PAGE 12: Old Words, New Melodies

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OLD WORDS, NEW MELODIES

By Dr. Luis Dias

So far, I’ve not had the opportunity to visit Uttarakhand, but I’ve come close. In the last few years, I’ve joined expeditions to the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh and more recently to Ladakh. So I could relate to some of the breathtakingly beautiful landscapes, the mountain ranges in the distance in varying shades of white-and-blue, and having to cross scarily swaying bridges slung at dizzying heights across plunging valleys and gorges with crystal clear rivers gushing forth busily as if in a mad race to get to the bottom in ‘Dev Bhoomi’ (Land of the Gods, 2016) by Serbian director Goran Paskaljević.

The reference at the beginning of the film to the devastation caused by a flash flood, brought to mind our own good fortune during our visit to Spiti. Literally days after we left the area, there were punishing flash floods, roads swept away by landslides, or buried in snow avalanches. Our ‘lucky’ charm was our driver (whose name was also Lucky); ever cheerful, optimistic and an excellent driver, navigating treacherous almost non-existent narrow winding roads hugging mountain slopes with a sheer drop and certain death on the smallest wrong move. More than once, Lucky miraculously did a three-point turn on such roads. As the van overhung the cliffs as he did so, those of us at the back were afraid to even look out the window.   

Other aspects also resonated – temporary ‘roadblocks’ caused by obstinate cattle or the unique species of goats being taken out to pastures and the simple lives of the mountain people. A difference I noticed at once was the greeting ‘Namaste’ instead of the ‘Julley’ one hears in Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh. The community we encounter in Dev Bhoomi is Hindu, not Buddhist.

As the film unfolds, the idyllic setting begins to reveal a dark underbelly. Rahul Negi (played by Victor Banerjee, who also co-wrote the script with Paskaljević) returns to his native village after a long self-exile of four decades abroad but is shunned by most of the villagers. 

Without wishing to reveal too much and spoil it for you, Dev Bhoomi touches upon a variety of social ills, from caste prejudice to patriarchy and associated gender discrimination in the form of curtailing education of the girl child and forcible teenage marriage.

Paskaljević got acquainted with India over the years by presiding over juries at several film festivals in India and was, in fact, in Goa as recently as the last edition of IFFI in 2019 with his Serbian-language film from the same year, Nonostante la Nebbia (Despite the Fog). An Indo-Serbian collaboration was, therefore, in some ways, perhaps inevitable.

Banerjee, of course, needs no introduction to Indian film buffs. The western media remembers him for his role as Aziz in David Lean’s 1984 A Passage to India, a film adaptation of English author E. M. Forster’s eponymous novel. But we know him much more intimately for his many riveting performances in, to name just a few, Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi (The Chess Players, 1977) and Ghare Bhaire (The Home and The World’, 1984), both of which also feature in this edition of IFFI to commemorate Ray’s birth centenary; Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures (1978, dir. James Ivory) and Kalyug (1981, dir. Shyam Benegal).

In Dev Bhoomi, he comes across as someone happy to be home again, yet not quite at home after so many decades away, (a common symptom among expats returning home after far too long), wandering once familiar terrain looking rather lost, and the injured look of a martyr when accusations are hurled at him, whether of wanting to reclaim the family property, bringing dishonour to his family, or disturbing the village equilibrium. 

Other noteworthy cast members are Geetanjali Thapar (Shaanti, the earnest, idealistic schoolteacher) and Raj Zutshi in a cameo role as a taxi driver (filmgoers my age will remember him as the trusty sidekick to the hero in many a Hindi film before the label Bollywood gained such widespread currency). 

Dev Bhoomi offers a glimmer of hope at the end, with this quote by Rabindranath Tagore:

“I thought that my voyage had come to its end 

at the last limit of my power, 

that the path before me was closed, 

and the time come to take shelter in a silent obscurity, 

but I find that thy will knows no end in me, 

and when old words die out on the tongue, 

new melodies break forth from the heart…”

Five years on, caste and gender discrimination and violence in India seem to be worsening rather than receding, so one could argue the optimism was misplaced. But when hope is lost, all is lost, I guess.  

The soundtrack for the most part has just ambient sound save for some meditative pentatonic soliloquies on bansuri flute by Ramesh Mishra that stay with you long after you’ve left the auditorium.

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