Above and Beyond the Wild

It all started with an article by P Sainath, which spoke about the agricultural crisis in Wayanad, a forested district in north-eastern Kerala. Bangalore-based documentary filmmaker Sunanda Bhat ventured into the jungles in 2006 with the idea of making a film on the locals there. It changed her perspective and she decided to expand her research and interact with the locals. By late 2012, Have You Seen The Arana? was complete. “It’s difficult to put the concept of the film in one line,” says Bhat.

“Have You Seen The Arana? takes you on a journey through a fragile ecosystem that is witnessing a rapid transformation in the name of development,” reads an excerpt from the trailer. The narrative follows three main characters: Jochi NP, a traditional healer, who finds that the medicinal plants she scouts for in the dense forests are disappearing; Raman Cheruvayil, a middle-aged farmer, who is committed to the organic growth of traditional varieties of rice amid rising farmer suicides and George Joseph, a Syrian-Christian, who along with his family migrated to Wayanad for the lucrative prospect of ginger farming, only to find a drop in ginger prices over time.

“I’ve interwoven these real stories with tribal myths of the area. In this way, we get a sense of what is vanishing over time,” says Bhat. The result is a film that brings together these issues of bio-diverisity and urban development in a visually appealing manner.

The journeys of these three characters are seamlessly interspersed with deep chanting voices from tribal songs, called pullapatta, which are sung when someone dies, with the hope that their soul will find their way. The narrative of the film becomes a visual map, providing the way for the viewers and characters around the lush areas of Wayanad. Cheruvayil’s words to his grandson immediately come to mind.

“We have to know the soil as the soil knows us,” he says, with a toothy smile, as he picks an insect from his muddy land. “The insect can survive because we don’t use pesticides,” he says. “This film is not only brought together by the crew but by these characters. They would routinely ask me about the progress and the next time I visited them, they would make sure I got what I wanted,” says Bhat about the film that was completed over a year’s time. Bhat says the narrative runs alongside a paddy rice cycle — from sowing to harvesting.

Most of the film has been shot informally: one is a witness to jokes with Joseph about life in the Gulf, Jochi’s motherly instincts when it comes to wounds and Cheruvayil’s friendly banter. “The camera came later. We shared many meals together and visited many places before I began shooting,” says Bhat. The footage is completely hand-held and has been shot with a Canon DLSR. Have You Seen The Arana? won the “Monde en Regards” award at the Jean Rouch International Film Festival, Paris, for its anthropological relevance, and the Dada Saheb Phalke Award for Best Documentary in 2013. Recently it won the Golden Conch for Best Documentary at the Mumbai International Film Festival in 2014.

“I’m looking for the Arana” says a voice from behind the camera in the trailer. A local passing by responds in broken English with a strong Malayalee accent. “The Arana has disappeared. Gone. The effect of foreign life,” he says. So what is the relevance of the title, we wonder. “The answer lies in the film. Let’s just say it’s a metaphor for things which are vanishing,” says Bhat.

Have You Seen The Arana? will be screened as part of the IAWRT Film Festival at IIC, on March 6 at 6.30 pm.
 
Swetha Ramakrishnan
The Indian Express | 24 Feb 2014
 
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