Indian cinema beyond Bollywood

Independent films tend to be a speck in the shadow of the world's lucrative commercial film industries. India has on of the the most lucrative of them all; Bollywood, famed for its fanciful, escapist epics, which are fun, but frivolous.

Film festivals help draw important 'small' films into the light. Yarwng (Roots) has screened at numerous festivals in India, and at the Brisbane International Film Festival, where it was in competition for the NETPAC Jury Prize. (Continues below)

The film is anti-Bollywood. Far from glamorous, and certainly not frivolous. Its director, social justice advocate and Catholic priest Father Joseph Pulinthanath, quips that it cost less than the costume budget for a Bollywood film.

'We went into it full swing,' says Pulinthanath. 'I never allowed the money factor to bog me down. If you keep thinking about the money you never get going. There was a certain amount of foolhardiness about this whole project.'

Pulinthanath's passion for justice underpins the film's story, which takes place in Tripura, a state in culturally diverse North-East India. It is an ill-fated love story set against the displacement of villagers by the construction of a dam.

While Pulinthanath notes half-seriously that the love story was included 'so that people won't just walk out' ('at least they wait and see what happens to the girl and the boy',) for Pulinthanath the cultural context is much more important.

'North-east India,' he says, 'is an unknown portion, even to most of India. But it's very culturally rich. You find more than 200 ethnic groups, all of them with their own distinctive languages, culture, traditions, history ... an anthropologist's paradise.'

Pulinthanath has lived in Tripura for 15 years. As he tells it, the indigenous locals are 'people that have learned to live with loss'; victims of a demographic imbalance that stems from the migration of Hindus from Bangladesh following the partition of India.

'It became a 70/30 ratio,' says Pulinthanath. 'The people who crossed over became the 70 per cent. And as happens in a democracy, the government, language, education, and land became in favour of the 70 per cent. The indigenous people got pushed to the margins.'

Pulinthanath's 'love for the common man', and his close personal encounters with the indigenous locals, drove him to respond to the injustice.

'An Indian film done well, that can stand with the best productions in the country, will not only be a document, but will also uplift this community,' he says. 'Give them a sense of achievement. That is one of the reasons we made a feature film, not a documentary.'

'On one level the film is about displacement, but it goes beyond,' he adds. 'It goes to simple human issues of reaching out, of feeling, of human beings. Going beyond all these tags of colour, of religion, of nationhood. It's not a political film. It's a human film.'

That may be so. But Pulinthanath certainly has political aims. The purpose of Roots 'is not merely to tell a story, but to make a serious attempt at ameliorating the situation'.

'It's not possible, or realistic, or human, to ask the people who came across to go back. We're just asking that everyone, irrespective of their ethnic background, religion and culture, is allowed to live with basic human dignity. That one does not need to feel second class.'

'I hope the government and the world take notice of these deprived people. This is a group of people for whom there is no one to stand up. No one would ever raise noise for them.'

The film is a local effort. Not only filmed in Tripura, it features non-professional actors, locals for whom the themes of loss and displacement are present realities. It was such a collective endeavour, that Pulinthanath baulks at references to Roots as 'his film'.

'It's their film,' he says. 'I'm not just saying that for the sake of sounding nice. It's a fact. It's their story. It's something that's come out of their anguish. I can't appropriate it. The film is a good thing and I feel happy about it, but also it remains their story.'

Yarwng (Roots) can be viewed in segments, online at YouTube.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: Joseph Pulinthanath, Yarwng, Roots, Tripura, North-East India, indigenous, partition, pakistan, bangladesh



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