Documentary Review: Have you seen the Arana?

Bikas Mishra writes about Sunanda Bhat’s documentary feature which won the John Abraham Award recently.
The Adiya people of Wayanad believe that their goddess has turned into the  lizard Arana. Earlier found everywhere, Arana is getting hard to spot nowadays. Filmmaker Sunanda Bhat uses the metaphor of an endangered reptile to take us on a poignant and breathtaking journey of the Wayanad district of Kerala which stands at the crossroads of transition.
“Have you seen the Arana” was researched for over five years. It was shot over eight months to capture all the seasons. It’s the first feature length documentary by the director whose earlier work “Bol Ayesha Bol” was screened at IDFA in 1998.
Nestled high on the Western Ghats, Wayanad is a treasure trove of flora and fauna. The native community of the Adiyas harvest a variety of rice here and live in harmony with nature. However, of late, things have started to change. Small community harvesting has given way to large scale commercial cash crop cultivation. Teak has replaced traditional trees in the jungle and resorts are coming up along the river bringing tourists and plastic. The natives of Wayanad feel uncomfortable with the change around them; however, they seem to be in little control of the situation.
What works in favour of the film is the lush green backdrop that the abundant natural beauty of Wayanad offers. Watching the film almost feels like going on a guided tour to Wayanad, thanks to the great cinematography and remarkable sound design.
“Have you seen the Arana” was researched for over five years. It was shot over eight months to capture all the seasons. It’s the first feature length documentary by the director whose earlier work “Bol Ayesha Bol” was screened at IDFA in 1998.
In its scope “Have you seen the Arana?” is an ambitious film that sets out to capture the story of Wayanad in all its diversities and paradoxes. And to the credit of the filmmaker, she succeeds to a large extent. She follows three characters: a traditional healer, a cash crop farmer and a traditional rice farmer. Through these characters she manages to capture the extremely complex issues around tradition, change, mythology, livelihood and environment.
N P Jochi , a traditional healer is worried about the disappearance of medicinal plants. She inherited the knowledge of herbs and natural medicines from her father. For no reason specified in the film, her daughter-now married with children-doesn’t even speak to her and her son has no interest in taking the legacy of traditional wisdom forward. Her concern and sadness is compounded by her loneliness.
The cash crop grower is under huge debt because prices have fallen in the market. Farmers are committing suicide. He came back from the gulf with Petro-dollar to start a life of agro-entrepreneurship but now even recovering his capital seems difficult.

The traditional rice farmer seems rather proud of his inheritance of knowledge but his life is no better than a monkey, he says, who jumps from one tree to another for survival. Likewise, he jumps from one crop to another. He loves to pass on his family wisdom to his younger son. His older son is educated and lives in the city and has no interest in agriculture.
“Have you seen the Arana” works as a film because of its characters and their warmth. It’s a great achievement on the part of the filmmaker to build this kind of intimacy with her characters. She takes us through their homes, kitchens and paddy fields.  In her kitchen, while cooking for herself, in a powerful scene Jochi breaks down and shares how her children have deserted her. Such grand moments of revelation occur with each of the three principal characters.
The narratives of these characters are interspersed with local mythology and verses of a contemporary poet. The stories of ancestors and their discoveries give the film a mystical quality and work like a poetic refrain.
Through these three characters, Bhat portrays a poignant picture of the countryside. Things are changing fast. People are forced to leave one way of life in favour of the other. However the irony is that both seem fraught with dangers of their own. The river, forest and hills all come together in this documentary to capture the story of Wayanad.
Direction: Sunanda Bhat Producer: Songline Films Cinematography: Saumyananda Sahi Editing Consultant: Bina Paul Gaffer & Editor: Tanushree Das Location Sound: Christopher Burchell Sound Design: P M Satheesh Stereo Mix: Tapas Nayak Research & Production: Sibi Pulpally, Arun PA
Bikas Mishra
Dear Cinema | 21 Apr 2013
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