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Films are a great binding factor, or so the late film critic Roger Ebert would have us believe.
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Digging up dirt
Two important documentaries released recently tell the story of the unparalleled crisis our hinterland faces as we move into the age of insatiable consumption, and reckless mining threatens to destroy, if not diminish hugely, the few forested areas that remain.
What does a young British filmmaker do when he lands in India determined to make a film to verify British firm Vedanta’s claims to ‘social responsibility’ in areas where it undertakes mining and refining of bauxite? How difficult does it become when all he has, other than his good intentions, are a camera and two bumbling assistants who would much rather work for a filmmaker from the BBC than an unknown independent?
With his camera as quixotic staff and his two Sancho Panzas in a ramshackle Ambassador car, Simon Chambers’ first down to earth encounter with impoverished India is a cheap hotel in which he will stay. The ‘commode’ in the toilet is clean because it has only one cockroach, and the gecko on the wall is as welcoming as the leftover soap in the dish with a used toothbrush as companion.
Cowboys in India takes us back on an ironic trip to an India we are moving away from, where life is a struggle and where one must get used to the driver’s frequent stops to eat more ‘rice’ at all odd hours of the day. And so we enter a world of uninhibited poverty, of neglect and exploitation, of petty concerns and bare survival. It is here that the story the filmmaker seeks will be found.
The problem is, however, that as we get closer to the Niyamgiri hills, the story becomes more elusive. People stop volunteering information and there is palpable tension all around. The guide and driver disappear, obvious markers are no longer visible and a kind of Rashomon effect is suddenly in the air. It is as if someone is watching every move the filmmaker makes and as this happens, avenues for shooting the film get blocked. In many cases this would have led to a confused film, but this lack is made a virtue of by Chambers who puts this confusion to good use — to understand why things are happening the way they are. Slowly he realises that at the back of the mysterious affairs is the fear the locals have of the all-powerful corporation as well as the
arrogance of Vedanta.
An example of this is in the way signboards in village after village no longer merely announce their original names but appear routinely as “Our Vedanta – Maguni”, “Our Vedanta – Basantapada” or “Our Vedanta – Kansari”. We would balk at any suggestion of our cities being renamed “Our Reliance – New Delhi” or “Our Tata – Mumbai” yet no power exists to stop business houses from appropriating villages into their corporate image without batting an eyelid.
We discover that claims made by Vedanta in London that it has created hospitals for the needy and crèches for working mothers are hollow because a hospital building where it exists is always locked, there is no equipment inside nor is there any staff — if a crèche exists it is barely operational. So the company can safely make such claims in London, or even in Delhi because it knows well enough that these cannot be easily verified.
The fear his assistants feel also gets through to Chambers. He questions the confidence with which he thought he could take on the mighty corporation and with amazing self-deprecating charm and humour heralds his eventual withdrawal from the scene which also allows his men to minimize the risks that carrying on with him would have posed. This gentle and nuanced film, often mocking its own cowboy-like bravado and its inability to acknowledge the vulnerability of others, ends up being a stronger indictment of Vedanta’s designs than a more explicitly structured film would have been.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s Blood and Iron is a different kind of film altogether. Structured more like a television report, the film sets out to unearth a ‘convergence of crime, business and politics’ primarily in the Bellary district of Karnataka and Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh. Ever since China announced its hunger for ‘iron ore fines’, required for the massive stadia it was making for the Olympics, two areas in India, Bellary in Karnataka and Anantapur in Andhra Pradesh became among the leading providers of the raw material. Strangely enough, the state governments of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh handed out mining licences for a pittance. What was more shocking was that the actual mining that was done was far in excess of the sanctioned amount and was transported by trucks running illegally directly from the mines to the ports.
Stretched over two hours, Thakurta’s documentary puts together a series of interviews with well known environmentalists, historians, social activists and judges to establish that the mining mafia of the Bellary area, led by the three Reddy brothers, has become a law unto itself and that the writ of Bengaluru does not run in Bellary. It establishes that over a seven-year period, over 30,000 million tonnes of ‘iron ore fines’ were exported from Karnataka but that no record exists of these. Everyone, from the ‘Lokayukta’ to the chief minister of the state express their helplessness to control the mining mafia or find out how such a massive amount of iron ore could have been exported without any records.
The documentary has three segments: the first deals with how the mining mafia of Bellary has become a law unto itself, the second with the extent of illegal extraction of ore and the third with the disastrous consequences this uncontrolled mining has had on the environment and the lives of the tribals. Understandably, the segments overlap every now and then and interviews with one set of protagonists repeat what others have said. Nevertheless, this is where the film becomes messy. In its desire to incorporate a large range of opinion, to try and say everything there is to be said, to incorporate diverse songs and performances of protest, the film ends up moving in a no-focus zone for some time. And this is unfortunate because it detracts from the central energy of an important film.
The third section of the film, however, is the most moving and powerful. Coincidentally, it is also the most cohesive. We are confronted with images of the now denuded forest, we see the helplessness of the villagers, most wildlife including the sloth bear has disappeared, rivers and waterways have been polluted beyond recognition and it still does not seem to matter to those in power. The lethal red dust from the ore has enveloped all life around it — in the air, on the ground — and, it would seem also in the capacity of the human race to alter the course of destruction that it has set for itself.
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