Narmada: a valley rises

H. Itwaru reviews Ali Kazimi's profoundly moving documentary film
By H. Itwaru

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NARMADA: a valley rises
A feature documentary film by Ali Kazimi
Colour Canada 1994 89 minutes

Ali Kazimi's NARMADA: a valley rises is a profound work whose speaking has touched me, an outsider and stranger to India, in many ways. In it, Kazimi transcends the distancing inertia of the technically competent but cold and disempowering reportage that so many well-intentioned feature documentaries tend to be burdened with. This is empowering work. It affirms resistance to social injustice and adds its voice to the rising protest, now international in scale, which was begun in 1990 by the Bhils and Bhilalas, the original inhabitants of the Narmada valley in the heart of India. They are protesting against the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat, deemed the world's largest development project. When completed, it will flood over 200 villages and towns, displacing over 160,000 people and engulfing thousands of square kilometres of their ancestral lands, their means of sustenance, on the shores of the sacred, legendary Narmada, Giver of Bliss, whose waters nurture some of Asia's richest farm lands and have given life to the peoples that live here for millenia.

Conscious of the violations often enacted by the ominous march of progress, Kazimi has dedicated this film to those who have paid the price of progress, and in a skilfully absorbing, visually compelling, and at times emotionally wrenching documentary, gives voice to the peoples of the Narmada valley. For this film, among other things, also resonates with the voices of the Bhils and Bhilalas, is a lament as well as a celebration of the dignity and strength of these peoples whose protest, after a walk of over 200 kilometres, was peaceful, despite the fact that they were not even consulted about the impending massive destruction.

This film is also an indictment of the Gujarati pro-dam politicians' disregard for their fellow human beings. Their remarks are used as counterpoint to the filmed images of the events and the reasons they use against the non-violent protesters—whom the Gujarati police and state officials are trying to intimidate by using violence and the threat of violence—demonstrate the clash of values between political chicanery and human need.

The protest, led by the dedicated Medha Patkar and supported by Baba Amte, the respected disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, also provides the occasion for confrontations on the Gujarat border which clearly demonstrate the State officials' self-serving violation of Gandhi's values of peaceful resistance, and their disregard of the plight of thousands who are to be sacrificed on the altar of development, exemplified by the water-intensive industrial requirements of an insensitive and cruel commercial greed. As Baba Amte, quoting from Gandhiji, puts it, it is the eternal struggle between need and greed, with greed in this case having the upper hand in Gujarat.

Shots of the long walk towards the dam are intercut with clips from Gandhi's 1931 Salt March—black and white recollections of moments of independent India's most celebrated mythological figure merging with the full colour rendering of the current protest march—visually reinforce the fundamental relationship between Gandhi's esteemed principle of non-violence and the actions of the protesters. In this manner the astuteness of Kazimi's art intensifies the political importance of the drama being documented. This protest is informed by and follows in the footsteps of Gandhi's protest. The tragic difference is that this march is not against British occupation but rather against those Indian political officials who demonstrate how well they have been colonized in their aggressive and abusive pursuit of power—to the point of intending to destroy the livelihood of over 160,000 peoples and a way of life by flooding out 200 villages and towns.

The black and white clips of Gandhi's march are also a commentary on another, possibly romanticized, time in India, a past the full colour present contradicts. It addresses a present where the sandalled and barefoot walkers are threatened by the crunching menace of military boots, armed police and the wrath of the officials who have come with threats of death to stop the protesters. A present where Baba Amte's greeting—I have been waiting all morning for your love—is met with taunts and jeers from bused-in school children and university students bribed by the lure of getting higher grades in their school work, and by slogans screaming, GO BACK

It is an eternal struggle between the Need and the Greed. In Gujarat I see that greed has the upper hand…
Baba Amte, social activist and spiritual leader

BABA AMTE! LEPROSY PATIENTS MISS YOU, and by adults similarly brought in with the lure of feasting and having a good time. As these people jeer, pro-dam organizer, Chuni Vaidya, unctuously talks of this massive displacement as being in the service of an allegedly higher national cause. A present which rejects Baba Amte's plea for peaceful and constructive discussion, and which strongly emphasises his observation that for every national problem there is a national solution but in this case the will to resolve the issues is lacking.

Kazimi's film points out the shocking contrast between the ruling elite and the peoples subjugated under its rule. Thus, this film is also about antagonistic values in the very way the land and living are perceived. For the dwellers in the Narmada valley the land is their mother and their father, the giver of sustenance, not a commodity to be owned, bought or sold. It is an ancestral sacredness to which the State, in loyalty to the destructive Western principles of domination-of-nature/ scientific capitalism is hostile. This is pointed out several times, without any kind of didactic intrusions from the film maker—exaggeration would have diminished the significance of the occasion—and in a complex, sensitive and emotional matter like this, this restraint is in itself a commendable demonstration of Kazimi's sensitivity and competence in the medium through which he has chosen to speak.

In it, for example, the mounted parade of the State's troops commemorating India's independence is seen against protesting people asking the world's largest democracy to wake up to what it is doing. This is layered in contrast to the duped and dehumanized residents of Malu, resettled from the Narmada valley. Their insultingly inadequate dwellings— the zinc shack boxes in which they are housed along with their cattle—make a devastating commentary on the promises of re-settlement. This effective contrast is also there in the devout Mrs. Urmilla Patel's (appointed to the Upper House of the Indian parliament in 1991) desecration of Gandhi's memory when she misuses his most loved bajhan to promote the State's intransigence towards the reasonable complaints of the threatened people of the valley. It is there too in her hostility to Baba Amte, an eminent Gandhi follower.

The resistant silence of the State calls forth the last resort measure of an indefinite hunger strike which Medha Patkar, one of the fasters, tells us is a life and death struggle, nothing less. But instead of slipping into maudlin sentimentality here, Kazimi turns this aspect of the protest into a celebration of the dignity and inner strength of the strikers, and of the growing strength of the people of the valley whose empowerment eventually stops the strike, already in its fourth week. In contrast to this courage the cowardice of the State's agents—agents who fled at the sight of camera lights—is juxtaposed, coming as they did in the darkness of night to abduct Medha Patkar on a trumped up charge that she is trying to commit suicide.

This film is also the story of the strength of the women of the Narmada valley as well as some of those elsewhere in India, (the survivors of the Bhopal disaster who joined the march towards the dam) of their determination in the struggle for dignity—and particularly of Medha Patkar who abandoned her doctoral studies in Social Work, spending long hours and walking hundreds of kilometres across mountainous terrain to let the Adivarsis know what has been planned against them, and to help organize the struggle for their lives. But it is also about Baba Amte, a former lawyer and film critic who cannot sit down because of constant spinal pain, who, in resistance to the dam, has decided to stay on the banks of the Narmada river and to die there if the State goes ahead with the flooding of the valley. But more, this is also about the struggle of peoples who want to remain farmers, who do not want to be turned into labourers for the wages of commercial greed.

The film's composition and its treatment of subject matter, the blend of classical Indian voices with the voices and the rhythms of the songs of protest, the layering of sound—at times haunting and dreamlike—the sequencing of each scene, the narration, all of these contribute towards making this film a work of art which is also a profound political act, an engagement in what Kazimi sees as a universal struggle. As part of its empowering quality this film invites reasonable peoples everywhere to help stop the destruction that would be enacted by the Sardar Sarovar dam project in India—and elsewhere where state/corporate greed pushes on in the name of inevitable progress, callously heedless of the consequences of its actions. This is a film all thinking persons should see.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Ali Kazimi
Professor Ali Kazimi is a filmmaker, writer, and visual artist whose work deals with race, social justice, migration, history, memory and archive.
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H. Itwaru
H. Itwaru is the author of nine books, including Closed Entrances: Canadian Culture and Imperialism (TSAR Publications, 1995).
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