“Without you, I am nothing…”
This is the meaning of those words in Chokri, one of the three languages spoken in the Phek district of the Indian north-eastern state of Nagaland, that Anushka Meenakshi and Iswar Srikumar’s film Kho ki pa lü (Up Down and Sideways) begins with.
Phek lies near the border between India and Myanmar, and it’s home to around 5,000 people who cultivate rice for their own consumption. Herein begins the unnamable and organic bond that the people of Phek share with nature; they don’t grow rice to sell, they don’t bring money into the equation. They just eat it themselves. The land, for them, is not an investment but a friend they live with and grow with. It’s a friend that they sing to.
Kho ki pa lü is about a lot of things, but it’s mostly about music. It is about Li, the songs that people sing when they cultivate rice in small müles. A müle is a small cooperative group people form to work in the fields. These are groups of family members, friends and neighbors who all work in each other’s farms. It is in the müle that the Li is sung because you can’t sing the Li alone. It is absolutely necessary that different voices join in and braid into a Li — it is imperative for the many voices to conjoin and form the Li that is sung clear and loud with minimal instruments, the Li that flows and bounces off the sides of the green mountains in all directions — up, down and sideways, kho ki pa lü.
This is a cliché one often falls prey to when talking about the Indian north-east, but each frame looks like a photograph. As the clouds blow over slowly across the distant mountains, and the thunderbolt lights up the night sky, you realize that nothing about this place (or this film) is mundane. There is beauty in the way swift-footed Phek residents scurry along mountain paths under a flourish of colored umbrellas, and sing out loud in groups, as they make way into their fields.
This film is about a community that sticks together and sings together. “Those in good company, can never die of hunger,” the Li goes, and that is how the community in Phek lives — each one for another.
There is no scene in the film that has any Phek resident walking, talking, singing or working alone. As they clear out weeds with sure arms and sift the muddy rice plains with their feet, there is an unmistakable rhythm that emerges. There is an inimitable grace with which the men’s legs splash against the mud while tilling the land — a grace that makes this menial task look like a dance. When you live in harmony with nature, everything seems to follow a rhythm of its own. It is the same rhythm with which clouds gather in the sky, the rhythm with which they move and, finally, the symphony with which they rain on the fields. The fields, cut out in terraces, are everything the residents have to love, and it is to them that the people sing when they sing to their lovers, “If I didn’t love you, would I come to you?”
The only people walking alone in the film are the army officers in Phek — formidable in their uniforms, threatening with their guns. Nagaland has wanted to be an independent nation since the 1940s. As retaliation, the Indian state sent in the Army in 1953 and began a military conflict that is still continuing. Back then, 645 out of 861 Naga villages were burnt which resulted in the destruction of around 79,794 houses and 26,550,000 mounds of rice. The state is classified as a “disturbed area” still and is under the military rule of the Indian state, protected by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. As the film rightly notes, this is one of the longest standing armed conflicts in the world.
As the men and women of Phek remember singing Li when they were young, there is a hint of nostalgia in their voices. They talk of the friendships, the flirtation and the games they played while singing the Li. Music is a part of everyone’s collective memory in Phek — old men talk about the time they sang to girls, women talk about the time they sang to their lovers, young men discuss their wives and the games they played against other müles. These stories all find place in the music and, if one listens carefully, there is always a strain of Li wafting from the mountains. Like the mountains, the Li is a patient listener of those who speak about life, death, ageing and the fear of forgetting these songs.
Fear is not a new emotion for the people of Phek. When the missionaries set up the church in Phek and a lot of people converted to Christianity, it was feared that the Li would be sung no more. When the Indian Army attacked the state, the people hid in the fields and came back to see their houses razed to the ground. They were scared. “How could we have sung? We were even afraid to talk,” remembers one Phek resident.
Resilience, too, is not something they need to be taught. In the face of guns and the Church, the Phek still dances while singing its full-throated Li — casting shadows on the ground, leaving its marks as it remembers the history which made its people both weak and strong.
“It is a joy to sing,” they go on and on, stopping only to catch a breath or to smoke in between the Li.
This article is the third and final in a series about films from the India north-east being shown at the Museum of the Moving Image’s India Kaleidoscope Film Festival in New York City.
Bedatri Datta Choudhury (@Bedatri) grew up in India and has studied Literature and Cinema at the University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and New York University. She moonlights as a writer and likes writing on films, gender and culture. She lives in New York City and loves eating cake.