Tracing a fading trail

Though 'Ningal Aranaye Kando' has a bleak premise, filmmaker Sunanda Bhat injects it with the lightness of everyday occurrences, simple slice-of-life moments and hope for the future, finds Catherine Rhea Roy.
It is a woman’s disquiet over the disappearance of medicinal plants from the forest, a farmer’s commitment to traditional methods of farming and growing varieties of rice organically and a cash crop cultivator’s desperate hold on hope amidst the farmer suicides. 'Ningal Aranaye Kando?' (Have You Seen The Arana?) a documentary film by filmmaker Sunanda Bhat, is a sojourn that takes you through the crests, troughs and flats of Wayanad, the region’s changing topography and a people, a lifestyle and culture that are straining to keep up, barely surviving.
“The initial idea was to make a film about adivasis, who were affected most by the agriculture crisis,” Sunanda says. “In a documentary it is important to examine the way we look at a situation and understand what we are looking at. It needs to be an immersion of our senses. I didn’t want to end up with a film about the plight of adivasis or one that portrayed them as the other. The objective was to do a film without drawing attention to the fact that they were adivasis.”
The film begins with the chanting of a folktale by the moopan (elder) of the tribe, and in an almost seamless transition we shift from the myth to the search for the arana, a metaphor for the demise of what used to be a simple life, in the lap of Nature.
A documentary is issue heavy and has something to say, and as a maker of documentary films Sunanda says, “It is all the grey, those shades of human nature, a wider range of human emotions that I enjoy looking at.” In her film we see the farmer and the forest, the preservers of immense traditional knowledge. She spent five years researching her film and a year filming. “They were willing to open up and talk about anything and everything they knew. It was about the extraordinary in the very ordinary lives that these people have but are lost on a society that places value on material things rather than knowledge.”
Talking about people living in an ever changing terrain, Sunanda said, “We are not living in a static environment. When it changes rapidly and dramatically, it affects the people and how they cope.” explains the film maker. The film has many layers and it employs these layers to convey the complexity of what happens there. “It took me five years to develop a style of narrative that would convey the complexity of the people and the place.”
It was in the mid 90’s when journalist P. Sainath was covering the agricultural crisis in Wayanad and did a story about the farmer suicides that was when Sunanda was first drawn to the subject. She says, “I researched the written and oral history of the place and there are so many things happening besides the agricultural crisis – like the changes in the landscape, the jobs people take…”
The place comes alive on bus journeys, which begins from the centre of town past green paddy fields, up a hill and through settlements and the dark forest. “It was amazing and I felt such varied feelings, the diversity of what was happening fascinated me.” . “I looked at the larger canvas and picked up three stories for three landscapes – the rice farmer, the plantation economy and the forest.”
The film also delves into the mythical history of the place that belongs to an oral tradition and forms one of the parallel narratives, “The myth is a pullapattu, they sing this song in the hope that the soul finds its way back to their ancestors and it is this journey that is described or they will get lost,” she explains.
The forgotten story of Ithi and Achan, the story of how the sun god and moon god make their forms out of mud and when they go to the riverbed they come face to face with the terrifying form of Mali (equivalent of Kali) bathed in slush and mud. When she shakes it off the hills and forests were formed and when she rushes to them they scream and run… “Life comes when you have a voice, ordinary people need a voice,” Sunanda says and when they are given that voice, there are no copious tears; they talk of the future hopefully with a startling degree of faith and optimism.
'Ningal Aranaye Kando' is Sunanda’s contribution to mapping the terrain, recalling the past, of how the area was looked at and understood and she insists that it would have been impossible without her team.
The cinematography by Saumyananda Sahi makes the forest look greener and the mud muddier, the rain more real and gives the landscape more texture. Shot with a handheld camera to be unobtrusive, Sunanda had help from Tanushree Das on editing and Chistopher Burchell on sound. “It was a team that was young, excited and committed to lifting it from an idea to a film. Beena Paul, was the artistic director who enabled the homogenous inclusion of he myth into the story and Siby and Arun from he Ferns And Natualist Society, who I was associated with through my years of research.”
Sunanda was in advertising for a short while and picked up film-making out of her interest in cinema. She has earlier worked on a film called Bol Aisha Bol about bonded labourers and how they made a livelihood of dry land farming in and managed to farm there in Bagepalli, Andhra Pradesh.
There have been about 50 to 60 screenings of 'Ningal Aranaye Kando' and the discussions following the screening are documented. “I like people, meeting them and their stories. Everybody has such interesting stories to tell. The research is the most interesting – walking and climbing and making our way through the scenery, we stop to have chai and people start talking.”
The process of film-making is immersive for Sunanda, “I am closely connected to my subjects and am concerned about how I represent them. You can present right and wrong in many ways but you must allow your viewer to form their opinion and that is important.”
Sunanda had been working on the film for so long and it has not been an easy process and had even considered shelving the project so many times. “This is the end of the film – the myth that the moopan was chanting was for the dead, the myth also sings of the relationship with the land – this was it a clear beginning and end.”
Catherine Rhea Roy
The Hindu | Bangalore | 14 Mar 2013
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