Chat Director Pankaj Rishi Kumar talks about his documentation of a land struggle in Tamil Nadu

In India, land in a sacred thing. It is a vestibule to the history, tradition and beliefs of multiple generations. It is also a function of economics, a symbol of power, a representation of society’s hierarchies and layers. For the farmer who tills that land from dawn to dusk, it is his life-blood, his soul, the very core of his identity. And the loss of that land always leads to chaos, conflict, and distress.

Kadavulin Nilathil/ In God’s Land takes you right into the vortex of one such struggle over land. The film, which received the Asian Network of Documentary (And) Fund instituted by Busan International Film Festival, has been directed by Pankaj Rishi Kumar, who has also directed acclaimed documentaries such as Kumar Talkies , Pather Chujaeri , The vote, and 3 Men and a Bulb. A graduate of the Film and Television Institute, Pune, Pankaj helped edit several movies and serials including Sekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen before moving into full time film-making. The director screened the movie at various venues including colleges in Bangalore recently.

Pankaj says, “I came across this particular piece of land in the area around Nanguneri in Tirunelveli district while researching some other work that was once agricultural land. This land belonged to the local Vanamamalai temple and had been acquired by the government for SEZ development.” Yet what intrigued Pankaj was that he had heard nothing about this development and there had surprisingly been no reports of protests or conflict in the area. He began talking to people and documenting the happenings in that region. “I’ve been following this issue for over two years now and am still shooting,” he says. What he unravelled was a story of blatant injustice, religious exclusivity and power politics juxtaposed onto the caste-conflict in the region.

“For centuries, the temple has been with the biggest land-owners in Tamil Nadu,” says Pankaj. “In this case, the temple rented out this land to the farmers in this region, most of who belong to the backward classes,” he adds. However the temple soon realized that agriculture no longer paid and decided to sell this land for industrial development instead. “The villagers one day read in the paper that their land has gone,” says Pankaj. “They haven’t been evacuated yet but the temple has stopped collecting rent,” he says. “There is change but it’s very subtle, intangible almost.”

The documentary traces these changes as the people of that land go through life with the constant fear of being rendered homeless. Through a series of animation clips, the movie also throws light on the genesis of the village god Sudalai Swami, who at some level, is a representation of the villagers’ fight against the institutions that threaten their existence. Yet, as Pankaj points out, “It is a very virtual institution and everyone is passing the buck.”

“I am not fascinated by the activist kind of film. It is very easy to do that in a conflict zone.” says Pankaj. “I am not anti-SEZ, anti-development. I am trying to understand and observe the situation and stylistically record it. I am interested in how it is going to unravel and how people deal with things. I guess, I simply like the idea of documenting people’s lives.”