than us in many areas, less developed in others. The areas where tribal societies are more highly developed than us include a huge sensitivity and knowledge relating to nature - in effect, the art of living sustainably. Despite this the greed and voracity that dominate life in the modern society, inflicts the most naked and starkest form of brutality on the tribal people in the name of development.

It is very difficult to qualify such a work as just a good film. The emotions it evoked was all but good:- helplessness at being so impotent, rage at living in society where such injustice go without a whimper, absolute hatred at the mainstream media for not bringing out such stories. And that is where Mahua Memoirs succeeds as a film. It evokes extreme emotions with what eminent cinematographer Bhaskarji remarked as a subdued tone for a documentary. Never preachy, goading to think and slowly shaking from the comfort zone. Vinod’s succeeds as an artist in prodding us into a trajectory, which we fail to see or choose to not see. In this age of instants success and page 3 chatter it is rare to see a filmmaker who remains true to the medium and constantly strives to make an impact on our collective conscience. His earlier film The Bee, The Bear, And The Kuruba which I haven’t seen captures how eco-tourism projects and the forest department are stifling the native Kuraba community out of their habitats. It is high time that we start celebrating filmmakers like Vinod Raja who tread the road less traveled.

It is impossible to remain aloof from all that is happening in the heartland. The wisdom of ages, a balanced worldview that Guru Nitya calls Samyukaaya oru jeevitha veekshanam gets trampled by cars and supermarket chains - the most obvious symbols of over-development in the urban landscape The choice of models and brands, tell a story which links our material prosperity to the poverty and exploitation of the indigenous tribes. Our own lifestyle here is not separate from the resistance of tribal people against the imposed industrialization of their own land. The sooner we wake up to it, the better.

References: Anthropology Of A Genocide: Tribal Movements In Central India Against Over-Industrialisation By Felix Padel And Samarendra Das