A language of their own

Nonika Singh

When Siddharth Kay decided to make a film, Er Poganta (The Stream), on displacement with strong political undertones, he was told by many to go in for the lowest common denominator, a language that most understand. But he stuck to his guns and opted for Chhattisgarhi and Gondi as the main dialects. Similarly for Saurav Rai, there was no choice but Nepali for Nimtoh. Then National Award-winning director from Meghalaya, Pradip Kurbah couldn’t have expressed his film Lewduh (The Market) in any other language but his mother tongue Khasi. 

Talking about dreams is like talking about movies, since cinema uses the language of dreams, said Federico Fellini, Italian director. Indeed, these filmmakers dream too, only in languages we rarely get to see on the silver screen. Beyond the razzle-dazzle of Bollywood, with its Rs 100-crore clubs, stand these passionate filmmakers. For them, the immediacy of telling a story is more important than anything else. And in a language which many may see as a barrier; but for these independent filmmakers, it is the voice in which their film must speak.

Strangely though Siddharth Tripathy hails from West Bengal, yet his preferred language of expression in his debut film A Dog Dies is not Bengali but Chhattisgarhi. But then his story of a man and his dog is set in the coal mines of the mineral-rich state. Though the subtext is land eviction, it’s also a human tale of how a man decides to ensure at least his dog doesn’t die in an alien land.

Malayalam director Pampally’s National Award-winning debut feature film Sinjar is the first film to be scripted and features a song in Jasari language. The film is also an attempt by the filmmaker to revive the language,  which lacks any script or syntax.  

Language, however, is a minor bump in the arduous journey these independent filmmakers have decided to undertake. Siddharth Kay conceived of the idea way back in 2012. Ignited by a newspaper report on Salwa Judum, it has taken him nearly six years to can 80 per cent of the film. He, however, doubts the Indian audience is, or will ever be, ready for the kind of story of real injustice he intends to tell. The audience he has in mind is of the film festival circuit.

Others too are eyeing the platform that prestigious film festivals provide. But coming from the state of Meghalaya where there are just three screens, Pradip has devised an unusual way to take films to his people. He packs his bags and travels from village to village to screen his films for his own people. Interestingly, it is a model that has worked for him. Many like Saurav Rai see it as worthy of emulation. Two-time National Award-winning director Pradip, however, doesn’t see the national honour as a gateway to success. He says, “It hasn’t made making films any easy. People are diffident to approach me.”

The biggest hurdle they all encounter is financing such films. En route the onerous path Kay has worked as a cinematographer, he pawned his wife’s jewellery, sold whatever his mother had to finally see his dream being realised. Others too have their secrets couched in similar situations of financial distress. Lack of funds also forces them to use non-actors as against trained professionals. Rai has employed all his family members in the film that is anyway based on a real incident involving a small boy of Nepalese community. Talking of the theme of his film, he adds, “Even rural India is not free of judgmental morality.”

“Rural India is where real India is,” is the common refrain of these filmmakers. Kay even advises aspiring filmmakers to shun cities and look for stories in India’s hinterland, which has many lurking in its deep recesses. Tripathy, too, loves to tell stories of people who otherwise do not register on the prime time consciousness of the nation. His first story had everything to do with personal experience. As an officer who signed the eviction order, who knew better than him the predicament of those asked to move out of their lands? Disturbed, he quit his job and worked as an activist for years. His next outing might be on cotton farmers in the Vidharbha region, again people he has observed from close quarters.

Of course, for some like Asokan PK, the maker of Sanskrit film Anurakthi, the reasons are rather simple, born out of expediency too.  Anurakthi, which he made last year, brings alive the ancient theatrical tradition of Koodiyattam in Kerala. Apart from the fact that no other language would have sufficed, it sure was an experiment. Not that the process was any easy; he had to seek the help of a battery of research scholars in Sanskrit. Hailing from a land where the movie industry (Malayalam) is not only prolific but also high on the qualitative meter, he believes making a film in unusual/rare language helps one find one’s metier more easily. Though Anurakthi is awaiting theatrical release, he is rather optimistic of the film recovering its costs, especially in international markets where there is a tribe of Sanskrit followers and on OTT platforms. Though Pradip’s last film Onaatah is now streaming on Netflix making it the first film in Khasi to be so shown, he knows he won’t be lucky each time.

Treading off the beaten track, the struggle for them begins anew with how to distribute the film. On a scale of difficulties, Tripathy would rate distribution as a far tougher nut to crack. It also explains their reasons to be at the NFDC Film Bazaar, Goa. As their films made the cut in the recommended Viewing Room section, they are hopeful of finding sponsors or fresh markets. Till then, they find motivation in the sense of urgency that drives them, echoing the thoughts of Nell Scovell, “If necessity is the mother of invention, urgency is the uncle of change.” How soon the change they seek will find resonance among viewers remains to be seen. But as Kay puts it, “I will survive.”

Trees of hope

Lucas Peñafort, who along with Camila Menéndez has made a documentary Sisters of the Trees, shares that though monetary support did not come their way at the Film Bazaar, it did pave the way for possible screenings at other festivals. The duo chose Marwari for no other dialect would have done justice to the inspirational subject that talks about a village Piplantri, Rajasthan, where birth of a girl child is welcome. People celebrate the arrival of a girl child in the family by planting 111 trees on the village’s grazing commons. Lucas shares how difficult it was to find people fluent in both languages, Mewari and English. Hence, the Argentineans had little option but to incorporate Hindi too. With the film in the post-production stage, they are hopeful of taking their labour of love to the people of Rajasthan.