In January this year, I work up to the pleasant news that announced the Padma Shri being bestowed on Satyanarayana Mundayoor AKA ‘Uncle Moosa’. It was a recognition long, long overdue. It is with gratitude that I acknowledge that without Uncle Moosa, my 2015 feature length documentary, Lohit Diary, would simply not have been possible. He was both a key facilitator in its production as well as an important character in it.
In 2012, when I had completed a documentary on the legendary theatre artist, BV Karanth – B V Karanth: Baba, it was the culmination of a trilogy of movies on the theatre – the others being Rice and Rasam, on the present state of professional company theatres in Karnataka, particularly focusing on the third generation family group of theatre doyen, Gubbi Veeranna, and Gudigeri Company, which was on another professional theatre company struggling to survive in changing times. By then, I was done with theatre based subjects and was looking for a change. I decided that I would pick up a subject for my next film that would require me to go to as far as I could from Mumbai and Karnataka. And certainly not to do a film there on theatre!
It was at this point I ‘found’ Satyanarayana Mundayoor. He was an Income Tax officer in Mumbai before he left his job to stay in Arunachal Pradesh for about forty years. Ever since, has been reading English stories to young, local children in the remotest areas of Arunachal Pradesh while building up a network of libraries for them in the Lohit Valley. It was an interesting subject and Lohit river, which is a tributary of the river Brahmaputra, was pretty much as far as it got. I contacted him and he was forthcoming. Before long, I was aboard a plane to Dibrugarh in Assam, the nearest airport to Arunachal Pradesh.
Ever since Robert Flaherty made Nanook of the North (1922), considered as the first narrative, feature length documentary in the world, non-fiction filmmakers the world over, like him, have been going to uncharted territories to look at unknown subjects and away-from-the-mainstream communities. Almost a hundred years later, I was also one of them. Although the initial idea was to make a movie on Satyanarayana Mundayoor, I discovered in this one-man ‘recce cum shooting schedule’ the significance of opium in the life of the people of Arunachal Pradesh. It had a historical connection with China and was woven in with the British East India Company’s deeds. The business community of Marwaries, some of whom were living in the area for five to six generations, were also associated with it. But I choose to focus of the local, indigenous inhabitants of the Lohit Valley. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost every household in the Lohit Valley cultivates opium in its kitchen garden. All they need to do is to sow a few seeds spread out that will grow effortlessly over the following months. Opium is then extracted from the bloomed buds to be dipped, dried and stored in small pieces of muslin cloths. People cut and sell portions of this cloth, when in need of money for education, health etc. The economy is in a sense was fuelled by opium – called ‘Kani ‘locally. These opium dipped muslin clothes are called as ATM – Any Time Money.
The offshoot of all that is that every household had opium addicts – young, old, male or female. Every village had Kani addas, where people gathered to consume opium. The fact that the Lohit Valley is close to the Myanmar border from where other artificial drugs seeped in, was also a factor. There was no way I could have not incorporated at least some of these issues into the documentary. So, I came back to Mumbai and apart from Satyanarayana Mundayoor, I began looking out for other people who could be featured in the documentary to broaden its scope. And… I found two more.
The first was Tewa Manpoong, who hails from the indigenous Tai-Khamti community and lives in the Namsai area. He manages a drug de-addiction and rehabilitation centre, which at that point of time, was the only running centre in Arunachal Pradesh. Once an addict himself, he loves his centre and naturally empathises with his inmates who come to get rid of their addiction. Through Satyanarayana Mundayoor, I discovered Basamlu Krisikro, an enterprising indigenous business woman from the Miju Mishimi community who ran a green tea factory. To run her factory, she needed green tea planters and she was going about convincing families to give up opium cultivation in favour of green tea. And then there was Satyanarayana Mundayoor himself, a Keralite who choose to live with the Mishimies and had become one of them, popularly called ‘Uncle Moosa’ by the locals. There is no meaning or connotation to the word Moosa but it just kind of got struck on him.
I made a proposal of the above and pitched it to Films Division. It got approved and soon I was back in the Lohit Valley, this time with a small shooting unit in tow. In my first shooting cum recce schedule, I was mainly filming interviews; this time we went into the observatory mode of documentary – of following actions and processes to their logical end in a candid way. We got some good footage at the rehabilitation centre – people joining, people getting treated and people longing to be discharged. With Basamlu Krisikro, we got the entire tea plucking process, the making of the green tea and we followed her as she went about the deep interiors of Arunachal Pradesh, trying to convince people to convert to green tea cultivation. With Uncle Moosa, we not only followed the children who came to his library, the place where he lives, but also went along with him and some of his children from Tezu to further up the hills in Anjaw, where they set up a reading camp as they enacted skits, narrated poems and stories from the several books that are housed in the library.
The toughest part was to get to shoot at a ‘Kani Adda’ and at some large opium cultivation units. Tewa Monpoong helped us with the former and Sokhep Kri and Rohinso Krisikro, two Miju Mishimi community leaders to whom I got introduced by Uncle Moosa, put me on to the opium fields. People often wondered if I was an informer for the narcotic units or the police, who once a year during the blooming of the Kani flowers, raid the fields and destroy the crops, causing much financial losses to the families. At Anjaw, we were made to wait for an entire day before Sokhep could convince the locals to take us up the hills – a long dangerous climb – to show us the pink flowers.
We came back to Mumbai, when I made the rough cut I realised that I did not have enough shots of blooming opium flowers, especially the white ones. The film couldn’t do without them. I had to plan one more shooting schedule and wait for almost six months for the flowers to bloom the following January.
It is now about five years since all this has happened. Today, Tewa Monpoong has since joined a political outfit and heads its Namsai unit, Basamlu Krisikro must have hopefully increased her family of green tea cultivators for her factory to run in an optimised manner and the simple living Uncle Moosa, as we all know, has been bestowed with the Padma Shri with efforts being made to replicate the library network model in the entire State.
You can watch the entire film, Lohit Diary (2015), here.