1 April 2011

The bauxite battle

On Simon Chambers' thoughtful and surprisingly entertaining film on Vedanta's mining ambitions in Kalahandi - a review that I did for Himal Southasian magazine.

(DVD cover designed by Samia Singh)

Cowboys in India
directed by Simon Chambers
Channel 4, 2010

To the viewer expecting a comprehensive treatise on the Vedanta Resources’ proposed mining of bauxite in Kalahandi district of Orissa, Cowboys in India might feel slight, unsatisfactory, even vaguely incoherent. On the other hand, if one is willing to suspend deeply entrenched notions of what a documentary about an ‘evil mining corporation’ ought to be like – or, happily, if one is the sort of viewer who has no such notions to begin with – Simon Chambers’s film is both entertaining and moving.

The director’s first feature-length film, Every Good Marriage Begins With Tears (2006), was a delightfully un-solemn take on the usually ‘serious’ matter of Southasian arranged marriage. Once again, Chambers manages to take another old-fashioned ‘documentary subject’ – a multinational mining corporation, a poor state government hungry for development projects, a mountain rich in minerals and a ‘primitive tribe’ for whom it is both sacred and life-enabling – and build around it today’s more popular sort of documentary: about the filmmaker and the journey on which the film takes him.

The film opens with a bleak set of images: a poor woman, hunched over with age, hobbles towards a railway track; poor men sleep on stone benches; a herd of goats gathers outside an uninhabited-looking government building. The viewer can see the empty plain stretching into the distance, and almost feel the unrelenting heat. The flies buzz ominously. Yet the opening bars of music and the titling shot of the train – both drawing on Sergio Leone’s classic western Once Upon a Time in the West – make it clear that this is not going to be a bleak film. By the time we get shown around the filmmaker’s rather dank hotel bathroom – equipped with a resident cockroach and the previous occupant’s toiletries – the film’s tone is firmly established: slightly tongue-in-cheek, occasionally bemused.

Charming as Chambers’s self-deprecatory good humour is, the film’s real focus is the evolution of his relationship with Satya and Daya, his Oriya assistants. It is through them that Chambers – and we – slowly start to get a sense of the kind of clout a project like Vedanta has in a place like Kalahandi. The chubby-cheeked, even-tempered Satya has been recommended to Chambers as a kind of local informant-cum-organiser, while the moodier Daya comes recommended by Satya as ‘the best driver in all of Orissa’. The trio set off in a hired white Ambassador, part-echoing the director’s self-conscious evocation of ‘rid[ing] into town on a white horse’. They hope to meet representatives of Vedanta as well as locals, but doing so is not easy. They read glowing reports of development projects, but no one from the company seems willing to talk to them. Instead, they see villagers blocking roads to stop the passage of Vedanta’s trucks, and hear stories of Adivasi leaders killed off because they opposed the company’s actions. Yet nothing seems quite clear. The overwhelming feeling is one of confusion: rumours and counter-rumours criss-cross each other like chaotic gunshots.

Satya suggests that they must go to the top of the mountain, from where the bauxite is to be mined. He also says that they must take a gun. In the next scene, however, the gun is found to be unworkable, and Daya has refused to take the car further along the dirt track. What we see instead is several men plodding through a forest, one of whom is reciting a list of wild animals that exist on the mountain to an increasingly incredulous Chambers: ‘Tigers, bears, lions’ – wink, wink – ‘no, no lions’.

Ominous silence
Misunderstandings abound. Food is the first occasion for mutual cultural bafflement. Chambers is somewhat taken aback by Satya and Daya’s seemingly unending appetites; while for them, the white man’s seeming lack of attention to food is mystifying. He does not appear to need proper meals – the daal and fish and mounds of rice that everyone else does – subsisting instead on cup after cup of tea and what Satya calls ‘snacks’: two puris, two idlis. Confusion is also caused by assumptions about status. Satya introduces the filmmaker everywhere – even in the smallest tea shop – as being from the BBC. Chambers first balks, then gently contradicts Satya, and finally asks him why he persisted in doing so. ‘BBC reporter means respect,’ says Satya knowingly. ‘They respect you. And me.’ Satya’s answer is both honest and revealing, but it sends Chambers off into a train of thought about whether Satya thinks of him as more important than he actually is.

Later, his guides’ enthusiasm seems to wane after several aborted attempts to interview Vedanta officials or enter difficult locations. Chambers begins to wonder whether Satya and Daya have finally figured out that he is not ‘the big shot they’ve been telling all their friends about’. Indeed, everything they try to do seems fated not to work out.

In the meanwhile, though, almost imperceptibly, the images begin to pile up, bringing home to the viewer the impossibly huge changes that Vedanta’s actions are likely to bring about. The vast tracts of old-growth forest atop the Niyamgiri mountain contrast sharply with the miles of dusty road created by Vedanta to transport the bauxite to its factory. Gigantic trucks rumble along these roads, an alien species from a distant planet. Meanwhile, poor women carry water in earthen pots, manually sprinkling the roads twice a day to keep the dust down. The film crew meets an irate woman who is unhappy that the company has built a road through her land; and an old Dongria Kond woman who tells them, ‘Money is no use to us. We have always lived in the forest. We have everything we need.’

They hear of about 30 Vedanta health-care centres, but cannot find them. One functioning health post and a 10-bed hospital are eventually discovered, but the door is locked – it has never been opened, they are told, due to a lack of doctors. A young man laughs scornfully at the filmmaker’s claim that Kalahandi is the poorest place in India, but the evidence he cites of the region’s transformation is the presence of SUVs like his own – ‘which is not available even in metro cities’. They are escorted to a ‘model village’, where some of those whose homes were destroyed to build the factory have been rehabilitated, and given a rather unconvincing three-minute tour: ‘You can see over here … the plantation, the water-supply system, the community hall, the villages, the happiness on their face … so these are the things,’ announces the Vedanta PR man. Chambers receives footage from a local filmmaker showing Adivasis protesting the factory in large numbers and gheraoing a local politician who is seen as pro-Vedanta, as well as gruesome images of an accident that suggest that the factory’s safety guarantees are a sham.

Satya and Daya, meanwhile, seem to Chambers to have lost interest in the film – though they plead illness. He tries to woo them back to work by buying a second-hand jeep for Daya, but the film simply trundles along at the same pace as before. They do some more travelling and interviews, discussing the toxic water that is being pumped from the factory into a local river. But they are now being followed by a plainclothes policeman, and cannot shoot the incriminating evidence.

Quiet details
Chambers shot from June 2007 to February 2008. Since his film has been released, the ‘bauxite battle’ has gone forward. On 16 August 2010, the Supreme Court of India ruled that mining atop Niyamgiri should not be allowed. The Ministry of Environment and Forests sent a four-member committee to investigate, and a week later denied Vedanta (and its subsidiary Sterlite) final clearance to mine for bauxite. In October 2010, the Environment Ministry further rejected Vedanta’s plan to significantly expand its Lanjigarh refinery, and directed the state government to take legal action against the company for illegally beginning the expansion without permission. The bauxite refinery, however, is still operational, and Vedanta, having already spent USD 900 million, seems to believe that it is only a matter of time before it gets the requisite clearances. In January, the Vedanta Group’s chairman, Anil Agarwal, met Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh to request him to reconsider his decision. Meanwhile, with multiple court cases continuing to go forward, the legal battle clearly is far from over.

When Chambers was in Orissa, of course, none of this had taken place yet. During the filming, he seems unable to understand the severity of the matter in which he has gotten himself and his assistants embroiled. It is only much later, as he begins to assemble his footage and has the conversations between Satya and Daya translated, that he realises that their ‘reduced enthusiasm’ had to do with threats they were receiving for assisting him.

Somehow, though, even this chilling revelation cannot turn this gentle, ambling film into a dramatic one. This is not a failing – far from it. The power of Cowboys in India is contained in more ineffable things: in the quiet interstices between seemingly failed expeditions, the long periods of waiting in the car, the seemingly endless obfuscations by state officials and corporate public-relations personnel. There are also the scenes of Dongria Kond youngsters rhythmically threshing grain, before collapsing in a heap in joyful horseplay; or of Satya gathering succulent little ‘tribal mangoes’ (as he calls them) in the dark of an unknown village, or being moved by the hurdles they face to go off on an uncharacteristic rant about how only ‘hi-fi’ people matter in Orissa. Or Daya and his wife misunderstanding Chambers’s announcement that he’s ‘full-up’ as a demand for pulao. These are the moments when the film manages to convey a profound sense of both the pleasures and the poverty of Kalahandi.

In all this, Chambers’s gift is to leave well enough alone. He does not seek to override what he is seeing with heavy-handed editorialising, but instead just leaves it there – for us to notice what we will, and imagine the voices in our heads. Pulao: just the kind of fancy party dish that the silly, ungrateful Englishman would want instead of the hearty home-cooked meal he has just had, Daya and his wife seemed to me to be thinking. But you might hear them think other things.

~ Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer, critic and editor with a background in cultural anthropology.

Published in Himal Southasian magazine, April 2011.

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