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Documentary about a farmer, whose story is emblematic of Uttarakhand’s ‘ghost villages’, is going to the Oscars

The win at the “Oscar qualifying” festival has ensured the film a direct entry into the 92nd Academy Awards, to be held in 2020.

Written by Tanushree Ghosh |
Updated: October 6, 2019 5:08:57 pm
Moti Bagh, Uttarakhand ghost villages, indianexpress, sundayEYE, EYE 2019, nirmal chander, documentary, oscar nomination, oscars, oscar 2020 Delhi-based director Nirmal Chander had been trying to raise funds for Moti Bagh for the last five-seven years.

Delhi-based director Nirmal Chander had been trying to raise funds for Moti Bagh for the last five-seven years.

As the camera pans over Sangaura village, not a soul is in sight. Houses lie in ruins, with polythene bag-covered locks hanging on doors. The camera trails through the mud paths and thick foliage of Pauri Garhwal’s hilly landscape, until it reaches a five-acre farm called Moti Bagh. There, enveloped in silence and solitude, stands Vidyadutt Sharma.

Sharma, 83, is the protagonist of Moti Bagh, a documentary by his nephew, filmmaker Nirmal Chander. Narrated through Sharma’s soliloquies and poems, the film was screened to a full house at the recently-concluded Public Service Broadcasting Trust’s (PSBT’s) 19th Open Frame festival in Delhi. Moti Bagh is also one of the two films to win the best long documentary award at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK) in June this year, the other winner being Pankaj Rishi Kumar’s Janani’s Juliet. The win at the “Oscar qualifying” festival has ensured both documentaries a direct entry into the 92nd Academy Awards, to be held in 2020.

Moti Bagh is as much a social story as it is a personal one, an intimate look at the many problems that plague rural Uttarakhand. Central to the story is the issue of palayan (mass migration), as observed and experienced by Sharma, who had moved back to his ancestral land as a 20-something in the 1960s, after giving up a cushy job as a survey officer in the Uttar Pradesh government. Over half a century, he has seen loss up close, with the death of his wife and his elder son, and the migration of neighbours and friends to cities in search of a better life, their homes in the village now lying padlocked and their fields, abandoned.

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“People don’t return; there might be 6,000-7,000 ghost villages. Government figures will always be far lower,” says Chander. In the film, a local journalist observes that those who fought for the statehood of Uttarakhand (created in 2000), today, feel disillusioned. “Vikas (development) still only reaches Dehradun, Nainital, Udham Singh Nagar,” he says, adding that in Pauri district alone, this year, around 220 schools were shut down. Chander says that any medical attention requires one to travel down 50-70 km from the villages in the mountains to the nearest town.

Moti Bagh, Uttarakhand ghost villages, indianexpress, sundayEYE, EYE 2019, nirmal chander, documentary, oscar nomination, oscars, oscar 2020 Long way home: Vidyadutt Sharma in a still from Moti Bagh.

Delhi-based Chander had been trying to raise funds for Moti Bagh for the last five-seven years. PSBT and Doordarshan (Prasar Bharati) came on board last year to co-produce it. He was inspired to make this film about “quiet resistance, of not losing hope” after hearing his uncle observe that “even if the physical work doesn’t pay, at least, you’ll get deep sleep”. It is also Chander’s way of “giving back to the farmers in India. It is not an activist film,” says the 45-year-old filmmaker, whose works include the documentaries Zikr Us Parivash Ka (2017), on ghazal queen Begum Akhtar, and Dreaming Taj Mahal (2010), about a taxi driver in Pakistan dreaming of seeing the Indian monument.

“The government is interested in addressing the issue only on paper,” says Chander, “it has a Palayan Aayog, schemes for land consolidation, proposals, but we all know how active they are. Nothing has moved.” Palayan has resulted in lands tilled for centuries turning fallow, and a growing wildlife menace. The lands that were cut out of the mountains to cultivate fruit orchards and to grow millets, corn, pulses and vegetables, says Sharma, are returning to the forests. The fields still being farmed are under attack by birds, monkeys, wild boars, jackals and porcupines — an onslaught that is hard to fight off, given the paucity of manpower. There have even been cases of leopards breaking open locked sheds and carrying off cattle.

Moreover, there is the problem of fragmented landholdings. Sharma, who awaits Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat’s reply to his letter highlighting these issues, says in the film, “I have two-three hectares of land, scattered all over. If the mountains are to be kept alive, the only way is chakbandi (land consolidation). Bring all the lands together for the farmers to till.” Land consolidation is needed not only for farming, but to run any kind of enterprise, such as resorts, greenhouses, etc., says Chander. It also makes it easier to curb the wildlife menace.

The film shines a light on the sociological shifts underlying the palayan issue. In the ’70s and ’80s, Chander says, many men from the Uttarakhand region joined the armed forces, or came to the plains to work. The women left behind tended to their homes and to their fields. Once the men returned, they would plough their earnings back into the villages, but, now, nobody is going back. There’s both interstate and intrastate migration: some men go to Delhi, Mumbai, Chandigarh, etc., for better-paying jobs, while their wives move to towns and smaller cities, such as Pauri, Haldwani, Nainital and Dehradun, within the state, to find jobs as domestic workers and educate their children. They visit their villages once a year for a few days to fulfill familial and religious obligations. According to the filmmaker, Garhwali women increasingly prefer not to marry into local farming families. He says, “They are happier to marry someone who lives in the city, even if he’s earning only Rs 10,000 a month, or living in a hole, and even if she has to wash dishes. That is better than to be seen working in the fields, which they think is below their dignity.”

Chander says, telling this complex story through his uncle was both easy and difficult because of their relationship. “It gets mixed up when you enter personal spaces. But here’s a farmer, activist, poet, former revenue officer, still energetic, who’s seen things changing around him, which he brings out in his poetry. It was difficult to find another person who wears all those hats,” he says. And so, we see Sharma as a poet, singing of what ails his village, and as an activist, championing causes such as upgrading the local school, resuming the bus route to his village, and building a reservoir to harvest rainwater. We also hear of his ambitions as a farmer who cultivates India’s largest radishes — a specimen weighing 23 kg was grown this February. He wants to beat the world record currently held by a Japanese radish that weighed 31 kg. “Too many hands in the kitchen and (only) one in the farm can’t be productive. No matter what you plant, it will grow,” Sharma says, before singing, “Your Ram lives in temples, my Ram in the fields.”

Filling the labour vacuum are migrants like Ram Singh, who left Nepal to escape poverty, and has been living with and assisting Sharma for the last 18 years. “Those of us who are from Nepal are the only ones growing vegetables here,” Singh says, in the film. He resents local residents referring to migrants like him with ethnic slurs such as “Dutiyal” and “Bahadur”. He proudly says that he earns enough to be able to lend money to them. Yet, peaceful coexistence is a distant dream.

“It is the generosity of the migrants from Nepal that is feeding the Garhwalis. When someone dies, they are the ones picking up the corpses. People have left, and the other locals find it beneath them to do it,” says Sharma. Without him, the villagers would have driven Singh’s family out. Even temporary migrants from Bihar come to Uttarakhand for four-five months to do the hard work: roadwork, carpentry, etc.

Contextualising his film in the current debates around migration, Chander says, “We are all migrants. Who is to say where we are from. The fear of the migrants from Nepal, that they may be thrown out anytime, is genuine. Outsiders are ploughing our land and feeding us. Should we kick them out?”

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