Dams and democracy

Aug 26, 2013, 06:16 IST | Soma Das

Over three months, The Root Reel will screen The Democracy Trilogy, which includes three films by Sanjay Kak on the workings of democracy in India. This month's film, Words on Water, chronicles the non-violent people's movement against dams in the Narmada Valley

Over the last 15 years, the people inhabiting the Narmada Valley in central India have been protesting the setting up of massive dams and have had to combat the politics of development.The 2002 documentary, Words on Water by self-taught filmmaker Sanjay Kak documents the sustained resistance and defiance of the people form the valley, as they struggle for their rights yet choose to not take recourse to violence.

A still from Words On Water showcasing boats on a river rally

Kak went on to make two more films: Jashn-E-Azadi (2007), on the concept of freedom in Kashmir, and Red Ant Dream (2013), documenting the revolutionary resistance in places such as Bastar, Odisha and Punjab. Collectively, the award-winning films offer insight on the workings of the Indian democratic system.

The Root Reel will be screening the trilogy over the next few months, at Alliance Francaise, starting with Words on Water, which will be screened on Tuesday. Words on Water won the Best Long Documentary award at the Brazil Internacional Festival of Environmental Cinema and the main prize at Envirofilm Slovakia, International Environmental Film Festival, among other awards.

A still from Words On Water 

Kak began shooting for it in 1999, the year in which the resistance to the large dams in the Narmada Valley had become palpable: “I had been thinking about a film that could offer some insight into democratic process, which would give us some understanding of the relationship between the needs and aspirations of ordinary people and the Indian State.

A still from Jashn-E-Azadi

” Kak travelled to the Valley and filmed farmers in the plains, adivasis in the forested hills, boatmen on the river, and slowly, a story began to emerge. “The idea was to see how and if democracy worked for people,” he recalls.

He reminisces about how the major challenge was to find ideas which could best tell the story: “Once you have that landscape (of ideas) before you it’s really a question of reading what you see, recording what you can, and then constructing a narrative that holds... Then, there is the hard work of finding resources that can sustain the work over what ended up taking more than three years in the making.”

A still from Red Ant Dream

The filmmaker shot the three films back-to-back over the last 14 years. He admits that he is wary of ascribing a message to the films. “That is the work of pamphlets, and campaign films, and propaganda. I see these three films as offering an argument about the practice of democracy in India.

The translation of the title Jashn-e-Azadi by us was “how we celebrate freedom”, and it was about the meaning of freedom for people in the troubled valley of Kashmir. Red Ant Dream is an attempt to look at those who live by the revolutionary ideal, those who believe that the world must change, that it must be made to change.”

Sanjay Kak

After being involved in filmmaking from the 1980s, Kak believes that it has been an exciting journey. “I feel privileged to have been part of the process of making documentary films a vital part of the cultural landscape, and an element of the political landscape. These have been years in which we have found -- even created -- an audience for our work, and that has been a really exhilarating experience,” concludes Kak.

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