The lingering impact of Axone

Let’s get this straight out the gate: Tenzin Dalha does not sound nor looks like most Mizo friends I went to school with and whom I hung out with during my time in Delhi.

Sayani Gupta, while she may look the part, is unable to properly capture the ‘typical’ North Bengal Nepali accent; if that was ever the aim.

And as a person from Arunachal Pradesh who has been having conversations with friends for the last 24 hours, there is one plot-point in the film that seems to have many vying for the director’s blood.

Right from the moment when the trailer for Axone first dropped, I did not come across any person from the Northeast of India who was not excited by it and was not looking forward to watching it.

Finally, there will be representation of people who make up around four percent of the country’s population on celluloid.

For people who have been on the receiving end of racism for years in all its forms from systematic to the casual on the city streets of Delhi or the office spaces of Bangalore, it was heartening to learn that a film has been made where they can physically and culturally identify with the main cast of characters.

As happy as I personally was, I had my apprehensions in the beginning.

“Why is a Bengali woman playing a Nepali (or is it a Gurkha) character,” I found myself asking myself, my friends, and on one occasion, the director himself.

Nicholas Kharkongar is a director from Shillong who has made a name for himself over the last few years in the film festival circuit.

Last year at the Nagaland Film Festival in Kohima, I had the chance to meet him and ask him why he chose to cast Gupta for the role.

His reasons were a few but most notably that he still had to ‘sell’ the idea of such a film to the studios and would have needed an established name.

“Also, you can’t say that Sayani does not look the part of a Nepali girl,” Kharkongar had told me back then.

I had to agree that Gupta indeed did look the part, and certainly much more than Priyanka Chopra (Piggy Chops) did as Mary Kom.

‘Geetanjali Thapa’, I thought but let it slide. The idea still did not settle firmly with me but it was one that I was willing to go along with.

By now, a number of people have watched the film, the reviews are out, and hence the basic plotline is public knowledge. Inevitably, people have come out with their criticism of the film.

In complete honesty, when the film’s trailer dropped, I was not expecting a cinematic masterpiece along the lines of Selma, Malcom X, or The Birth of a Nation.

It was evident from the trailer what the tone of the movie was going to be. This was not going to be a dark film with a heavy subject at its core. It was, from the get-go, going to be a comedic take on a serious matter.

Could it have been made better? I’m no expert but, heck, Citizen Kane could have had a better story, and yet it’s hailed as the greatest film of all time. And with good reason too.

Citizen Kane was so innovative in its filming techniques that every movie that has come out since then has been shaped by it. (Watch this video to understand the importance of Citizen Kane.)

Even with its straightforward plot, Citizen Kane is celebrated for the impact it has had on cinema.

We can nitpick over smaller flaws in Axone, of course. And as film lovers, we should take issues with it and flag issues as we would with any other movie and as such should be criticised on the basis of the overall plotline, character development, technical aspects, and other such matters.

But Axone is not ‘just another film’.

I never completely understood why Black Panther was nominated for an Oscar or why it won all those awards it did the year after it was released. Its story, action sequences, cinematography, music score, visual effects, etc were at par with any other films that Marvel Studios has churned out from its assembly line over the years.

Yet, I understood its cultural significance on American cinema and psyche. To have an almost entirely all-Black cast was/is significant.

One can make the same argument for Crazy Rich Asians.

Apart from being an all-Asian cast, the movie was like most romantic comedies. It wasn’t bad, per se, but this was not a film that approached the genre in the most nuanced manner.

But, here we were. The joy of Asian-Americans seeing faces they can identify with on the big screen must have been overwhelming for many.

Of course, as majorities in our home states and minorities in another, we may not feel the same emotions not having lived the African-American or the Asian-American experience (until someone spoon-feeds the perspective to us and excavates the jingoistic nature of Indianess that has been drilled into our minds through textbooks).

Films are art, and art can never be viewed on its own. Art must be contextual. The context here is representation. Having faces from the Northeast (okay, okay, a Bengali woman and a Tibetan man too) shown on cinema is the context here.

This is a film that needs to be viewed in its larger social, cultural, and even political context of what it means to finally have more than one actor from the region across the screen in a film on a global platform like Netflix.

Axone may not open the doors wide open for actors from the region in mainstream cinema nor will it necessarily usher in larger representation on screen (TV ads where the only Northeast characters are not beauty parlour attendants or call centre reps).

But one can hope that it has allowed us to put our foot on the door and keep it open. Like the smell of the dish, one can hope its impact lingers.

PS: It would seem remiss to not point out to the anger that has been visible across Arunachali Facebook. It is regarding the wedding that takes place remotely over Skype. While most have pointed out that it is not practiced in their tribe, it is something that can best be verified by cultural keepers, our shamans, cultural historians, et al.

If it happens, the director obviously took artistic license and made some changes. Whether that was a wise move since cultural representation is a touchy subject and can ruffle feathers when not approached authentically, is up for debate.

That aside, what many seem to have taken an issue with (but not outrightly saying it in plain language) is what is apparently being ‘implied’ by that wedding scene that if the bride is not present it is OK to wed the sister.

Since art is subjective, it’s fair to say that oftentimes people see in artworks what they want to see. Our interpretation of art is often a window into our own minds.

Axone is streaming on Netflix.

(A small portion of the article has been updated.)

Year of the peoples’ protest

Over the 365 days of 2019, Arunachal Pradesh in North East of India witnessed several key events that had an impact on the collective lives of people, either directly or indirectly. But, if one had to sum up the overwhelming theme of the year gone by, it would be one marked by the power of popular protests.

From the continuing pro-democracy ‘umbrella’ protestors of Hong Kong to worldwide climate change protests led by students, this was the year of protests across the globe; and Arunachal Pradesh was no exception.

After the end of the festive season in January, as the state geared up for continued celebrations for Statehood Day in February, the recommendation of a government-led Joint High Power Committee (JHPC) to grant permanent resident certificates (PRCs), under certain conditions, to six communities not recognised as indigenous tribals led to wide-scale protests concentrated in the capital.

Those protests eventually cost three young lives.

Additionally, damages to property worth crores of rupees were incurred, an entire commercial building (Takar Complex) was damaged which also housed the Centre for Cultural Documentation that had (ironically) archived the state’s rich tribal history and culture, the deputy chief minister’s residence was razed, and eventually, the government said that it will not be raising the issue in future.

One of the several cars that were burnt down in the anti-PRC protests in February.

While the government’s announcement helped diffuse the violence, it does not solve the issue at hand.

Denying PRCs may protect indigenous rights and benefits, but we cannot wish away the communities who have been demanding it for decades. Ultimately, an alternative must be found.

The February protests also led to the All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union (AAPSU) drawing widespread criticism across the board for its stance on the issue.

While the state government had not actually given any commitment that the communities in question will be given PRC and that the JHPC’s recommendations will be tabled and discussed in the Legislative Assembly, it did little to douse people’s anger.

The fact that the AAPSU was part of the JHPC did not help the union’s image as people took to Facebook to openly criticise the body. It has not recovered since then as has been evident by protests that took place in the fag-end of the year.

The February protests may have led many outside the state to believe that the BJP government may face problems in the upcoming elections but when the state went to polls and the results were declared, no one in the state was surprised.

In a state where ideologies and affiliations are the last thing in the minds of politicians, it hardly occupies space in the minds of the electorate and thus the BJP was overwhelmingly voted back into power in the state and the Centre.

The protests in the early part of the year showed us the power of people’s protests and it became the norm to sit at the tennis courts in Indira Gandhi Park in the state capital, with some issues bordering on the frivolous, even.

It also led to the state government holding open public consultations on the contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill (later Act).

Such open consultations in the state were almost unheard of earlier but the violence and the anger that was on display in February may have led the government to taking such measures.

Better safe than be sorry.

The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in both houses of parliament brought to light the distance and lack of understanding of those in the ‘mainland’ and the Northeast. Even the motivating factors in the protests that were held across major cities varied vastly from those held in the region.

As unconstitutional as the new Act is, and goes against the secular fabric of the country, in the Northeast, the protests in the region and in Arunachal Pradesh were characterised by fears and concerns over what impact an influx of foreigners can have on vulnerable indigenous groups that have faced years of marginalisation.

Assamese protestors in Itanagar protesting the Indian government’s decision.

The concern was evident in the over 30-km unprecedented march that students from Rajiv Gandhi University and NERIST undertook.

While the regional protests have been termed ‘xenophobic’ and ‘non-secular’ by some sections, the question to be asked is whether protests in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bangaluru, and other places would have taken place if the Act had included persecuted minority Muslim sects, including the Rohingiya from Myanmar.

In the region, the fight is one for our identity; for a culture that is constantly suffering the onslaught of the 21st century. Assam has already lost five sons in the protests which have since taken a more peaceful turn, with sub-nationalistic patriotic songs becoming a key feature in them.

How long can they continue such?

Growing pains: How the growth of a music fest is fuelling economy and angst

Tam and Yamyang Narang come off as a couple that has been in love since the first time they laid their eyes on each other decades ago. There are no overt displays of affection (as is usually the case with tribal marriages) or any grand verbal declarations of love. But as you sit with them in their kitchen sipping on the rice brew, O, from bamboo mugs as the fire from the hearth burns slowly, warming the cool summer night at their home-stay in Hong village at Ziro in India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, one feels the same kind of love emanating from the wooden walls with which it must have been erected.

Bespectacled and sporting a ‘semi-French beard’, Mr Narang says that he doesn’t remember when exactly they had opened their homes to let strangers in and live with them.

“It was in November 2002,” interjects Mrs Narang as she sits on a moora by the fire preparing rice in a large steel pot for fermentation that would be used to make some more beer.

tam-and-yamyang-narang.jpeg

My hosts, Tam and Yamyang Narang.

Mr Narang says that the couple hadn’t initially intended to turn their home into a home-stay and that their intention was to spread awareness about cleanliness in the area and promote their Apatani culture.

He says that for the first five years they did not even charge their “clients” and served three meals a day. That has now been reduced to two to allow tourists to take in the sights and they now charge Rs 1000 per night per person.

Mrs Narang says that the first batch of foreigners slept by the fire and that their tour guide was the one who bought quilts for them. The Tam Yamyang Home Stay now has quilts, beds and two rooms to house four people with the additional option of sleeping by the fire in the main house.

She tells me that she’s seen a rise in the number of Indian tourists visiting the valley after the Ziro Festival of Music began a few years back.

Indeed, ever since the festival began, Ziro has shot into most travellers’ checklist globally. At least over three thousand people make the annual pilgrimage to watch independent acts perform even if they have never heard of them ever before and most likely won’t after. But that doesn’t stop the festival faithful from flocking (this writer included), come rain or shine. And while the festival organisers appear to be doing well each year, the most obvious beneficiaries have been those in the hospitality sector.

The hearty hearth

The hearty hearth. There’s a cat there.

Every hotel in the valley has almost full occupancy during the festival week and the increased visibility of Ziro has encouraged entrepreneurs to invest in the sector. New hotels are being built all across the valley, each promising patrons the best view Ziro has to offer.

Over the years, home-stays too have increased significantly as more and more tourists seek out the Apatani way of life wishing to live with, and as, the locals.

There are currently 24 home-stays registered in the valley and more are likely to come up. Each of them offers their own unique experiences but the Narangs’ are probably the most authentic.

Hum loka local style home-stay hain,” Mrs Narang had told me unapologetically when I had arrived in a form of pidgin Hindi used as a language of communication in the state.

The humble home

The humble home.

Unlike many of the newer home-stays that resemble fancy lodges, the Narang home-stay is more rustic, authentic even. But that is not to say that the others are any less good. Some visitors will invariably want certain luxuries like running water and comfortable couches to watch TV from and will prefer the newer options. And those options have grown exponentially over the years, much thanks to the Festival. However, as much as a success Ziro Festival of Music has been, it still has its critics in the Valley.

I was to meet one of those critics who runs one of the newer homes-stay but had to skip as I had to rush back. We did cross paths on the road and exchanged pleasantries but I did not get the opportunity to see his place. I was also told that he is one of the most vocal critics of the Festival and the apparent culture it promotes.

The common (mis)conception surrounding the Festival is that patrons indulge in all nature of nefarious activities ranging from debauchery to narcotics in all forms.

Having visited the festival for the past three editions, that isn’t exactly a misconception. However, anyone familiar with the festival circuit knows that such things do happen. (Not that it makes it right in any manner.)

Even Mr Narang (who has never visited the festival because he is “against these rock acts that have no discipline”) holds the view that there is perhaps too much happening at the festival.

“Arunachal and our youth are in transition and we do have a problem of alcohol and bhaang (opium, but I suspect he meant marijuana),” he says, looking genuinely concerned.

In recent years the organisers have tried to address these issues by putting up signs and making announcements asking patrons to refrain from indulging in drugs. (In all honesty, though, anyone who has ever attended a festival knows that such signs are really a mere formality.) But to maintain a constant vigil in a large open field is no mean task. If drug consumption during the festival is an issue, it will need the co-operation from local residents.

Until then, of course, many more doors of the people are likely to open up once the Festival fever kicks in.

The Ziro Festival of Music will be held this year from September 28 to October 1. Check the official website for information relating to the Fest. ZFM Facebook page.

Remember that even Indian citizens from other states require special permits to enter Arunachal Pradesh. Permits can be applied for online here.

Disclosure: A version of this article was first published in the 2017 Souvenir published on the occasion of Golden Jubilee Dree Festival. The trip was paid for by the Dree Festival Committee.

Tradition, gender equality, politics: A cacophony of voices from Nagaland

Two deaths, arson, bandhs and disruption of communication lines: these are some of the impacts of the current chaos that has gripped Nagaland for over a week now.

Protests in Nagaland were triggered after the state government announced polls for Urban Local Bodies (ULB) in December last year with a provision to reserve 33 percent of seats for women.

Various Nagaland-based groups, including ‘apex’ bodies of the tribes called the Hohos, have opposed the government’s move to reserve seats for women, calling it an infringement upon Naga traditions and customs as protected under Article 371A of the Constitution.

On the other side are the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) and Joint Action Committee for Women’s Reservation (JACWR) which have pursued the need for laws to establish greater women’s participation in electoral politics in the state. For the record, Nagaland has never had a women MLA since it became a full-fledged state in December 1963 and has had one woman Lok Sabha MP, Rano Shaiza, back in the seventies.

The situation took a turn for the worst when on February 1 two men died in police firing in Nagaland’s commercial capital Dimapur following protests over the state government’s decision to go ahead with the polls in 12 of the 32 ULBs despite assurance given to the protesting groups, that had come under the banner of the Joint Coordination Committee, earlier on January 30 that polls would be postponed. The two men later had died after allegedly being shot at a protest the night before when people marched towards Chief Minister TR Zeliang’s private residence in Dimapur.

It should be noted that on the day of the agreement being signed, a PIL was filed in the Gauhati High Court against “extra-constitutional bodies opposed to the election”. The court had ordered the state government to go ahead with the polls.

Matters did not stop there, however, as groups of people set fire to the Kohima Municipal Council building on February 2. For the past week, life has been going at a slow pace following bandhs in large parts of the state demanding the resignation of Zeliang and his cabinet. Government vehicles are not allowed to ply and government offices have remained shut but businesses are slowly beginning to open up as people try to get on with their normal routines. The latest update following a meeting on Tuesday is that Zeliang alone should resign within 72 hours starting February 8. Within this pool of protests and debates, several narratives have been thrown up.

Protesting groups claim that they are not against the participation of women in electoral politics and that they are free to do so. In fact, even though no woman has ever been elected to the sixty-member Legislative Assembly, they have unsuccessfully contested in the past. Even in the now cancelled ULB polls, there were women candidates in the fray.

Those for the reservation have continually argued that in Naga tribal societies where men make all the decisions, it is necessary that women should be provided an equitable footing to take part in the electoral process and not merely be reduced to voters but representatives as well.

Newspapers in Nagaland these days are filled with opinions and editorial pieces that seek to address the issue. While there are the opposing groups who say that the reservation is ultra-constitutional and infringes upon the rights of Naga tribes, on the other hand are those who argue that such opposition is driven by male insecurity and chauvinism.

The fact that people have not once elected a woman to the Assembly, some feel, speaks volumes about Nagaland’s covert gender biases.

While it is often argued that it is to protect the “religious or social practices of the Nagas” and “Naga customary law and procedure” as enshrined in Article 371(A) that are the primary motives for leading the opposition to women’s reservation, an unspoken motive is also the fear that it would lead to opening of floodgates to bring more changes to the Article that ‘protects’ Nagaland.

The fourth provision in Article 371A(1)(a) in the Constitution states that “no Act of Parliament in respect of ownership and transfer of land and its resources, shall apply to the State of Nagaland unless the Legislative Assembly of Nagaland by a resolution so decides”. It is this provision that those seeking reservation for women feel that has most men in Nagaland afraid.

Since women in Nagaland cannot inherit ancestral property- abiding by tribal customs- the argument is that men are afraid that any law that is a contradiction to the Article can also trigger calls for further changes in the provision, including inheritance laws. On the other side, some fear that even larger changes could be brought to the part that gives Nagas complete ownership of their land

On the other side, some fear that even larger changes could be brought to the part that gives Nagas complete ownership of their land and resources. This argument must be seen in the backdrop of the fact that parts of Nagaland have large reserves of untapped crude oil which are being currently explored. The provision in the Article ensures that how resources in the state are used lies in the hands of the state and not the Centre. 

A similar provision also exists in Article 371G which states that Mizoram’s laws relating to ownership and transfer of land will be in accordance with tribal customary laws but does not speak of the state’s resources. 

In fact, in Arunachal Pradesh too a similar provision also exists in Article 371G which states that Mizoram’s laws relating to ownership and transfer of land will be in accordance with tribal customary laws but does not speak of the state’s resources.

In fact, in Arunachal Pradesh too, there have been calls of late to bring in a similar provision such as that in Nagaland which ‘protect’ the state’s resources for its tribal population.

On top of these narratives is also one that explores the political angle behind the controversy.

On Tuesday, the chief minister is said to have told reporters that the fact that protests have continued despite the government having declared elections held in some towns as null and void mean that some organisations are being misused for political purposes. He continues to refuse to step down.

In 2014, former chief minister Neiphiu Rio won the lone Lok Sabha seat on the Naga People’s Party ticket. However, after being denied a cabinet berth in the Centre, it was reported that he wanted to return as chief minister that led to fissures in the party that he previously presided over. Then, last year he was suspended from his own party.

The NPF’s youth wing earlier also accused Rio of masterminding the current chaos which he claimed as “totally false” allegations.

Rio openly came out in criticism against the government’s handling of the issue, stating that Naga society is not against reservations for women but that people are unhappy over the manner in which the move seeks to override Article 371A by invoking Article 243T that provides for women’s reservations.

This is of course, not the first time that the there have been oppositions to reservations for women in polls.  Protests against reservation have been in place since 2006 when the Nagaland Municipal (First Amendment) Act was enacted. A decade later, differing views continue to divide a state.

A version of this article first appeared in The Citizen.

Jeroni: A girl takes a stand against child marriage

Back in 2008, Jeroni Tawo was just five years old when negotiations for her marriage began to take place. Promised to a man much older than her, she was witnessing herself become a victim of child marriage. On May 31 this yearshe decided to take a stand and free herself.

Her story began when she was in the third standard and was promised to be married to Tania Pinche who was in his late twenties. Her father, Taru Tawo, had begun the process of accepting bride price from Pinche and the marriage was solemnised in 2013. This summer, when her vacation began, she was taken to Pata Cheda Village in Papu Valley in Arunachal Pradesh’s East Kameng district in Northeast India. Two weeks in, she escaped to freedom.

“She walked through thick forests to reach the deputy director’s office to tell her story,” informed Pooja Sonam Natung, general secretary of the East Kameng unit of the Women Welfare Organisation.

Jeroni

Jeroni, the 13-year old braveheart.

Last year, the WWO had organised an awareness campaign highlighting the wrongs of social evils including the archaic practice of child marriage. The campaign organisers had asked people to come forward and report cases of child marriage in that area and had also given out the address of a WWO member from the area in case they wished to approach them in private. While Jeroni could not muster the courage to do so publicly last year, the campaign message, and more importantly the address of the WWO member stayed with her and it is there that she first reached out for help.

 

Natung said that the 13-year old “escaped” on the morning of May 31 when everyone was asleep. The matter was brought to the attention of the government’s Integrated Child Development Services cell and together with the WWO and the East Kameng Social Welfare and Cultural Organization began talks to arrange for her release from the marriage.

While it is clear that Jeroni is a victim of a practice that was much prevalent at one time, Pinche isn’t exactly a villain.

Both Jeroni and Pinche are Puroiks, a community that has been marginalised for years. Awareness about their rights amongst community members is less and yet, Pinche himself willingly accepted the decision taken during the meeting which ended on June 3.

“It is a historic and bold decision by Pinche,” Natung said from Seppa and added that “if someone from the Puroik community can stand up and take such a decision, why can’t others”.

Tania Pinche

Far from a villain , Pinche is also a victim of social norms.

The amount of bride price was fixed at Rs 1,12,500 which Pinche did not want returned to him. During most such cases when marriages are cancelled, the bride’s family is required to return the bride price in full. In acknowledgement of his decision, Pinche was awarded Rs 40 thousand by the WWO.

Natung said that child marriage is not prevalent in the urban areas of the district and that most people are against it. However, in some rural areas, it is still practiced and Natung says that many cases go unreported.

One of the challenges to abolishing the practice entirely is to ensure that the victims do not find themselves in similar situations later in life. Jeroni has gone on record to put down in writing that she will not get married before she turns 18.

Speaking over the phone from Seppa, the shy 13-year old said that she wants to grow up to become a teacher.  When asked if she has a favourite subject, she initially says she likes all subjects the same. A brief pause later, “science”, she says.