Cinemaya II

 “Sir, will you be kind enough to let us have a look at the photos of our vegetable garden?” Lily Baske requested. “We’d love to have a look at our vegetables”, Laxmi Soren and her sister-in-law Malati cried out in unison.

Lily, Laxmi, Malati and about thirty men, women and children belonging to the Santhal community along with me and my two member crew were celebrating our shooting of the vegetable garden that had been developed by a Self Help Group (SHG) of which Lily, Laxmi, Malati and 7 other women like them were members. The plot of land in which the garden had come up would have been left fallow during the dry winter season just like most of the land in Japur – a hamlet in North Dinjapur, an officially underdeveloped district in north West Bengal – had it not been for the efforts of local Gram Panchayat member Robi Kisku. Mr. Kisku had been instrumental in convincing the owner of the plot to lease it to women’s SHG. Lily, Laxmi and the other women would cultivate vegetables and the owner would get his share. Ownership of land being a very sensitive issue the landlord had to be persuaded very hard to hand it over, albeit temporarily. He yielded at last when Mr. Kisku and the Panchayat Pradhan, Mrs. Noni Mardi, agreed to stand as guarantors of the lease agreement. The women were overjoyed; it was for the first time that the landless Santhals would get an opportunity for gainful employment during winter, a season when work in the fields is scarce. The experiment had been a winner; the women had worked hard bringing water from a pond more than a mile away, protecting the saplings from goats and cattle and spraying Neem oil mixture to check bugs. Two months later, when I had arrived to make a documentary on this success story of Panchayat-SHG partnership, the little plot stood out like an oasis amidst the surrounding acres of brown fallows.  

The actual shooting had started with a strange hiccup at the very onset. Beaming with joy and happiness that their vegetable garden was being photographed by an ‘offisar Sir’ from Kolkata, Laxmi and the other members of her SHG had arrived dressed in their finest. My plans to take some shots showing the women working in the field went for a toss! Their husbands and sons too were very happy and arrived singing songs and beating their huge dhamsas and maadols – they too wanted their photos! It required all my powers of persuasion to convince them of the incongruity of showing men dancing in a vegetable garden! The women as expected were very diffident in speaking in front of the camera but after a little while they opened up and talked how that little patch of land had done them a world of good during the winter season when many in the Santhal community could barely manage to have one proper meal a day. I also managed to take a wide variety of shots of the garden and its many plants. At sundown the shoot was over. As we were packing up, the men and women requested us to join the party that had been organised in celebration of the shooting. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse!

Lily and others made their request an hour into the party after a few bottles of fresh haadiya and spicy pork chaat had been consumed accompanied by songs and maadol drums. I was surprised,” How could that be possible? A TV is needed for you all to see the footage. There’s no electricity here!”  “But there is a tiny TV attached to your camera!” Laxmi Soren said, “Yes! We can see the photos in that TV.”  “But that is too small. Can you all manage?” I queried. “Yes we can!” pat came the reply in chorus. The men and women jostled around the camera monitor and thus began this strange screening. Every shot was greeted with hoops of joy and applause… “That’s my papaya tree!”… “Oh! How beautiful my lemons look!”… “What a large chilli! That must be mine”… “Oh no! Those chillies are mine”… I was stunned by these statements and reactions. The women were able to identify their own vegetables from images which looked nothing more than series of featureless close-ups to me and my crew!  So great was their joy and enthusiasm that when the first cassette was over it had to be screened once more for the benefit of those who had missed a proper look due to the miniscule size of the camera monitor. This time too the rushes were greeted with delight… The party and screening got over late in the night and we left promising to send a copy of the film as soon it got completed…

Alas after my return from Japur, proverbial red tape intervened and the entire project went into limbo. A few days back, almost a month after the shoot, Mr. Kisku rang me up. He enquired if the film was finished. I told him about the bleak situation. “Oh! Is that so?! We now have electricity and folks here are desperate to see their film on a proper TV!” The sense of frustration and disappointment was all too evident in his melancholy tone. I felt embarrassed and helpless… “Would the rushes serve any purpose?” I enquired diffidently.  Arre! That would be just great! It’s the images that really matter!” Mr. Kisku’s replied cheerfully. I promised him to send a DVD as soon as possible… Then, I had a flashback! About two decades back, under a venerable tree of wisdom a ‘sage’ had thus opined,”A film is purest at its rushes stage!”…. “Hmm… may be!?” I thought…

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  1. The picture of the little girl tells the story – the manner in which she holds her vegetables shows her passionate involvement with the produce of their little patch of land.

  2. Beautiful! Despite the frustration of red tapism, I’m sure you have tasted a different kind of satisfaction. There are many layers in this piece…liked it very much.

  3. drcyhilli: Thanks for reading… yes they were really passionate and involved … guess that’s why they could identify their own vegetables.
    bishnu: that was a very humbling experience indeed…

  4. Monish, I loved this. When you posted the link on FB, I immediately wanted to read this. But my endlessly hectic schedule is still endlessly hectic and so I had to wait till today. I am going to ask my students in the South Asia class to read this when we do the section on political economy and development. They have read about panchayati raj and will get a real-life context for how all this works – fortunately a positive example too. Would you be able to put some of the rushes online somewhere where I can ask them to watch?
    I am wondering why the filming is caught in red tape.

  5. Surupa: Red tape as in my principal sponsors, the Govt. of WB and UNDP ,are suddenly having second thoughts about the content of the film of which the story of the vegetable patch of Japur would have been a part… the confusion is so great that the process has come to a complete halt. I can’t upload footage due to issues of copyright.. however I will surely be able to give you some films when you are here…

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