Niyamgiri, People’s Resistance in Odisha, Independent Filmmaking – An Interview with Activist-Filmmaker Surya Sankar Dash

By The Commons

Surya Sankar Dash, an activist-filmmaker whose films include Repression Diary, The Lament of Niyamgiri, Psychedelhi among others, speaks to us on people’s movements, independent filmmaking and such stuff. We had this interview on facebook, so read it like a chat. 🙂

The Commons: For an introduction, what are the topics that you’ve made documentaries on?

  • Surya Sankar Dash: 

    Well my approach to documentary film is that I make my skills available to people’s movements so that the medium can be used as a tool to fight against oppression. In Odisha the pressing issues have been displacement of Adivasi-Dalit and environmental degradation by mining companies. So, all my work in the last 10 years has mostly dealt with that.

  • TC: What kinds of problems did you face while filming? Did the mining companies, Vedanta et al, create any hindrance in your shooting?

  • Surya Sankar Dash: 

    Yes mining companies, police, hired musclemen at various points of time have intimidated me as well as other members of our informal collective. I was beaten once in 2006 by the police and recently Amitabh Patra was brutally attacked by the police. Recently at a public hearing in Lanjigarh, Vedanta’s men physically pushed out our cameraperson and didn’t allow him to film anything. But that is not very shocking as I feel that we are only experiencing a little bit of the reality that the people who lead the movements face everyday. We have heard of massacres of Adivasi men, women and children in Odisha (Kalinga Nagar, Kashipur, Narayanpatna) but not of activists or pro-people journalists.

  • TC: Why is that the police and corporate goons find it easier to kill Adivasi people?

  • Surya Sankar Dash: 

    It certainly stems out of class-caste prejudices to start with and moreover the state and corporations know that without the Adivasi people there will be no resistance at all.

  • TC: How much outrage do you see in the non-Adivasi population of your state over the massacres of Adivasis? Also, how do your viewers generally respond to your films about those resistance movements?

  • Surya Sankar Dash: 

    Well hardly any and rather one sees deep rooted casteist (Brahminical) prejudices prevailing, not only in our state but elsewhere. The average ‘secular’ person seems to be ‘more’ outraged with pogroms against Muslims and Christians but not Dalits-Adivasis. The films we make were meant to be shown in villages mainly and sometimes when it does reach the middle-class apart from some expression of sympathy I have mostly felt that the middle class upper caste audience cannot relate to these struggles. Maybe because they realise that these struggles also question their aspirations, ideology and class character.

  • Surya Sankar Dash: 

    What I mean is that the narrow definition of secularism created by the ruling class is problematic.

  • TC: Can u share any particular experience of having shown such documentaries ,to upper caste well off sections?

  • Surya Sankar Dash: 

    Well mostly I avoid such occasions and prefer to have them screen my films without me. It would be too much occupational hazard to assimilate. But yes I do remember a couple of occasions, one being where a large part of the audience refused to even speak to me after the screening and discussion where I refused to settle with their claim ‘we need (capitalist) development but the dispossessed should be taken care of’.

  • TC: Where was it?

  • Surya Sankar Dash: 

  • Another time at the Bring Your Own Film Festival, a NGO working with the Tatas was very enraged with me.

  • TC: OK, were you critical about the Tatas?

  • Surya Sankar Dash: 

    He made many threats, even “Wait and see, I will also enter Niyamgiri”.

    Later in the middle of the night at the festival someone said his car was stuck in the sand (the film fest is on the Puri beach)

    I somehow managed to end up being one of the 3 volunteers who would push his car out

    He insisted I push from behind and that moment I was sure he would kill me. So I ran away. (yeah i know its very funny when I look back but I was very scared).

    (meaning to kill me he would just need to press the wrong gear of the car)

  • TC: You spoke about the deep rooted Brahminical prejudices prevailing. Can you describe it in a bit more detail with examples?

  • The typical upper caste parents scolding go something like “Don’t behave like an Anarjya Mlecha” (they define it as uncivilised and unhygienic) . The typical upper caste youth taunt will be “Are you a ‘Munda’ or what’. (Munda being their word for Fool). So on so forth. I assume the word ‘goonda’ is derived from Gonda tribe of Dandakaranya.

    But that is the general take, in my experience of screening films…

     (Goonda act of the British gave currency to the word goonda)
  • TC: A very common reference is often made of Chuars

    in a derogatory way….

  • Surya Sankar Dash:

    The Birhor tribe in Odissa is officially named Mankidia (monkey like)

    so…

    the audience …

    usually starts off with certain assumptions the moment they see Adivasi people…

  • TC: We have seen the Modi wave being talked about a lot, but interestingly Naveen Patnaik managed to hold on in Odisha, despite many instances of exploitation.

  • Surya Sankar Dash:

    … that they are ‘ignorant’ and industrial society education can enable them to understand development better… that they are hapless victims of poverty… that their way of living is deprivation

     Well Naveen Pattnaik has no opposition in the state.
     They all work together. Congress members are neck deep in illegal mining.
     as for BJP..
     between BJP(LOTUS) & BJD (CONCH) the difference is as much as the left or right hand of Jaganath
     Naveen Pattnaik is the best bet all of them have in the loot of Odisha
     but of course electoral politics is such that popular mandate never reflects in it
     And then one cannot dismiss Bread & Circus politics
     that have worked since ancient times
     Naveen’s Rs 2 per kg rice, push of liquor stores, corporates pumping in money for festivities round the year
     and the complete sellout of the entire mediascape in Odissa
     another thing that Naveen did
     is more than the legislators he manages everything from elections to destroying people’s resistance through the bureaucracy
     The District Magistrates influence the SHGs greatly
  • TC:

    How much support do you think is there among various sections of working class in Odisha for the Niyamgiri struggle? is it any different than the attitude towards other struggles, like say POSCO?

  • Surya Sankar Dash:

    In Odisha there is great unity amongst all struggling groups. We are all aware that it is the same battle being fought against the same enemy. The names of the companies change, the mineral needed might be different, but maybe due to the legacy of earlier left movements people are in general aware that this is a larger struggle. From Ashok’s 265 BC holocaust to British massacres, our struggle’s today can relate the ongoing invasion to past experiences…

    And there is a wonderful legacy of movements in the last 2-3 decades itself

     Chilika, Baliapal, Gandhamardhan, Kalinga Nagar, Jagatsingpur, Narayanpatna…
  • TC:

    What is the role of NGOs in the movements?

  • Surya Sankar Dash:

    Almost all movements perceive NGOs to be imperialist intervention to distract, dilute & destroy movements, Recently in Niyamgiri and in Jagatsingpur, the people had to militantly ward off big NGOs hellbent upon appropriating the movements. These reservations about NGOs is not unfounded as we have seen several attempts by them to be the mediator between State/Corporates and the People.

  • TC:

    Can you elaborate how these NGOs dilute the movements ?

    Do they offer jobs, schemes etc?

  • Surya Sankar Dash:

    Well they first divide the movements into community vs community representative… that strikes at the basic democracy in the movements… then they channelise funds to this CR and bring in ‘professionalism’ into movements and suddenly the CR is isolated from the community… then the NGOs change the discourse from anti-capitalism to bargaining for better deals…

    i have not come across a single NGO that has adopted the ideology of the community it claims to fight for

    as in the ideological position of the struggling group

    rather the entire effort is to push the community from their positions towards dialogue with the state and corporations
    I have seen entire communities refusing to participate in movements because one person from their village became the ‘chosen one’ and a radical class ascent from ngo funding and all… i have heard them ask why one person should be paid for when all are equal stakeholders…
     plz let know if something needs to be better explained
  • TC:

    To sum up, can you give some advice to aspiring documentary makers on movements on how to effectively use technology , and how to deal with funds without falling prey to class or state collaboration of the sort you just described?

  • Surya Sankar Dash:

    We have to unlearn a lot when we think of using the audio visual medium. Most of us are still influenced by the cinema taught in schools which is primarily designed to suit the needs of industrial society. They learn lighting to make humans look like commodities so we should know that it won’t apply in our cinema. We have to develop our own language and vision. In the last few years our informal collective has made more than 40 shorts documentaries, 10 long ones and documented on camera enormous database of visual evidence of displacement, repression and devastation. All of it was possible because we gave up all traditional notions of cinema. We shot on the cheapest cameras, cellphones and we edited with whatever we found. Some films were made for less than 1000 rupees but of course none of us makes money from these films. So one has to also give up the notion that one can make money from it. Do we need to be paid to go out on the streets and raise slogans? We have to look at documentary the same way. In India the general documentary practice has been controlled by a bourgeois syndicate of filmmakers trained in elite institutes and operating from metros. They have been making propaganda for the state and Ngos all these years. They have made loads of money from such and also in the process created a myth that documentary is expensive and difficult. They are neo-Pundits. A good quality video camera is available for less than Rs10000 today. Any average PC can be used to edit. So whats really the big dilemma? We have sold dvds, collected money from movements, friends, comrades, family, relatives and made our films and continue to do so. I have made more films than any of my contemporaries by not getting into the funding racket. Just examine how this racket works. First you have to send them a proposal and unless it suits them they don’t fund you. So its censorship from the first moment itself.

    yes…

    so..

    one might argue that what if there is no such censorship and it is unconditional funding

    but frankly i have never seen any such

    and what a waste of time

    by the time you are done with appeasing funders the need of the documentary for the movements is usually gone

    then we are just furthering our own careers

  • TC:

    Thank you a lot for your time and valuable answers, we really appreciate it!

  • Surya Sankar Dash:

    arrey … no need

    i am just saying something that people’s movements have taught me

    just a messenger

  • TC:

    Solidarity forever

  • Surya Sankar Dash:

    let’s hang in tight and close and soon we shall overcome !! Inquilab Zindabad!!

  • TC:

    inquilab zindabad! Long live people’s struggle for freedom from all sorts of oppression

  • Surya Sankar Dash:

    so now i have to retire into my cave till Psychedelhi is over

    It’s also an attempt to disprove that creative cinema needs crores

    or that we need producers

    and distributors

    and that cinema is for entertainment

    lets see how it works out !

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