Saturday, June 15, 2024

Frames of conflict


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 Goirick Brahmachari provides a political review of Khasi film Ri – Homeland of Uncertainty

RI IS certainly a film one would like to talk about. The nifty treatment of the film which includes a few new-wave cinematographic techniques and some decent editing, comes as a surprise for the viewers.

     The film looks at  insurgency  and reconciliation in Northeast India and is set around the clashes between the insurgents and Indian administration, at the backdrop of the ethnic conflicts in Meghalaya. It portrays how youth in Meghalaya turn to militancy to vent their ideological angst against corruption and exploitation but in turn, find themselves among a group of people who are fighting for an entirely different cause. Their intent over time changes to fear-mongering and killing outsiders, rather than the initial questions that have troubled them.

     The  script  takes a strong stand against using violence as a medium to seek change but, it completely ignores the state violence that the Indian state and local administrations has indulged in Northeast for ages. While the movie captures the tension and the trauma of the times agreeably, Pradip Kurbah’s RI looks at the notions of nationalism and insurgency from a very clichéd stance of good versus evil.

While one cannot deny that the atrocities carried out by Khasi Students’ Union and Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council are based on mere right-wing ideology of ethnic cleansing, the mass agitation by the people of Meghalaya (or for that matter, by the people of the Northeast) against the establishment since independence, was born out of some broader socio-economic and historical factors such as exploitation of natural resources, compulsory nationalism and homogenisation, championed by the centre in the name of nation state building.

     Some of these pertinent questions relating to natural resource exploitation, ethnic cleansing, ethnic homogenisation, jingoism and state terrorism are still relevant. Politically, the movie starts off on a balanced note but falls apart when it tries to give definitive answers and solutions to these questions, through the lens of nationalism, that the capitalist model of economic development is the only alternative. During the conversations between Manbha, the insurgent (Merlvin Mukhim) and the lady (Elgiva Laloo) in whose house he hides after a police encounter, the lady explains how trade, mining and large scale business can only bring development to the region. While most of us may refute the HNLC’s position or any other insurgent group’s separatist models of development and equity, the nationalist and the neo-liberal development model followed by the centre over the years, is surely not the only way out. While some of the conversation in that climax scene made sense, and both Mukhim and Laloo acted convincingly, the movie could have been far more intriguing, had the script left some of those questions unanswered.

     Forcing an unidirectional solution to Manbha’s questions and using it as a pretext for Manbha’s surrender, leads to an over-simplification of the complex narrative. It fails to narrate the complex structure of other alternatives that are present and that an average viewer might have thought of.

The portrayal of police department and the character of Inspector D Kyndiah is somewhat utopian. It is very easy for an average Indian viewer to believe that the army and the police can never do wrong and that they are true to their cause, ignoring the innocent killings by CRPF during those days. The situation hasn’t changed much- across India we still see thousands of ‘collateral damages’.

     It is rumoured, as is shown in the movie that the insurgent outfits in Meghalaya procure arms from Bangladesh even today. More than questioning the factual accuracy of the scene, what seems more interesting and ironic is that if it were true, then the same arms are used to kill the Bangladeshis who cross over the borders.

    The turning point of the movie is reached when Manbha surrenders, following a melodramatic scene where he is seen sitting with the lady at a church and the police officer Kyndiah is waiting outside along with his girlfriend to arrest Manbha. The use of Kyndiah’s girlfriend in this scene or for that matter in the entire movie is unnecessary. The only other Bollywoodish scene in the movie is when Manbha’s mother comes up to the police inspector and talks about her child, during a raid in his house.

     Having said that, the narrative flows really well and the events unfold beautifully, backed by a flowing script and tight editing. From the choice of the locations such as Sohra, Dawki and villages in Bangladesh, to the cinematography, cast and acting, Pradip Kurbah does a wonderful job of retelling a turbulent story Meghalaya has endured. It must be mentioned here, that the depiction of loneliness among the protagonist and his young associates were beautifully framed during their trek back to Dawki from Bangladesh. While the use of the Lalon Fakir (a Bengali Baul saint, mystic, songwriter, social reformer and thinker) song along with the shot of four Khasi guys on a boat in Bangladesh had a powerful effect, a few Khasi folk songs could been used.

     Ri’s cinematography and direction gives a new hope for Khasi cinema and can become an inspiration for Khasi children fiddling with a camera.


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