Updated: February 2, 2021 6:08:38 pm
Ant colonies are always on the move. Carrying their worlds along, digging new nests. It’s apt that Siddharth Tripathy’s debut feature, A Dog and his Man, recently screened at the 51st International Film Festival of India (IFFI), should open and close with the striking shot of ants crawling on walls, headed somewhere. They stand for the forest-dwelling Gond tribal community of Raigarh’s Nagaramuda village, displaced by coal-mining corporations.
The 84-minute Chhattisgarhi feature, whose original title was A Dog Dies — a moving tale of the dog Kheru and his man Shoukie Sidar, who refuses to leave his home/village and the dog refuses to leave him — premiered at Vancouver International Film Festival in 2019 (global) and at 2020 MAMI (domestic), and won the international film critics’ FIPRESCI Award at Bengaluru International Film Festival last February.
The pathos of the timelessness of the static frames — cracked mud walls, abandoned houses, bare trees, parched landscape — is heightened by a woman’s lament song. Shoukie, played by Tripathy’s uncle, Balu, a retired professor of Hindi literature in Odisha, is an everyman, his struggle is one of the working class, whose protests are seen more on Indian streets than in Indian cinema these days. The landless Shoukie’s revolution lies in small acts of protests – unlike his wife and son, he won’t give up his home and land. Cinema, according to Russian documentary maker Dziga Vertov, should reflect reality because there can be no revolution if people aren’t in touch with their ground reality.
But Tripathy didn’t want to make a documentary. A Dog… is moving because it tells the human story, albeit fictional, without anger, without statistics. “The emotional price of leaving home is too big, much more than the price of the land,” says Tripathy, 47, a Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute (Kolkata) graduate, adding, “I was making documentaries and thought this was a good opportunity to work for my own region. I worked in the same Nagaramuda village in 2011, when it was being evacuated (before it emptied out, it had 530 people, according to the 2011 census).”
It takes one to know one. Tripathy comes from a well-known family in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh. His father is Sahitya Akademi-awardee Hindi writer Prabhat Tripathi and grandfather was a politician. But it wasn’t until he worked as “an officer for the company” in thermal power and coal mining (in the firm’s corporate social responsibility, pacifying conflicts) that he would come to know the ground reality. It resulted in a dual relationship. He was, at once, one of the locals, but estranged from them, as a “company” man. “Nagaramuda (about 30 km from Raigarh) used to compose of thick forest area in our Tamnar district (one of the last contiguous stretches of dense forests in central India),” says Tripathy, recalling his days of yore when picnics around the forests were a regular affair.
The village falls under the technical classification Gare Palma IV/1 coal block in Tamnar, whose residents have been holding “coal satyagraha” every October 2 for the last eight years. After a period of ceased auctions and mining operations (following the Coalgate scam of UPA 2), auctions have recently restarted. In November, Jindal Power Ltd regained its hold over the mine. “During the pandemic, public hearings were held without any public (locals),” says Tripathy, “The land is legally taken, but ethically and morally, can you displace people and its culture? I couldn’t take the dichotomy. These were my people.”
Commercial coal-mining dates back to the British, as dhaan (rice) fields were dug up for “black gold”, but, as Gangs of Wasseypur 1 tells, “Aazadi ke baad asli bandar-baant shuru hua (Unregulated allocation started after independence)”. “In 1990s, coal deposits were discovered in Raigarh,” says Tripathy, “A huge influx of mining companies and allied industries followed. Villages, farmlands and forests were transformed into giant pits of coal.” The shooting location is “likely to disappear in one such pit”.
Tripathy says, “According to the Resettlement and Rehabilitation policy, if you take river, you give river, if you take home, you give home, if you take forest, you give forest. The value for everything is monetised. My film’s protagonist (Shoukie) neither has land for cultivation, nor any patta with his names. When such people, who have nothing to show, get into a barter with corporates regarding rehabilitation, they don’t get the deal.”
“Nothing of the forest remains. That’s only the environmental impact, not the social,” he says, “A lady getting into the forest, taking her time collecting fruits and selling them has a liberty of its own. You can’t equate that to her being a sweeper in a big plant. In our neoliberal capitalist economy, everything can be monetised, but the social impact is more than just earning bread and butter, it is anthropological because you are losing your culture. People living in company quarters, their food habits have shattered and clothing patterns have become homogeneous. It is a cultural genocide that we are not noticing but it’s happening.”
“If the corporations intended on giving back the grasslands, they would start by filling up the pits, grow grass there, not turn them into spurious mining lakes, which adulterate the groundwater, leading to chronic illnesses and bone deformities,” says Tripathy, whose first documentary looked at the ill-effects of iron-ore mining in Karnataka’s Kudremukh national park.
A Dog and his Man is the first of a trilogy. “First they take your land, then they take your occupation (dictate what you grow) and, then, they force you to migrate and live in urban spaces,” says the director who’s put all his money into this first feature.
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