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Tortoise Under the Earth: Movie Review

Director: Shishir Jha

Cast: Mugli Baskey, Jagarnath Baskey

Duration: 95 mins

The Film Poster

Shishir Jha’s film full-length feature definitely strikes itself out to have a very political outline, with no qualms about what the government has to say about such documentation of events. Tortoise Under the Earth follows the story of a nameless couple, played by Jagarnath Baskey and Mugli Baskey, living through the tragedy of the loss of their daughter while we see that the village they live in is being forced to shift because of the mining of uranium. Shishir here takes the risk of not focusing on these tragedies but chooses to show the audience the daily lives of this couple and the other villagers. The film demands patience, it is long and slow, but it also leaves one with a long painful thought by the credits roll.

The mining of uranium in the districts of Jharkhand began in the late 60s. What followed was a cohort of government intervention in the lands of the tribes living over there. The people residing in those villages were foisted by mining corporations, bureaucrats and political groups. It is difficult to imagine the confusion and haste the villagers bore as they were forced to migrate from area to area until they had nothing left. There are different political narratives on this subject, but the film does not waste time on what went through in any Sarkari Daftar. We don’t see any protest or a hint of questioning by this simple-minded couple or any of the villagers. In spite of the lack of active push from the people, we do see their sorrows and their hesitance to leave the land they have always known to be their home. In one scene we see an uncle of Jagarnath describe how tiresome it was to have built a house in the village and that he believes it is worthless to make another one as the government will anyway move them their land. In another instance, we watch a football game, which keeps going on as we shift to a different perspective where a loud road roller almost mutes the game’s commentary with its loud rumbling. The people from the village have thus learnt to live beside the unhealthy world of rampant exploitation.

Film scene: Mugli looks at the old photographs of her daughter

The film begins with the women painting their houses with decorative colours and with artistic skill, while the men play and dance around with the cattle. The women are singing a song of joy and playfulness as we venture into the festivities happening in the village. Although the Santali houses are known to be clad in vibrant hues and the people are in bright dresses, the movie steals the colour from the cinematography used. The faded world of Tortoise Under the Earth not only says a lot about the troubling situation the villagers are living in but also subtly makes us feel the colourless environment the couple is surviving in now. Shishir plays around with the background too. Sometimes keeping the camera in such a way that we see a frame within a frame, throws the audience into a weird compact space. Then with the shots outside, we have large wide angles to understand the geography of the scene. All of these efforts keep us in a voyeuristic position, from where we are capable of watching the people of the village be in their true nature.

Film Scene: Jagarnath playing the drum during the fair

Commenting more on the use of cinematography and the choice to not move the camera, we see that Shishir uses a forced sense of boredom and loneliness in the vastness of resource-rich land. The camera lingers on for a tad bit long in some shots, sometimes leaving the fatigue of monotony with the viewer. Of course, this was done to generate the ugliness of boredom for the city folks who are watching this movie in the comfort of wide air-conditioned halls. The lethargic camera work can also be attributed to the lack of choice on the hand of the filmmaker as neither the terrain nor the bootstrap budget of the movie allowed him to be in motion. Nonetheless, he furthers this slow pace through his editing style where the whole 95 minutes of runtime behaves like a Santali song; slow at first, gaining momentum in the middle and then going back to the pace at which it began.

The story progresses with sporadic but mild bursts of Santali songs by, mostly, women of the village, who have a song for everything. They sing songs while planting the saplings for their next harvest, they sing while they are going to the annual fair, and they also sing when are alone and lost in their thoughts. The idea of melody in nature is used to the benefit of storytelling here. The songs can go from celebrating the merriness of birds to a sorrowful lament of loss. But these songs are definitely shown to be an important part of Santali culture and convince us of the poetic nature of these people. There are two instances in the film which can catch anyone off-guard, as they don’t adhere to the cinematic language of the rest of the film. One is when Jagarnath Baskey narrates the Santali creation story, the local myth of a which is shown in a series of freeze-frame with local artwork included to emphasise it(the sequence which lends the movie its name). And the second is when the film is right half time and we see old photos of the couple and their dead daughter.

Film Scene: Villagers leaving the village

There is no doubt that this is a highly political movie, which does not show us the bureaucratic contentions of these industrial decisions. Instead, Shishir focuses on a couple who are wraiths of the generations of a larger tribal culture, murdered and assimilated by urbanisation. At its core, the movie paints a failing love story. We have the romance of the old couple, who are still together and fighting all odds and on the other side, we have a love story of these people with the land they live in. Just like the fading memory of the daughter, the stories and memories of these people will eventually disappear in thin air as they leave the villages to migrate to big cities in search of employment. Nobody knows what their fate will be after they leave the village. Their culture will never be the same. Their existence after the migration will only be of an anonymous labourer, with no trace of ancestry left. Their oral stories, arts and crafts, myths and legends, everything is on the verge of being lost to what we call nation-building. In the end, we are left wondering what will come of the Baskeys as they have decided not to leave the village, what will happen to the other villagers, and how will everyone survive this mass exodus. The answer is that we will never know. The film presents all of this as a documentation of sorts of how life has been for these people and, sadly, how it will keep continuing for years to come. Maybe this film in itself is one of the last memories of the Santali men and women, as there is nobody left to tell their stories in those lands.

About the Author: Abhay Majhi is a postgraduate student studying English Literature at the University of Delhi in New Delhi, India. He loves having discussions on social issues, international politics, history, mythology, science fiction, and fantasy literature. He is also into creative writing and political writing.


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