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Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Big Little War in our backyard


Devashish Makhija, Economics grad from Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College, moved to Mumbai about a decade ago. His directorial debut, a Hindi-Oriya film, Oonga, may have taken a while to emerge, but the 34-year-old screenwriter, storyteller, graphic designer and now filmmaker has had a fascinating ride in the Hindi movie industry, researching for Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, assisting Shaad Ali on Bunty Aur Babli and working on a still-born animation film for Aditya Chopra, among many other things. Oonga is a world apart. The first-time director tells TSI how and why he walked away from a Yash Raj Films career and chose to tell a story set in small tribal village in Orissa, where a little boy believes he is Lord Rama blessed with the power to save his people from all evil…
TSI | Issue Dated: November 30, -0001, New Delhi
Tags : Devashish Makhijka | Oonga | Avatar | Nandita Das | Adivasis | Naxalites |

When and how did the 'Oonga' idea germinate?
It may have started with the thousands of sleepless nights spent wondering what India really means by ‘development’ today. Having experienced, researched and witnessed much of what is happening in Bengal, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, the only one thing that seemed to emerge clearly from amongst the chaos of various opinions was that if ‘humanity’ is being compromised, this ‘development’ may not be worth it. The scenario in our country today breaks my heart. Most of us live confined in our little bubbles of urban security not pausing to wonder how we got here and where our resources are coming from. Those paying the price are now protesting the unevenness of this misbalance. ‘Oonga’ was borne of the intent to hold up a mirror to ourselves and make ourselves ask ‘do we like what we see?’ The idea of the story itself though finds its seed in a small anecdote I heard while in Koraput, Orissa. Sharanya Nayak, the local head of Action Aid there, told me how she had taken a group of Adivasis to watch a dubbed version of ‘Avatar’. They hollered and cheered the Na’vi right through the film as if they were their own fellow-tribals fighting the same battles they were! This little episode got Sarat Talluri Rao (co-writer on the story) and me thinking. And the story of ‘Oonga’ started to take shape. Quite obviously then the first draft of the story has this little boy journeying to the city to watch a dubbed version of ‘Avatar’! And, since we couldn’t get the required permissions to use ‘Avatar’, we looked closer home and used its source material – the Ramayan!

How long was the film in gestation and how tough was it finding funds for it?
The answer to this question is at best a convoluted one. It wasn’t ‘Oonga’ that began this quest. I had been trying to make a fictional feature length film around this particular situation for a few years. What really was in gestation for a long time was my desire to tell a story that would move its Indian audience enough to think about the state of things in our country. But with ‘Oonga’ this little blue boy came with his own golden destiny. Mere months from my first story narration to (producers) Speaking Tree Pictures, we found ourselves shooting it!

Do you see Oonga as an activist film or a piece of cinema meant for general mass consumption?
That’s another difficult question. ‘Activism’, especially in the Adivasi’s fight for justice, is a much-misunderstood word, often manipulated by the state’s agencies to connote ‘sympathising’. We did not want our story to ever give the impression of propaganda either. So I’d say we consciously haven’t made an ‘activist’ film, because although such films may be the order of the day, it is easy to label them as platforms for a struggle against the state machinery. What we intended (and I think have managed to achieve to some extent perhaps) was to reach out to as wide an Indian audience as our limited resources would allow. So yes, this film aspires for general mass consumption. If nothing else, it seeks to entertain, to thrill, and to move – all of which are ingredients of accessible mainstream cinema storytelling.

Are the principal characters, especially Oonga, Hemla, Pradip and Laxmi, modelled on real-life people?
There are so many people – encountered and heard about – that inspired each of these characters that it would be nearly impossible – and unfair – to pin their attributes to any one. That said, perhaps I could point out some real-life people that served as starting points for these characters. The idea of making Hemla a tribal schoolteacher who finds herself stuck in the crossfire between the CRPF and the Naxalites was inspired in part by the case of Soni Sori. It helped us explore the heart-breaking helplessness of someone who decides to not resort to violence even though the only language being spoken on either side is one of gunfire and animalistic brutality. Laxmi – a woman Naxalite leader with an armed posse of only women and children – is a metaphor really for the absence of men in some such strife-torn regions. Men seem to be the first casualties of civil strife. Some languish in jails forever, under never-proved suspicion, with no access to legal recourse. Some get killed. Some disappear. Some, having lost their land, leave for cities to earn a living. Leaving behind women, confused, angry, not quite sure sometimes if they’re even widowed or not (yes, quite like the half-widows of Kashmir). Laxmi, one such herself, mobilizes them, arms them to be ‘men’ in what appears to be a man’s world. Pradip and Sushil find their origins in a little incident I was party to. In February 2010 I footed it through the tribal belt of south Orissa and north Andhra with the brave photo-journalist Javed Iqbal, and documentary filmmaker Faiza Ahmad Khan. Having steered clear of most CRPF camps –which had been set up in school premises, just like in ‘Oonga’ – skeptical of the queries we might encounter, we finally walked up to one. Surprisingly the first thing the jawan at the gate said to Javed was that there was no water in the camp, and the jawans had to go fetch some from the tube-well in the village. He was scared. That was the last thing we thought he’d be. He pleaded with Javed to write about their plight too. That is when it struck me how every single person, on each side of this conflict, was a victim, of circumstance. Pradip and Sushil, one cynical of his so-called ‘duty’, and the other bewildered by it, represent exactly this. Little Oonga though is simply an embodiment of the Adivasi’s innocence. Oonga is fearless precisely because of his innocence. He’s a plucky, emotional, brave little Adivasi who doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘impossible’. That makes him a hero because somewhere every hero who dares to do what others cannot is driven by a certain overarching naiveté, which makes him blind to the impossibility of things.

While Oonga has no way of knowing how bad things are getting for his village, Hemla still believes in the country's "system". Both pay a heavy price. Is the film a comment on the hopelessness of the situation?
‘Oonga’ shows the Adivasis trapped in a situation not of their making, helplessly caught in the crossfire between the Naxalites on the one hand and the CRPF/Government/‘Company’ combine on the other. When the focus is so clearly on the Adivasis it would be very easy to slip into the storytelling trap of ‘over-simplification’, where so-and-so is evil, and so-and-so is good. And in a scenario where ‘good’ takes on the ‘evil’ the former needs to triumph for the story to be ‘accessible’ to a wider audience. But the truth is that no one in this world is born evil. We are all – to some or the other extent – victims of circumstance. The Adivasis quite evidently are the victims of a national preoccupation with industrial development. The Naxalites are mostly those Adivasis who have lost and suffered too much (in their opinion) to be open to any sort of dialogue anymore. They have become victims to the deafness that such chaos brings, because of which neither side is willing to hear the other out. There is a similar angle – mostly unreported – with the CRPF as well. A good number of agricultural (even tribal) youth from other states, who have lost their land to industry/mining, get recruited by the CRPF, and get postings in states where they don’t speak the local language, mMaking them victims too, of a perverse perpetuation of this cycle of violence. Hemla represents the few of us who still have some faith in that cornerstone of democracy – Justice. But in the aforementioned scenario – where no ONE party can be unanimously held accountable for the mess – who is therefore punishable? And if no one is, then what is the crime that is being committed? And if there is none, then why is it the Adivasi who pays the heaviest price, losing their home, limb, life, and culture? Can such a situation be anything but HOPELESS?

Where did you find Raju? Did you have to audition many boys for the role?
Ah, my favourite thing about this film – Raju! The children in ‘Oonga’ are the soul of the film. None more so than Raju Singh, who plays the title role. Tess Joseph, the casting director, and her team - Prabodh Bhajni, Vaibhav Gupta - searched everywhere, auditioning hundreds of children, from Kerala, Andhra to Orissa to find the right cast, especially Oonga. It was a very difficult brief to fulfill. Not only did the child who was to play Oonga have to be able to/learn to speak Oriya, it was also imperative we be able to communicate freely with him. So if he were an authentic Adivasi kid it would make it very difficult to communicate what we needed of him on set. But if he was not an Adivasi kid how on earth were we to make any other kid be able to do the things a tribal kid does so naturally... climb a tree like a monkey... catch fish with his bare hands... and run through landscapes barefoot! And two weeks before shoot, running out of options, our backs against the wall, in walks Raju! His mother cooks for Prabodh, who was the first person to push us to take a look at this little powerhouse. Raju fulfilled ALL the briefs!

Were Nandita and Seema on board from the very outset?
Considering we raced from ‘story’ to ‘shoot’ in exactly three months, it would’ve been hard to have had anyone on board from the outset. A number of fantastic actors and technicians were lost to last minute date issues. This kind of collateral damage is a given in trying to pull off a production this large in precious little time. That said, Seema-ji was one of the first people we approached for the film, even before the script was ready. The tricky mix of deep empathy, tragic sadness and commanding manipulation that Laxmi needed to project could only be done by someone of her wherewithal. To be perfectly honest, we had no backup option in case she refused. Thankfully, we didn’t need one! Hemla – who believes in addressing this very concern, at the grassroots – would have to be someone who speaks both languages, to exemplify the solution to such a problem. Nandita naturally straddles both worlds. She, though, took it one step further. She too is very moved and concerned by the crossroads this country finds itself at today. She embraced the philosophy of Hemla as if it were her own.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017