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


Scorpio said...

I agree.
Let us also celebrate the up and coming Redwater Stew....

M.S said...

Your musings on the documentary is fine indeed, which makes me want to see the documentary. keep the the good work and do write regularly since you have such fine writing skill.

Sachin R K said...

If it wasnt for your post , I wouldnt have even realized that such a film had been released :(

Ravi Ande said...

Were you taking notes while the movie was going on or what?

Nice review though, would have been better with some stills.

Two thoughts stuck to me though
1. The fact that on one side we want India to do well on all fronts including modern industry. And we cheer with pride whenever we hear that India is going to be the next global giant. On the other hand, a movie like this sensitizes us to the fact that there is a balance required. That we have indigenous wealth in terms of culture, traditional knowhow and a way of life more nearer to nature that we risk losing.

2. The other observation is the fact that who sets our goals and aspirations. Inevitably, my personal realization has been that we send years rushing though life without any contemplative interrogation of why, which our forefathers seemed to have excelled and mastered. I could sense some of that sparkle and shine in the incisive chatter of the tribals.

Vinoo Krishnan said...

a must-watch.
don't miss this one.
it just kills you.
you cannot 'not react' to it.

ReadnRyte said...

Wish I could see it :(

But this dichotomy has always existed. In Jawarlal Nehru's 'Tryst with destiny' made a refernce to the did our current PM on his 4th annual Independence day address to the nation.

Poverty and inequity has always co-existed with the burgeoning riches on the other end of the spectrum..and if you notice, the media is all too bothered about the rising number of Indian bilionaires rather than focusing on the increasing divide between the rich and the poor.

Who do we blame for this..politicians are easy and soft targets, but the real gist of the problems lies in the apathy that the seemingly 'now' generation has fallen into.

Nice review Salil..keep it coming.


Belt Mathai said...

Great post, Salil. It really makes me want to see the film. Also very thought provoking. On the one hand part of me wants to go the materialistic way searching for more and more comforts. Another part of me wants a sustainable way of life for myself and all of mankind. It has thrown my mind and concience into a state of confusion. Keep it up.

Bangalaore Film Society said...

Thanks for your post on Mahua Memoirs. One of the major problem that happens where ever mining activity is done is the destruction of water bodies. The film shows a lot of flowing water in the area. Though the devestation of environment and tribals and their way of life due to mining is foregrounded in the film, I think there are also references to absence of potable water due to mining. I am preparing a special issue of Deep Focus on the theme of scarcity of water for the poor due to mining,big dams, drought, floods and so on basing on documentary films. Would you like to elaborate your post on these lines keeping the same perspective for publication in Deep Focus? I would be grateful if you kindly send a mail in this regard to
Georgekutty A.L
Editor, Deep Focus Film Quarterly

redwaterstew said...

kutty....we know each other.. at BFS ...maybe i will have to get to my real name

Anonymous said...

Good review although, as you said, nothing about the film or the topic makes you feel good. Tribal issues, displacement and conflicts in the name of development have lead to some sad consequences in India and elsewhere and is a very sensitive topic with emotions running high. My first taste of it was very real when I attended a rally organized by the Narmada Bachao Andolan activists where some of the tribal leaders spoke out and it was very obvious how outraged they were.
Interestingly enough be it development projects or conservation projects it always appears to zero down on the idea that for either one to succeed the local people who have been living there for generations needs to be displaced. In fact one of the constantly discussed topics in the area of conservation is the strategy of community-based conservation vs. conservation through protected areas. Happy to note that the former strategy has started finding some success in India. Also policies on tribal rights (in India i.e) remain limited and ambiguous although apparently efforts are being made to change this. Unfortunately change is often preceded by some ill-fated occurrences.

Also thanks for the link on modern anthropology paper by Felix Padel and Samarendra Das. Quite an interesting read. Now I don’t know how interested you are in this topic but I came across some literature with these contradicting observations on indigenous population. One considered them as champions of sustainable living also termed (sounds almost derogatory actually) them “ecologically noble savages”. The other was how they cannot be in anyway considered stewards of the envt and even if it appeared to be so they were merely “side-effects of low population density, simple technology, and lack of external markets to spur over-exploitation”.
Interesting huh?

Anyways wish I could see the movie. One I enjoyed watching was Anant Patwardhan’s –A Narmada Diary. Do check it out if u haven't already.