“I’m just an Indian who is as troubled by the state of things in our country as you are. Only, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to talk about these things through my stories,” says Devashish Makhija, the director of Oonga. Though set in a small village in Orissa, the film traces the predicament of adivasis, from several parts of the country, who are being victimized under the pretext of development. Oonga had its world premiere at the New York Indian Film Festival in May 2013.

Devashish speaks to Pandolin about the germination of this idea, the challenges involved in the treatment of this subject, the  dedication and determination that went into the making of this film and much more.

A still from the film

The journey of a little adivasi boy

Tell me about Oonga? What is it about?

This story starts in an adivasi village in Orissa. On the surface it is about the little adivasi boy ‘Oonga’ who sets out to search for a mythical hero he has heard about only in stories, and how this adventure changes his destiny. But alongside this, the film also seeks to raise some uncomfortable questions.

Where did the idea come from? What was the inspiration behind Oonga?

It all started with thousands of sleepless nights wondering what India really means by ‘development’ today. Having experienced, researched and witnessed much of what is happening in Bengal, Chhatisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, the only one thing that seemed to emerge clearly from amongst all the chaos of various opinions (from left, right and centre) was that if, at the end of the day, ‘humanity’ is being compromised, this ‘development’ cannot be worth it.

There is a lot of reportage and moving writing on this subject. But when it comes to making a film – an accessible enough one that the wider audience can watch, be entertained by, and be made to think about – almost no one wants to touch it with a bargepole. Cinema has that power to reach out to as many people who are moved by films. Sometimes they even want to believe what they see. And it’s very hard for them to forget a good film. Oonga was born of this very specific intention.

[pullquote_right]Casting was a challenging exercise. Unlike most films that choose either trained actors or untrained non-actors (to enhance realism), we had to achieve a mix of the two![/pullquote_right]

How was your experience writing it? How long did it take?

I don’t mean to offend you, but this kind of question is an unfair one. Stories that are as personal as ‘Oonga’ get written in many stages. The act of physically writing it is merely the last stage of this process. So it’s nearly impossible to give a truly fair time frame. I had been trying to make a fictional feature length film around this particular situation for a few years. I won’t dwell on how difficult it was to get people to even listen to me, leave alone read what I’d written. ‘Oonga’ was the fourth or fifth such story I came up with. I took the story to Speaking Tree Pictures, who, moved by the story, said yes almost immediately. I developed the screenplay with the folk at STP – Sarat Talluri Rao (co-writer), Harish Amin, Mehvash Husain (the producers) and Tess Joseph (co-director) over 2-3 months while simultaneously doing the pre-production for the film. It’s the fastest, most intense screenwriting experience I’ve ever had.

What kind of research went into the film?

Troubled by years of informative and disturbing reading about the adivasi struggle to protect their land, I finally – in February 2010 – footed it through the tribal belt of South Orissa and North Andhra with the brave photo-journalist Javed Iqbal, and documentary filmmaker Faiza Ahmad Khan. The first hand witnessing of a situation that was slowly spiraling out of control even as we passed through, left me very broken.

The story of Oonga finds its seed in a small anecdote I heard while in Koraput, Orissa. Sharanya Nayak, the local head of Action Aid there told me how she had taken a group of adivasis to watch a dubbed version of ‘Avatar’. They hollered and cheered the Na’vi right through the film as if they were their own fellow-tribals fighting the same battles they were! This little episode got Sarat and me thinking. And the story of ‘Oonga’ started to take shape.

How did the team of Oonga form?

From the minute STP, the producers, said yes, things moved at hyper-speed. This film would have to be made in very little money and in record time, or it would never be a feasible enough project. So many fantastic people were finalized and then lost to date issues, shifting timelines – the nature of a beast like this one, where anything definitive can only happen at the last minute! It was mayhem. But these are the kinds of films where nothing goes the way you planned it and everything that goes out of whack actually ends up making some unforeseen magic!

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Encapsulating the realism

Please share your experiences while making this film?

One of the best things that happened to ‘Oonga’ was Jehangir Chaudhry, the national award winning cinematographer who shot the iconic ‘Mirch Masala’, ‘Holi’ and the avant garde ‘Being Cyrus’. We needed the world of the adivasi – the mountains, the rivers, centuries-old trees – to look like a slice of paradise. If it does, it does so only because Mr. Chaudhry made that happen!

Given that we had a very limited budget to make this film with, we shot the major chunk of it in a single start-to-finish 18 day schedule! There was a day when we shot for 22 hours straight, taking a few hours to eat, shift to another location (atop a hill no less), and shoot again! This kind of a relentless pursuit can only be a result of a certain naiveté that accompanies first time filmmaking! But I think that energy translated into what you can now see on screen.

We had initially planned to shoot much of the film in Koraput, Orissa, where the story is set, right where the adivasis in the film are from. We had our locations locked, when, less than a fortnight before the shoot, a couple of abductions happened in the area, including that of an adivasi MLA, who got picked up from the very spot where we had decided to shoot a very similar scene! Although the prospect of capturing political history as it was being made excited us, it would be dangerous to shoot there with actors as renowned as the ones in our film. With a weight on our heart we shifted the major portion of the shoot to similar looking regions in south ofMaharashtra.

Although there were certain key sequences that could only be shot in Orissa – like Oonga passing through the ‘red mud pond’ – the waste reservoir of most industries that pumps toxic residue into rivers, fields and lives. This was a challenge unlike any other on this film. Our Oriya specialist Amaresh Satapathy really pushed us to give ‘Oonga’ the balanced perspective that it has. Telling such a story can be dangerous as it raises uncomfortable questions of a nation’s status quo, and even of those who are hell bent on upsetting it. Only a story that didn’t take sides, but spoke instead only of the injustice and inhumanity at the heart of such a situation, could truly do justice to such a complex scenario.

The film has some songs, foremost among them a 10 minute musical retelling of the ‘sitaharan’ from the Ramayana. Composed by Krsna, the man behind the music of ‘Tanu weds Manu’, and choreographed by the multi-faceted Daksha Sheth, the ballet marries a Ram-Leela tradition with a contemporary aesthetic.

One of the most difficult-to-crack pieces of this film is a song that the teacher Hemla sings with the little kids of the village. Inspired by a traditional adivasi song, the lyrics were written by renowned lyricist Raj Shekhar. Through the lyrics – which are a mix and match of Hindi, Oriya and some adivasi words – Hemla tries to integrate two worlds into one, in the hope that one day – in the not too distant future – we will all respect one another’s tongues, and allow our cultures to co-exist. And perhaps find a balanced, mutually beneficial way forward, one that can truly be called ‘development’. This song ‘Taram taram’ is Oonga’s anthem of hope.

[pullquote_left]Our primary concern in ‘Oonga’ was to present a scenario where no one (apart from blind capitalistic greed) is really a villain. Everyone are victims of a scenario where ‘development’ has come to mean industrialization at any cost.[/pullquote_left]

What was the biggest challenge in shooting the film?

The fact that it is in two languages – Oriya and Hindi. Even though we’re a nation of dozens of languages, films are never made in two languages, because it confuses the distributor. A subtitled film is marketed and distributed differently from a Hindi film. And the Oriya in ‘Oonga’ makes a sizeable part of the film a subtitled experience for the mainstream Hindi-speaking audiences. Also, the actors playing the CRPF and the Naxalites were from Bombay. The adivasis were from Orissa. And only Nandita Das – who speaks both languages – really bridged this gap.

But this challenge had to be faced, because in the adivasi’s battle today, the primary source of conflict is miscommunication. The ‘company’, the government and its agency the CRPF – none of them speak the indigenous peoples’ language. And don’t care to learn it. As a result, not only can they not truly understand the needs of the adivasi, but when the adivasi tries to take recourse to the machinery of justice, the officials they encounter are in a language they don’t understand! There was going to be no other way to tell this story other than in two distinct languages.

How did you cast for the film?

This too was a challenging exercise. Unlike most films that choose either trained actors or untrained non-actors (to enhance realism), we had to achieve a mix of the two!

On one hand we had Nandita Das and Seema Biswas (together in a film for the first time ever), Malayalam thespian Salim Kumar, Alyy Khan, Priyanka Bose, Vipin Sharma and Anand Tiwari. And on the other, are a bunch of real adivasis from Orissa, who have never faced a camera in their lives.

Strangely, this mix helped this film, particularly because ‘Oonga’ explores a collision of cultures. The adivasis speak Oriya, but the ‘outsiders’ to this world – the ‘company’, the CRPF, even the Naxalites – speak Hindi. In all the states currently reeling from this conflict, most of the CRPF sent in are from states other than the one they operate in. Most of the troops I encountered in Orissa were from Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, even Maharashtra. So it actually helped that the ‘actors’ and the ‘non-actors’ performed their parts so differently! We didn’t need them all to look like they belonged to the same world. We needed exactly the converse! And that was automatically achieved.

The children in this film though are the soul of ‘Oonga’. Tess Joseph, the casting director, and her team – Prabodh Bhajni, Vaibhav Gupta – searched everywhere, from Kerala to Orissa to find the right cast of children. Finally the gems we found were in our own backyard. A special mention here of Karishma Mathur who trained relentlessly with them to prepare the children for their first ever shoot. If the children of ‘Oonga’ look like maestros at what they do it is purely because of the people mentioned above.

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The colorful culture

Were you concerned about the portrayal of the CRPF and the Naxalites in your film? How did you handle that?

 Yes, very. This was arguably the most critical balancing act in the telling of this story. The point of making ‘Oonga’ was to show how the adivasis are helplessly caught in the crossfire between the naxalites on the one hand and the CRPF / Government / ‘Company’ combine on the other. When the focus is so clearly on the adivasi it would be very easy to slip into the storytelling trap of ‘over-simplification’, where so-and-so is bad, and so-and-so is good. It was very important for us to use our position as storytellers responsibly. And the cornerstone of Responsibility in my opinion is – Truth, that no one in this world is born evil. We are all – to some or the other extent – Victims of circumstance.

The adivasi quite evidently are the victims of a national preoccupation with industrial development. The Naxalites are mostly those adivasis who have lost and suffered too much (in their opinion) to be open to any sort of dialogue anymore. There is a similar angle – mostly unreported – with the CRPF as well. A good number of tribal youth from other states, who have lost their land to industry / mining, get recruited by the CRPF, and get postings in states where they don’t speak the local language. Making them victims too, of a perverse perpetuation of this cycle of violence!

Our primary concern in ‘Oonga’ was to present a scenario where no one (apart from blind capitalistic greed) is really a villain. Everyone – from the CRPF troops, to the Naxalites, to the adivasi – are victims of a scenario where ‘development’ has come to mean industrialization at any cost… even that of human lives.

[pullquote_right]These are the kinds of films where nothing goes the way you planned it and everything that goes out of whack actually ends up making some unforeseen magic![/pullquote_right]

Your films started making the round of fests abroad. How has the reception been?

The response has been emotional. At a sold out screening at the recently concluded NYIFF (New York Indian Film Festival) there were people who were moved to tears. Someone went so far as to call it the ‘Avatar of India’. But the real test for us is the audience here in India. We made this film for our people, to hold up a mirror to ourselves and the dangerous choices we’re making every day as a confused nation.

What plans for the film now?

Travelling festivals is great, but Oonga is a film we made for the Indian audiences. It’s an honest attempt at raising questions every Indian needs to ask him/herself without delay. We’d love nothing more than an Indian theatrical release. But that’s easier said than done. So we’re hoping, and trying, to make that happen. Any help will be welcomed with open arms.

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Victims of an unpleasant scenario

What advice would you give to young aspiring filmmakers out there?

I’m one myself. So, I have no advice to give. Just a word of hope… that there’s place – however little – for all of us in this world. We’ve got to keep trying till we find it.

Anything else you’d like to add.

Yes! I’d like to shout out from the rooftops that this film primarily rests on the little shoulders of this absolutely magical little boy called Raju Singh. He was all of 10 years old when he acted in ‘Oonga’ around this time last year. He was born and stays in Bombay, speaks Hindi, and has never acted before this. Not only did the child who was to play Oonga have to be able to / learn to speak Oriya, it was also imperative we be able to communicate freely with him. His mother cooks for Prabodh, who was the first person to push us to take a look at this little powerhouse. Raju fulfilled all the briefs! Not only is he fearless and unbelievably ‘tribal’, he has an innate intelligence. In the film he has considerable dialogues in Oriya, and he arrived at his own method to remember them!

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A peek into Devashish’s works:

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