By Vivian Luu
Northwest Asian Weekly
Oriya film legend Prashanta Nanda packs a political punch in his latest film, “The Living Ghost,” by honing in on the exploitation — sexual and economic — of a native tribe in India that is facing extinction.
The film was named “Most Provoking Film on Social Issues” at the Independent South Asian Film Festival on Oct. 4.
Nanda, as well as producer Akshay Kumar Parija and distributor Ashok Suvarna, were in attendance to accept the award.
The movie begins with drumbeats echoing through India’s Niyamgiri hills. A lone messenger bears grim news: The government has allowed a company to take over the region and scour the land’s rich bauxite, i.e., aluminum ore, deposits.
Meanwhile, Bangru (Manoj Mishra) tries to find money to pay for Singari’s (Rimjhim) bride price in order to marry her. He seeks help from Domb, the middleman (Minaketan Das), who tells Bangru to work for Sahukar, a rich businessman.
The merchant agrees to help Bangru if the native pretends to be a witness to a supposed crime committed against Sahukar. Bangru follows the merchant’s orders, but he quickly reveals his true identity and gets arrested for impersonating a witness.
Singari tries to free Bangru. Though innocent, sheltered, and uninformed of modern customs, she quickly learns that sex sells and offers herself to the men involved in Bangru’s misfortune in an attempt to save her lover.
Through various elements, Nanda depicts how the genuine and innocent natives of Niyamgiri are taken advantage of.
The tribe has lived in the hills for centuries. The culture there is primitive, but peaceful.
The filmmaker says that India’s government is exploiting the tribe by allowing Sterlite, Inc., the nation’s fastest growing non-ferrous metals and mining company, to extract large amounts of bauxite from the Niyamgiri hills.
“Now that the company has taken the mountain, they will destroy it,” Nanda said in an interview. “These people have to leave. They have no place to stay. … I couldn’t tolerate that.”
This is why Nanda decided to make the film.
“We cannot tolerate in an urban city if somebody kills a dog,” Nanda said. “But you don’t mind those people — a company digging in a mountain — that can easily kill 40,000 people and can easily cause the extinction of those people. Nobody cares. What kind of civilization is that?”
After the film debuted in Cairo, Egypt, action was taken to stop Sterlite, Inc.’s mining projects in the Niyamgiri hills. The company is now considering provisions for the tribes in the region.
“You have a company that will drop millions on a cricket match but will not spend $500,000 to provide [the tribe] with shelter,” said Parija, who produced the film. “Now they are promising, ‘If we have to extract the bauxite [to make] aluminum, we have to provide them with a proper shelter.’”
While this political message was clearly presented to the audience at the start of the film, there is no mention of the Niyamgiri hills’ forfeiture and mining until the final scene. The film concludes with a panoramic view of the hills and then focuses in on yellow excavators and bulldozers. Additional allusions to the land’s abuse might raise more awareness on the situation.
“The Living Ghost” also addressed historic economic and sexual exploitation of the native people. Sahukar and his lawyer (Bikash Dash) trick Bangru into serving them. Ironically, the hero is implicated for being honest.
This theme of innocence as a disadvantage prevails throughout the film. The way the actors delivered the theme, however, was striking. A number of frames including Bangru showed the character staring into space at an angle, his eyes glazed over and his mouth slightly open. He looks sleepy, if not slightly unintelligent. Frames of other tribesmen were similar and leeched focus from the theme.
Singari is not depicted this way. Her subordination to men was highlighted to show the ills of the sexual exploitation tribal women experience in India.
Nanda’s directing talent stood out most here. From Singari’s giggles to her outwardly childish (but not gullible) mannerisms, it is clear that Singari holds the power of sex in her hands, but she quickly relinquishes it to men and becomes powerless. While the character’s sexual encounters become the main focus of the movie and help to build up to the culmination of the film, the audience is left sympathizing with the tribal women.
“They are left with nothing,” said Suvarna, the film’s distributor.
Promotional materials for “The Living Ghost” claim the film is “a celloid expression.” Nanda says he leaves viewers with ambiguity so that they can gain a personal understanding of his people and build upon their own world views.
“We all know of a struggle for existence,” Nanda said. “But this is a film about a struggle for nonexistence.”
Before becoming a film director in 1976, Nanda was an actor in the Oriya film industry. He won the Best Actor award at the 1962 National Film Awards for his work in “Nua Bou.” Nanda has directed 75 films, some of which are award-winning productions.
A politician, Nanda served as senior leader and Orissa state vice president on the Bharatiya Janata Party, a major political party in India. He resigned in August 2007.
“The Living Ghost” is unrelated to William Beaudine’s 1942 zombie horror film, which bears the same title as Nanda’s creation. ♦
For more information, visit www.thelivingghost.com.
Vivian Luu can be reached at email@example.com.