This film had no posters, actors or tickets. It was meant to be discovered accidentally by people who, ambling through the Mandovi riverfront in Goa, stumbled upon coloured squares on the pavement and heard music coming from the branches overhead. They looked up and saw the open mouths of inverted megaphones. Those who followed the music arrived at a shipping container. “There is a six-minute film playing inside,” said a volunteer in a fluorescent green jacket.
The darkness within was broken by two screens placed side by side playing animation films. “Southern trees / bear strange fruit,” Nina Simone began to sing as images of ants crawled through a screen, while a landscape with a tree at its centre filled the other. “Blood on the leaves / and blood at the roots,” she crooned, as an apple on the tree took the form of a man’s head with a cord around his neck.
It zoomed out to show silhouettes of people hanging from the branches. On the right screen, the ants scurried with baskets and trunks until a giant arm reached across them to take a cellphone photograph of a hanging body. The names Pehlu, Akhlaq and Junaid came up next, jiggling to Simone’s beat as her voice reached its peak, “Black bodies / swinging in the southern breeze.”
Titled People’s Music, the film was a part of an installation that highlighted protest music in the Indian subcontinent from the colonial era to the present, with references to American civil rights artiste-activists Paul Robeson and Simone. Presented at the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa recently, People’s Music has been created by musician Sumangala Damodaran, actor-director Sudhanva Deshpande and storyteller Shaaz Ahmed.
“Shubha Mudgal, music curator for the festival, asked Sumangala to do something around protest music. We talked about some of the images that come to mind when we think of protest music — the megaphone, which you have seen in political rallies; the drumming figure, which comes from the logo of the IPTA and was created by Chittoprasad; and the shipping container, which revolves around ideas of impermanence, things travelling from one place to another and is about people and work,” says Deshpande, one of the founders of Jan Natya Manch.
Familiar and lesser-known motifs and icons unfold through the film, compelling audiences to find their own narratives. There are images from Chittoprosad that Ahmed has turned into animation. There are references to films such as Dharti ke Lal and artworks of Pablo Picasso and Somnath Hore. Damodaran, the composer, also sings Jaane wale sipahi se poocho woh kahan jaa rahan hai. A poem by Sahir Ludhianvi, Khoon apna ho ya paraya ho, and uber masculinity codified in mean motorbikes, images of coins and ants that remind one of demonetisation and the GST fill the film. The ants are ubiquitous, burrowing in the earth in ways that recall politics around mining.
“The moment you look at an ant, you do think of building and builder ant but you also think of how weak this character is. There is a sequence in the film of bikes going around the ants, the ants going up and down and straight again and, then, again up and down again to show that these are resilient ants,” says Ahmed, whose last film, Talking Walls, documented the makeover of a dull paediatric ward of a Delhi hospital into a space of live art whose walls were bright with stories of the hare and the tortoise and the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. Ultimately, it was a six-minute film that played in the mind for much longer.