In 1960, a young Chandi Prasad Bhatt told the cashier of his labour cooperative in Pipalkothi that if he did not return the ten rupee bribe he had taken for the disbursement of salaries to the labourers, Bhatt would do a satyagraha protest right outside his office. Two decades later, in the 1970s, Bhatt followed the same Gandhian principle when he along with the people of Uttarakhand initiated the Chipko andolan, a people’s movement for the protection of the environment and sustenance of livelihood in the hills.
The documentary, The Man Who Dwarfed the Mountains, is a tribute by Mumbai-based filmmakers Ruchi Shrivastava and Sumit Khanna to the Gandhian environmentalist who changed the face of environmental activism in India through the Chipko Movement, which inspired other movements, including the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The 60-minute film was screened last week at the India International Centre in Delhi. It won the award for the Best Environment Film including Agriculture (Non-Feature) at the 63rd National Film Awards this year.
Thirty-two-year-old Shrivastava recalls reading about Bhatt in the newspapers in 2013, when the 82-year-old environmentalist was awarded the Gandhi Peace prize.
“I had read about Chipko in school and knew about Sunderlal Bahuguna but had never really heard of Bhattji,” says Shrivastava, producer of the first season of the food show MasterChef India. She approached Khanna to make a film on Bhatt. Incidentally, the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), which has produced the documentary, was also keen on making a film on the Gandhian environmentalist from Gopeshwar, Uttarakhand.
With funds in place, the duo contacted Bhatt for his consent in 2014. “When we told him that we wanted to make a film on him, he refused and ended the call,” recalls Khanna, who also won the National Award (Best Investigative Film) for Mere Desh Ki Dharti in 2006.
To give it another try, both the filmmakers drove 1,861 km to Gopeshwar from Mumbai. They approached Bhatt’s son, as the reserved Gandhian did not want media attention and felt that the Chipko movement was initiated by the people of the hills and therefore the attention should be on them. Finally, the two were able to shoot Bhatt for four days as he went about his daily routine. This trip was to be the first of the six trips they made to Gopeshwar to shoot the documentary.
The film has Bhatt talking about the time when he was a booking clerk in Pipalkoti and first heard a speech by Gandhian leader Jayaprakash Narayan in the 1950s. Inspired to take up Gandhian principles, he established Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal in 1964.
Several other people who were a part of the Chipko movement are also interviewed in the film, apart from his family, the surviving women of Reni village who started Chipko action in the village in 1974, historian Ramchandra Guha, environmentalist Sunita Narain, retired bureaucrats and people from Uttarakhand. Narain says, Bhatt was the first to talk of trees and people together. He was also the first to understand that for a movement to succeed the participation of women is extremely important.
Bhatt also has a suggestion at the end of the documentary — if people who are being negatively impacted by the building of dams and exploitation of resources in the hills don’t protest, then nothing can stop the degradation of the environment as well as their livelihood.
“This movement raised the question of who should have control over one’s resources, which has been enhanced today by corporatization,” says 45-year-old Khanna, who is now planning to make a documentary on tribal cuisines in India, with Shrivastava.