The Malana Maze

National Award-winning filmmaker Amlan Datta finds a perfect model of democracy and a dose of near-extinct treasures in Himachal’s Malana village.

In the middle of a sprawling field in a hamlet in the remote hills of Himachal Pradesh, a little girl is crouched engagingly on a 41-year-old man’s lap, gently rubbing a black paste-like substance against her palm. “Hey Sahni,” says the man, “Are you making this for me?” The little girl nods shyly in agreement. On her palm is a small quantity of hashish, and she is sitting amid a field of cannabis in Malana — a remote village situated north-east of Kullu Valley, which is known for centuries to be a grower of hashish.

“It’s the only thing she can sincerely offer,” says Amlan Datta, the man mentioned in the scene above. The scene is from the indie filmmaker’s National Award-winning documentary BOM, One Day Ahead of Democracy. With five years in the making and experiencing controversies, the film will finally have a PVR Pictures release on November 23 in Delhi, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata and Bengaluru.

“To start with, the film is about democracy and there is seriously something wrong with ours,” says Datta, who keeps shuttling between Kullu and Kolkata. Malana’s indigenous community is arguably one of the oldest democracies in the world, with a bahumat (consensus) system in its “courts”. “While I was at FTII–Pune, I heard some stories about this village — about Malana Cream as well as about its democracy — which drew me to the place.” Datta went to Malana in March 2007 for the first time.

Through the two-hour-long BOM — a name derived from one of the elements that make up the universe, according to Indian philosophy (“Bom” stands for the celestial void) — Datta tells an engaging story of Malana, where seeping modernity and the activities of politicians have resulted in a slow disintegration. The story unfurls around the daily lives of villagers, their unwavering faith in their god, how they deal with authorities when it comes to the cannabis trade and how they stubbornly keep to their own understanding of living despite being backward.

As the scenes move from the slushy cannabis fields to the weathered faces of the elders, the film weaves in ancient myths that pervade the conversations. It further unfolds the near-extinct treasures of Malana — from their language Kanashi or Raksh (“the language of the rakshasas”), rituals and worship songs, to even their clothes. Interestingly, the natives of Malana refute the theory of Greek ancestry that many claim to have come with the advent of Alexander, but frequently refer to themselves as being the offspring of the mythological rakshasas. “Only an anthropological research can conclude this,” says Datta.

The film, which had its world premiere last year at the International Film Festival in Amsterdam, had a special mention at the Mumbai International Film Festival this year. The film triggered the setting up of Bom-Bom Charitable Trust by Datta.

After it was screened at Shimla’s Gaiety Theatre earlier this year, a former anti-narcotics official accused the filmmaker of promoting cannabis trade, which eventually invited a tremendous backlash from the Malana community. There was another controversy when director Vivek Mohan, who also won National Award for his film on the village, called Malana– In Search Of , alleged that Datta is practising pseudo activism under the garb of making documentaries. To this, Datta says, “He didn’t even have access to the village. He made the movie without going there,” adding, “But then, if you do something radical, people will talk.”
Pallavi Pundir, Indian Express, 22 Nov 2012

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