When the regular road is closed to traffic, two boys, one of them with a handheld movie camera, decide to go inside an ancient forest. “The forest is full of magic,” says a local woman. It is not the magic of fantasy literature that the boys encounter in the thick of the trees but a threatened reality that is one of the talking points across the globe. Orissa filmmaker Lipika Singh Darai creates a fluid narrative in the short film, The Waterfall, and wins her fourth National Award, this time for Best Education Film.
“As we grow older, our priorities change, we start compromising with things happening around us. Young minds still have hope. They react differently to a story you tell them,” says Darai. The Waterfall was made for School Cinema, a learning module on life skills, values and attitude by LXL Ideas, and screenings are planned at a thousand schools. The promise of a Ruskin Bond-like adventure fills the first half of the 20-minute film as the boys wade in streams, blow bubbles from sap collected in a leaf cone, and sprawl on boulders under the waterfall. A few minutes before in the film, the mother of one of the boys has told him, “Nilu, don’t take Karun into the forest. There’s so much trouble going on around that place.” Now, over the roar of the water, come sounds of blasts like thunder.
The boys return home but, while tracking their route on Google map that evening, they spot red gashes in the landscape and zoom in to see a mountainside scarred by mining. They turn their attention to the film footage from the day and stop at the shots of the woman they had met singing in the local language. “The bird by the waterfall sings a song, the water will dry, the fall will disappear, it will dry my throat, my voice will die…,” translates Nilu to Karun.
Darai refrains from taking sides in the ecology-versus-development debate in the film and keeps the storyline open-ended. “Do you know what is happening around here? The company is going to buy the hill, the forest and even the waterfall,” says Karun, a Mumbai lad with an incipient moustache. “Karun, stop speaking like a typical city boy. The town is being developed. My town is being developed,” shoots back Nilu.
As with most of Darai’s films, The Waterfall can be tracked to a personal story and early influences. Her maternal grandparents’ village was covered with greenery so that it seemed to her childhood imagination that trees were members of the household. Four-five years ago, Darai, now living in Mumbai, fell severely ill and began having a recurrent dream in which she was on the 16th floor of a building and a river was coming towards her from the horizon. “I could listen to its amazing music. I could touch the water and find that it has life, like when we touch a fish or a bird. The next day, I would wake up healthier,” she says. The Waterfall opens with Karun saying, “I dream of a blue river, coming from far, through my city.”
Yet, it was not a dream that led Darai to make this film. She was interested in the people’s struggle to stop exploitation of the Khandadhar hills in Sundargarh district of Orissa. The Khandadhar Falls is one of the tallest in India. The waterfall in the film is not named and the fictional river that it feeds is called Mahanadi or the Great River. They shot at Khandadhar waterfall itself and the connected forests, trekking for hours and, once, after coming under a cloudburst, confined inside small caves, under a tarpaulin for more than six hours. “As the fall is drying up very fast, I wanted to document it in my film,” says Darai.
Darai has won National Awards for Kankee O Saapo (Dragonfly and Snake), Garud (The Spell) and A Tree, A Man, A Sea — which she offered to return as part of “award wapasi” in solidarity with the student protest over the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of FTII, her alma mater. “Students were getting arrested at midnight and the government was saying that filmmakers were not doing anything important. We needed to make ourselves heard,” she says. Having made her point, Darai received her award “gratefully and publicly” this time around.
“Cinema is a powerful enough medium to bring in new perceptions and I look forward to making films and standing by them,” she says.