Director Amlan Datta on “Bom”.
Impressionable young men and women would have doubtless heard the name Malana in their circles. The ancient rural outpost in Himachal Pradesh is to hashish what Mathura is to pedha. But Amlan Datta isn’t interested in the hashish alone. His documentary “Bom” cuts through the mythical smoke that the village is shrouded in, and gives us a humanising account of its people.
An independent filmmaker, Amlan came to know of Malana when he was in Pune as a student of FTII from 1994 to 1996. “We used to smoke regularly and Malana crème was already quite famous by then.” The film started later, in 2007, and after five arduous years, emerged a fascinating ethnographic document of the occupations, language, gods and customs of the people of Malana.
His intimate camera records the whimsical crying of the kids in his adopted family, the toothless smile of a 120-year-old, the final handshake from the god-man who fears corruption through touch. But these moments are intercut with the percussive speeches made by Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi, and local leaders.
The film’s subtitle — a day ahead of democracy — underscores the tension between mainstream politics and the kind practised locally in Malana (sahmat over bahumat), and the increasing vulnerability of the latter.
Bringing the village into the fold of the mainstream — by issuing electoral cards, through developmental works, and by criminalising marijuana — might sound like a benign thing on paper, but the unthinking way in which it is carried out can have disastrous consequences. The war on drugs becomes a war waged by the state against its own people. A chilling account of how the process can go utterly wrong comes in a scene where Hemraj, in Delhi after the arrest of his wife Ketki, is in one of the stations of the Delhi Metro, unable to step onto the escalator.
While the making of the film was plagued by the lack of funds, the process afterwards has not been any smoother, with the dearth of distribution and exhibition avenues for independent films (more acute in the case of documentaries), proving a major bottleneck. After a theatrical run of one week as part of the PVR Director’s Rare initiative last year, Amlan is now struggling to re-release it in Kolkata, his hometown. “Nandan (cinema hall) is the best destination and we have applied for it. Since Nandan doesn’t have a digital projector we have proposed to bear the cost of the digital projection system to be hired for the screening. We are waiting for the response of Nandan authorities,” he says. That the film has won the National Award for Best Ethnographic Film, and been appreciated in film festivals across India, and yet cannot be screened, is nothing short of a “social issue”, says Amlan.
Meanwhile, he has started the Bom-Bom Charitable Trust, which aims to “provide the people of Malana with alternative means of sustenance by utilising their own natural resources. We dream of establishing Malana as economically self reliant, self sufficient with clean energy — a model of gram swaraj and sustainable development.” But given the lack of institutional support and funding, the patience to dream that dream is wearing thin.