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Mainstream, VOL LX No 19, New Delhi, April 30, 2022

A Conversation with Shishir Jha on his film ‘Tortoise Under the Earth’

Friday 29 April 2022

This interview explores the insights related to Shishir Jha’s recently released docudrama film Tortoise Under the Earth (Dharti Latar Re Horo) which is based in Adivasi area of Jharkhand state and exposes the issue faces by the Santhal- the largest tribe in the state. The film focuses on the exploitation of the tribals in Jharkhand since the 80s after the government along with private companies discovered minerals and uranium. Adivasi songs, which have been performed on various occasions, were wonderfully captured as well as translated for a larger audience. In all the celebrations, one can get a glimpse of tribal affiliations to nature and animals, as well as brotherhood and cohesion in the film.

Shishir Jha is a Mumbai-based Filmmaker born in 1988, Bihar, India. He graduated from the prestigious National Institute of Design (NID) with a bachelor’s degree in Film & Video Communication Design. He was then selected for the master’s degree programme in Film Direction at the Sarajevo Film Academy. He has received a Diploma in Filmmaking at the workshop of the late Abbas Kiarostami at EICTV (Escuela International de Cine y TV), Cuba 2016. He is one of the Directors of ‘Shuruaat Ka Interval’-an anthology of eight short films with the common theme was released as a feature film by PVR Directors Rare.

Neeraj Bunkar: Hello, Mr Shishir welcome to this discussion. I hope everything is good!

Shishir Jha:  Hello Mr Neeraj, yes, all is well, and Thank you so much for the opportunity.

NB: So, my first question is, what brought you to filmmaking?

SJ: When I was a kid, my grandfather used to tell me stories. I kept on listening carefully and imagining to what he was saying. It transported me into new world. Each story provoked different emotion— some made me feel afraid, others happy, full of love, brave, sometimes even cruel... Those experiences are unforgettable and had a great impact on my life. I have experienced the most powerful things through storytelling in this world...Additionally, I do enjoy the process, as filmmaking. Cinema uses elements from all the other art form. I have general affinity towards arts -literature, photography, music, paintings and it helps in creating emotion which somehow resonates within me.

NB: What prompted you to make a docudrama film specifically on the Santhal tribe?

SJ:  It was during January 2019, when I came across a book on folk literature from Santhal Parganas by Paul Olaf Bodding’s Santal Folk Tales, a Norwegian folklorist and linguists, and I was fascinated to know about their folk stories, culture, belief system, tradition and the oral stories that have been passed down generations. I decided to come to this place and make a film based on these oral stories. For the first two months, I travelled in and around Jharkhand, creating my own personal experiences. I did not want to rely purely on the notions created in my mind through the books and articles that I had read. For me cinema is a way to connect with people. I let people, landscape, politics and seasons participate in this process to the extent that finding a form and a story becomes an organic process for everyone involved. I film daily and write daily... Or sometimes I write for the interlude in between the scenes so that there is a story which could act as a thread and could connect with the viewer as a whole. A docu-fiction format allows me to retain the rawness of real life.

NB: What are the challenges did you faced while making Dharti Latar Re Horo?

SJ:  Santhali is not my Native language. I don’t understand Santhali. It is like making a foreign language film. I approached this film more intuitively and visually. In this process lot of patient and time is required. I knew I can’t rush. It took me lot time than the expected.

NB: What preparation did you need to do in the process of deploying Jagarnath Baskey and Mugli Baskey as the main characters of the story as they are not from the acting background?

SJ: I simply listen to them. It grows like a tree, very slowly and organically. We talk lot about their recent or past experiences and made scenes around them. I allow them to participate and guide me through their Journey, Culture, difficulties. We never had a bound script. I never told them ‘What is film about’. I remember the one scene where Ms. Mugli Baskey talking to flower that is invented by herself. There is one scene Mr. Jagarnath Baskey visiting the broken house of his uncle (Mama), and the uncle says the authority have forced us out from our own house. I wrote this scene but needed the broken house to shoot that scene. We don’t have money to build a set. I kept searching the recent demolished house for three days but could not find. The next day I meet Mr. Jagarnath Baskey, He said you know what happened. I said no. You have to see this and film this. He took me to the nearby village where his uncle house is demolished. And this scene happed. That day I realised we all are making the same film.

NB: As your film highlights the issue of the tribal region and questions the oppressive nature of government policies and businesspeople, do you think that in this way cinema can bring such issues to the government and force them to rethink at the policy level?

SJ: Yes, I think cinema can bring a change. It opens a new perspective and discussions about our social and cultural responsibility. It allows us to see life closely and it transforms you spiritually.

NB: While watching the movie I realised that you deployed sound and images more explicitly to convey the emotions, what do you feel about this?

SJ: I try to retain a truth of the images. For me truth is a feeling which you get from people and places. Sound helps in recreating that.

NB: What do you think about the ‘parallel cinema’ and in the present context ‘alternative cinema’? Do you think that your film fits into any of these binaries?

SJ: I do not believe in these categories. It is all cinemas. Either you like it, or you don’t like it and there is no parameter or certain characteristic for artistic cinema. It is vast and infinite because it is coming from an individual. Cinema is very personal same as a painting, poetry or music.

NB: How do you look at the future of independent filmmakers in India?

SJ: Filmmaking is an expensive medium. But in a recent with the digital, an affordability has come along. We have filmed Tortoise Under the Earth for entire one year with two people in the crew. Equipment’s are getting handy with improving technology. You can manage with small crew. It is helping us in making personal films. This is one of the reasons we can see so many unique voices are coming from almost all part of India. Even buying handy equipment and getting finance is a struggle and that is the reason film-education has played significant role. It is providing a platform and time to experiment and learn. I think government and concern authority should think of making the Film and art institute free so that it can be practiced in a more democratic way. Even underprivileged and unaffordable sector encourages to study cinema. Still cinema is seen as a luxury in our country.

NB: Thank you so much Mr. Shishir for this wonderful discussion on the different aspects of film-making process specially with your film ‘Tortoise Under the Earth’. Looking forward to watching your upcoming cinematic experiments in the near future.

SJ:  It was my pleasure to talking to you about my film and experiences. Thank you.

(Neeraj Bunkar, is a PhD student at Nottingham Trent University, UK, researching caste and cinema)

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