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Northeast of Eden

By Darryl D'Monte

India chooses to showcase the northeast as an exotic tourist destination of great natural beauty. Several documentaries at a recent environmental film festival in Guwahati showed it as a neglected corner of the country, with gaunt tribals and civil and political unrest

The following copy in a currently running print ad in the 'Incredible India' series being placed by a tour operator sums up our romanticisation of the northeast. It reads: "Northeast India is the land of Blue Mountains and Green Valleys. Nestled in the Eastern Himalayas, this region is abundant in natural beauty, wildlife, flora and fauna and its colourful (sic) people. A blend of all these makes it the most beautiful Eco-Tourism destination. Once you are here, you'll know why... Come and explore the place at your own pace."

The large, stunning visual is of a narrow suspension bridge perched high up in the canopy of a lush tropical forest, reminiscent of scenes from Sarawak or similar locales. This is one vision of the northeast: virgin forest, untouched by the ravages of modern civilisation. The wildlife sanctuaries of Kaziranga and Manas only confirm these stereotypes, even if the Bodos did decimate many rhinos in the latter, forcing UNESCO to declare it a World Heritage Site in danger.

There is another image, however, which seldom finds its way into the national consciousness, thanks also to the mainstream media. This is of the beleaguered and tousled visage of Irom Chanu Sharmila, the gutsy poet and human rights activist from Manipur who has been on a hunger fast against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 for the past six years and is now being force-fed through tubes in her nose in New Delhi. Or the rear view of the intrepid eight women who similarly protested against the law in Imphal, in 2004, by stripping completely and bearing a banner across their bare bodies, the text challenging the army to rape them if they had the guts.

Perhaps now that the Chinese government has freshly staked its claim to Arunachal Pradesh, the political establishment will begin treating the northeast with more than the scant attention it has been receiving all these decades.

The saga of the continuing neglect of the region -- now being described as Seven Sisters and One Brother (Sikkim) -- was reinforced by many of the images and discussions at the recent Vatavaran travelling environmental film festival in Guwahati. Although Assam is by far the most integrated of the states, it is sufficiently ensconced in the northeast -- indeed it is the entry point to it -- to enable it to resonate with several of these themes.

This green film festival is a spillover of the bi-annual competitive competition held in New Delhi by the Centre for Media Studies. By travelling to Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Srinagar and Ranchi this year, it enables many people to view a huge range of excellent documentaries. Since Doordarshan and other television channels have virtually stopped showing such fare, these filmmakers have nowhere else to show their work. Judging by the response, particularly of schoolchildren viewing the films in Guwahati, wildlife and environmental short films have a way of communicating a message directly that other documentaries do not necessarily have.

The images of the Apatani tribes in Arunachal Pradesh were quite different from what's in the tourism brochures. Here were gaunt and weather-beaten tribals going about their occupations, mainly planting paddy in fairly inhospitable terrain. They do not use animal-drawn ploughs, not out of religious sentiment, but more probably due to the undulating terrain and terraced fields that are irrigated by canals that flow by gravity.

This was no lyrical exercise in exotica: the women, at the easternmost extreme of the country, were engaged in the unremitting task of planting each seedling by hand. However, as the commentary underlined, what made their job somewhat less burdensome was that they performed it together. The community effort probably saved them from extreme misery. They lightened their task, on certain occasions, by drinking fermented brew and sharing their meals. When a village burnt down accidentally, people from the surrounding villages got together and helped rebuild the houses within days, also providing food and drink to the people.

Jyoti Prasad Das's long documentary titled The Green Warriors detailed how the tribals kept their tryst with nature. It was shot against a backdrop of grey skies and an unrelenting drizzle, ridding the film of any picturesque quality. Moji Riba, a younger filmmaker who hails from Arunachal Pradesh, exhibited a more modern sensibility in his shorter film titled When the Mist is Lifted. As an insider, he is able to draw out the contradiction between old and new lifestyles and practices. In remarks after the screening, he spoke about the difficulties of making films in the northeast, and understandably expressed his reluctance to make another film on Arunachal, which has been his staple over the years.

If all documentary filmmakers in the country find it difficult to raise funds for their films, and then find that there is no one to show them to, the predicament of those in the northeast can well be imagined. There is a dearth of media for the region as a whole. For instance, Mizoram acquired a daily newspaper only one year ago.

But all is not doom and gloom. Gautam Bora, the well-known filmmaker, recounted his experiences of showing a documentary in the small town of Jonai in Assam. Jonai is a one-cinema-hall town, and he arrived late for the screening because the roads en route were flooded (a perennial hazard in this state).

But the exhibitor was convinced of its merit, and the screening was announced the next morning by the equivalent of a town-crier. A Mithun Chakravarti film running in the theatre was shelved for three days and the 33-minute documentary shown, with the exhibitor offering to split the proceeds. Many in the audience saw the film several times in succession. This only goes to show that, given a chance, people are interested in seeing their own situation on the screen, instead of some outlandish fantasy. It is just lack of exposure that makes people think that realistic films have no market.

Dilip Chandan, editor of the weekly Asom Bani, brought out by the 160-year-old daily, The Assam Tribune, highlighted how the print media too was in a precarious position. In this region, there is an almost perpetual "disturbed area" syndrome; the day before I arrived, ULFA detonated a bomb near Guwahati railway station. On an earlier visit to Assam, nine years ago, I met the activist Sanjoy Ghose in Jorhat and travelled with him to Majuli, the world's biggest river island, smack in the middle of the turbulent Brahmaputra. It was only months before he was tragically abducted and killed by ULFA because of his development work on the island.

Bora cited how he had made a film titled Tale of a River about the dam across the Kopili river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, built by the North-East Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO). As is now distressingly familiar in a number of cases throughout India, the people who were displaced were never rehabilitated. Instead they are forced to eke out a living by going into the reserved forest to forage for what is known in foresters' jargon as "minor produce".

Bora, who has also made feature films, emphasised that he relied on portraying people's experiences in his work. The tussle between development and the environment is a complex process, all the more so in the northeast.

If there have been controversies over smaller dams in the region, these are just precursors of what may well prove to be major confrontations ahead -- either within the country or between China and India. Everyone is eyeing the hydropower embedded in the mighty Brahmaputra, which is why some 'developers' term the northeast "the Switzerland of Asia". The region is also a stepping stone to Southeast Asia, which is a growing economic power. This makes the area important for economic and political reasons. This November, the northeast council announced that the central government was going to launch a 'Look East' policy, leading observers to question whether it was going to look beyond the country's borders, but not see the suffering of the region's people.

Bora clarified that he was not a conservationist but had become "entangled" in the larger issues. Soon after he returned from training in the erstwhile East Germany, he faced the Bodo conflict in his own backyard, as it were. The Bodos lived in villages just outside Guwahati, but have now disappeared from there. They were the aboriginals of the Brahmaputra valley who have been alienated from their own soil and environment. Bora cited how dams like the one across the Subansiri river in Dhemaji district came up 20 years ago but the canals were never built. So the paddy fields continue to be irrigated in the traditional manner by using the slope of the hills.

At the Guwahati festival, a young journalist called Amar Jyoti Borah presented me with a copy of his slim novel An Insight into the Outburst: The Subansiri Valley Fury, which is a fictional account of the people's protest against this dam. This tributary of the Brahmaputra literally means "flowing gold" and contributes a tenth of the mother river's discharge.

Questions of identity, of what image to present of themselves, continue to plague filmmakers from the northeast. Mauleenath Senapati, a young director who has graduated from the Film and Television Institute (FTII) in Pune, put it most succinctly when he said that films dealing with the ethnic strife in districts like Karbi Anglong help filmmakers to define themselves. He cited three films in this connection: one on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act by Paban Haobam, and two by Bora -- Sons of Abotani -- The Missing and Tale of a River.

Amba Jamir from Nagaland, who runs an NGO called Missing Link in Guwahati, asked to what extent documentaries helped the communities that were featured in them. In answer to a question from the schoolchildren present, Senapati clarified that documentaries -- as against feature films -- put the filmmaker directly in touch with people and there was thus instant communication. Krishnendu Bose from Delhi, who is completing a long documentary on issues involving tigers, cited how he had once taken a film to Warangal in Andhra Pradesh. An enterprising local TV cable operator dubbed the film in Telugu and showed it to some 2,000 homes. Senapati mentioned how the great filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, who taught at the FTII, once summed up the essence of filmmaking as being a question of one's attitude. Ghatak elaborated that a filmmaker had to acquire a child-like innocence about a subject and treat it with curiosity and simplicity.

InfoChange News & Features, December 2006