January 21, 2021 5:30:25 pm
The lanky, thorn-in-flesh Laptan of I Am Kalam (2011), Pitobash Tripathy is unrecognisable as Gunu, or Gunu babu, in Delhi-based filmmaker Nila Madhab Panda’s new film, Kalira Atita (Yesterday’s Past). This is his first feature in Odia, which screened at the Indian Panorama section of the ongoing 51st International Film Festival of India in Goa.
Gunu is schizophrenic, running against the tide. His red shirt is a red flag, as he walks to his death. As the village (Bagapatia) is being evacuated, Gunu is running in the opposite direction, towards the ocean, his washed-away home in the Satabhaya village, engulfed by the sea, to reunite with his dead family. In his bag, there are new clothes and toys. The loafer Gunu had left the village to return one day to show he’s not entirely useless. Here’s a man who’s lost everything, his world, his loved ones, even his sanity. His inner turmoil reflected by the overcast, rumbling skies and a raging sea. A sole handpump that used to be in the village centre is now in the middle of the ocean. He’s parched, he climbs and holds onto it with his dear life, but there’s water-water everywhere, not a drop to drink. Man’s a creature, he will forage and survive. But how does he accept his homelessness when his closest ones are taken away? The arresting handheld shots, of a man scuffling his way against nature’s odds, is a journey into the inner recesses of his mind, his present pathos, and yesterday’s memories and emotions, the more they pull him into his past the more they propel him on to his future.
Left with a radio that also gives up on him, marooned like Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland in Cast Away (2000), Gunu, as his name in Odia translates to, is brave and wise, his mind unhinged but heart unclouded. The 83-minute drama rests on his naïveté, unbothered about climate change, sea-levels rising, the science of it, he’s a simpleton with simple needs and understanding. He seeks his family – who lives in an alternative universe, in a world beneath the ocean, and they will come for him, as he hallucinates a village elder telling him so. He references the 16th century Odia poet Achyutananda Das and his Malikas or prophetic poems (which predicted the whole world will go under the sea in the 21st century; even Puri will be submerged, “many of his predictions are becoming relevant now,” says Panda. The 2019 Cyclone Fani didn’t leave Puri’s Jagannath Temple, atop a hill, untouched. The sea will come for him, and everybody else, like it did to take away Gunu’s mother in the 1999 super cyclone and, later, his wife and children Kuni and Sonu. The best moments of the film are in its silences and stillness.
“In 2005, on the front page of a Times of India article, I saw a striking but frightening picture of a lone tube well standing tall amidst the sea. It was surprising since a handpump is generally located in the middle of our villages that is used to pump groundwater,” says Panda, 47. The exploration of this story led to a documentary (on an UK High Commission scholarship), Climate’s First Orphans.
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He found that Satabhaya village, in the coastal Kendrapara district, was a cluster of seven villages, within the Bhitarkanika National Sanctuary, and despite being prone to cyclones, the villages had no cyclone-warning systems or shelters. The zero-greenhouse-gas-emitting villages, today submerged in the Bay of Bengal, had to pay the price for global warming. In 2005-06, about three-and-a-half villages and, later, only two remained, rest were swallowed by the sea. Panda recalled being chased by a mentally disturbed man who pointed to the sea and told him, “look, look, that was my home, can you take me there?” Panda followed the story for 13 years, he had half a paragraph written, but no story, no screenplay, no dialogues. When he went there in 2018-19, all the villages had vanished. A few houses kept shifting every two years around the mangrove forest, eventually, the survivors were rehabilitated in nearby Bagapatia. “It was rather shocking to me that the handpump from which we used to drink water in 2006 was now about 2 km in the sea, that’s the one in the film,” he says, adding, “Shooting in the deltaic zone was tedious, more than daring or adventurous. We had to cross the crocodile-infested swamps and river, couldn’t use oars, instead the boat had to be pulled by ropes. There were wild boars and deer, too. You have no help, ambulance, hospital or road.”
The Padma Shri director made a feature-length documentary, The Shadows in the Wind to speak about people’s perceptions, scientific processes and what the government was doing. “Some see it as a result of politics, while scientists pin the reason on rising sea temperatures which increases the volume of water”, says Panda. It became the basis for Kalira…, in which he wanted to explore the “human emotional impact of climate change”, and not be didactic. The film projects the lived reality of the approaching pralay or doomsday prophecy. “Cyclones will come and go, but it is basically how the sea is normally rising, owing to global warming and slowly taking the land area,” he adds. The film ends with a note that Odisha is only a dress rehearsal of what’s to come: “Studies say, rising sea level will put cities like Mumbai, Bangkok and Shanghai at risk of being submerged by 2050.”
Since the ’99 supercyclone, people in Odisha live with the fear that anytime the waters can come and take away their families. “We don’t understand the basic problem, it’s beyond the financial and infrastructural loss, the biggest loss is our hold over our senses, and being gripped by the fear psychosis that it creates,” says Panda, adding, “In 2001, the earthquake in Delhi shook me, left me sleepless for days. I kept imagining the bed would shake every night. Isn’t that schizophrenic?”
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