Mahasweta Devi, the internationally renowned littérateur, has seen about 60 Lodhas and Shabars of West Bengal being killed for either theft or for dacoity. But not a single receiver of stolen goods has been brought to book. The situation in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh is worse. Delhi is no better. The mainstream population in India neither knows nor wants to know about the tribals. “We have never tried to explore their world, never approached them with respect and never wanted to learn from them. In the name of development and eviction and gross disrespect, we have ruined the tribal world all over India” she sums up. They continue to live in dehumanized conditions everywhere, whether in the metropolises or in the remote villages.
Ullash strikes a touching note by deciding to tell three different stories about individual tribal revolt over three different time spans in three different states expressed differently by three tribals belonging to Orissa (2000), Maharashtra (1990s) and West Bengal (1980s). All three stories have been penned by Mahasweta Devi who can claim credit for having committed a large segment of her creative and journalistic work to the adivasis of India. Ishwar Chakraborty, a noted film editor who has directed this film, has used a common thread to unite the three stories as a microcosm of tribal oppression and rebellion. Mahasweta Devi has put in a few seconds of screen time portraying the Goddess of the forests around the end of the film.
The three stories are threaded together with a single character – that of Sumitra, an investigative television journalist (Satabdi Roy) who brings the three stories in the public domain through her news channel. But the stories could have stood on their own without this anchorage of a city-bred, sophisticated, and polished journalist who does not age over the thirty years the three stories span. The stories could have held on without this ‘urban’ support because they are as shocking as are the performances of absolute newcomers bold, natural and seamless. The red microphone standing out at one end of the frame as Sumitra shoots her questions audible in a voice-over, the stories seem to lose their credibility though the director insists this was designed to bring out the constrast.
The first story is rooted in Orissa centering around Kanna (Amit Das), a tribal young boy who drops dead during a test-run for a police job. But he defies death and rises to continue his run to search for his roots, stark naked because he does not need them anymore. His run ends at the foot of a mahua tree, the tree of wisdom for tribals who live in, for and by the forests. He turns around and asks if he has passed the test!
The second story is placed in Maharashtra where the Korku tribe is disappearing because of random and clandestine deforestation on the one hand and the laying of railway tracks on their land for another. Mahadu (Arpan Basar), a member of the tribe, is made the guinea pig of a medical experimentation and he begins to grow in size, volume, energy and hunger. He continues to grow physically and walks through the highways and wide roads of Mumbai consuming the multi-storied complexes and shopping malls to fulfill his hunger. He stops only when he reaches the last surviving teak forests – the land he originally comes from.
Annabala (Sadhana Hazra), a member of the Lodha tribe of Medinipur in West Bengal, strikes back by castrating the son of the wood merchant who makes her pregnant and ditches her to face the consequences. Her fiery eyes sparkling in her dark, tanned face, breathes fire and frustration as she menacingly spells out her revenge. Betrayal is an integral part of the life of the tribals in India as we see Annabala’s foster mother Uttami leaving her to become the mistress of the wood merchant to keep body and soul alive – hers and Annabala’s. Annabala runs away into the forests and accuses the eucalyptus trees for triggering her tragedy and the forests come alive to defend her, swaying angrily in the breeze.
The three debutant actors who portray the roles of the three tribals have outshone veterans like Satabdi Roy, Biplab Chatterjee, Tapas Pal and Soumitra Chatterjee who portray the urban, affluent and elitist contrast to the oppressed souls who are trying to resist the violation of the forests and the natural greenery and other fruits of Nature that is a part of their lives. The director has taken pains to have these actors speak in the dialectical variations of the regional language that is theirs, without complicating these too much for the audience to understand easily. The blend of the surreal with the real, the magical with the factual illustrate cinema’s ability to stride across fantasy and reality effectively on the same plane at the same time.
Dilip Roy’s music keeps to the tribal tunes of the people while Shakti Bandopadhyay’s cinematography takes care to avoid glamour and chutzpah at all costs. Yet, in the final analysis, there are some rough edges and amateurish touches that make the film into a qualitatively lesser product than it would have been had the director cut out some of the riff-raff in the shape and style of professional actors who clearly did not seem to commit themselves to their work in the film.