An Interview with ‘Dharti Latar Re Horo’ Filmmaker Shishir Jha

Dharti Latar Re Horo Interview - 2022 Shishir Jha Movie Documentary Film

Dharti Latar Re Horo (Tortoise Under the Earth), the Santali-language debut feature by Indian filmmaker Shishir Jha, chronicles a tribal group that is being exploited by the government in the Godda area of Jharkhand. The story follows an elderly couple who mourns the loss of their daughter and are about to be evicted from their ancestral land due to uranium mining. Dharti Latar Re Horo takes a fly-on-the-wall approach with its subjects and also emphasizes the close ties that tribal people have to one another. Their camaraderie and folk tunes, along with the vibrant colors of their celebrations, are portrayed with ethnographic realism.

Jha’s film had its international premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival, where it won the Vanguard Award (Special Mention). Dharti Latar Re Horo was also screened at the São Paulo International Film Festival in the category of the New Filmmakers Competition. Recently, the film participated in the Common Good International Film Festival in California. In this conversation, Jha reveals the processes and ideologies that helped him structure Dharti Latar Re Horo with an objective approach.

Dipankar Sarkar: You are an alumnus of the National Institute of Design (NID) in Gujarat and have a diploma in filmmaking from EICTV (Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV) in Cuba, where you had a workshop with Abbas Kiarostami. Did such formal training help you become a filmmaker?

Shishir Jha: Yes, it certainly helps. Cinema is a collaborative art, and it is a recent artform that is not older than 100 years compared to paintings, sculptures, literature, etc. And hence, there are many possibilities to be discovered in the way of expression. There are filmmakers who have come up with totally new ways and have created their own visual language, and some of them, using existing forms, have used the medium in such a profound way. In my journey as a film student and a filmmaker, I have learned that cinema is mainly about the approach. There are many ways of expression and an infinite number of possibilities, of which we have discovered many and are in the process of discovering new ones. When you go to a film or design school, you meet a variety of people who have completely different approaches from yours. So, it is important to travel and be exposed to all kinds of cinema that is being made in different parts of the world, given the available resources and existing conditions. In such places of education, you also meet people who are as interested in cinema as you are and quickly create a connection. At the same time, I also believe that you don’t need to go to film school to learn the craft, which you can learn in a day.

DS: In the anthology film Shuruaat Ka Interval (2014), your segment “August” deals with an animal butcher who is confronting an existential crisis. What made you come across the idea of making this short film?

SJ: As of now, most of the films that I have made are based on my personal experiences. It has helped me understand myself better. It has affected me and changed me as a person. Sometimes you suddenly stop for a while, and everything is frozen in time except you. These visuals and feelings were what I wanted to explore while creating this short film.

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DS: How did you develop an interest in the tribal community of Jharkhand, and how did it motivate you to make a feature film?

SJ: In January 2019, I came across “Santal Folk Tales,” a volume of three books by Paul Olaf Bodding, and was swayed by this Norwegian folklorist and linguist’s work. Bodding served in India for 44 years, from 1889 to 1933, and documented everything that happened to the Santhals during this time. He is still famous among the Santhals. I too was riveted by their folk stories, culture, belief system, tradition and the oral stories that have been passed down the generations. My hometown is Darbhanga, Bihar. Jharkhand was formerly a part of Bihar, but it felt like a new world after learning about the Santhal. It was at this point that I made up my mind to make a film based on their folklore. I did my homework for nine months through secondary sources, such as books and online material, before going to live with the Santhal in October 2019.

DS: What was your process of developing the screenplay for the film?

SJ: It was a very organic process. I did not have any bound scripts. I had been reading books about Santhal for the last nine months before going there and trying to know as much about them as possible. And when I arrived, I could not find the world that had been created in my mind through the books. Then I kept traveling in that environment for a few months, creating my own experiences. I allowed the landscape, politics, people and everything else that came my way to participate in the process of screenplay development.

Dharti Latar Re Horo Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘Against the Tide’ Filmmaker Sarvnik Kaur

DS: How did your producers come on board to help you realize your vision?

SJ: HumaraMovie has known me for the last 10 years, and most of my short films have been produced. They gave me the utmost freedom and have always supported me. Without a script, it was difficult to tell them what I had been trying to achieve. I had an idea, and I knew how to approach it. Because it was a very unconventional way, I told them that I was going to shoot a film without a script, story or actor. I had the location, which wasEast Singhbhum, but I didn’t understand their language. That means I will go to a place without knowing the language with a camera, and at the end, I will come up with a film. It seems impossible. So, I went there and created a 15-minute edit and showed them. Then things started flowing.

DS: Dharti Latar Re Horo begins with off-screen dialogue — “It is difficult to tell what is the truth and what is myth” — which describes how the plight of the tribals is perceived by people from mainland India who are mostly ignorant about how uranium mining in the region has brought such devastation to the region. Share your thoughts on this.

SJ: When I started developing the film, it came from folklore, so it has a certain essence. These villages are exactly 15 to 20 km away from the main town. Roads are built to connect villages and the town. People are now educated, and they have more exposure than ever. Most households have television, and people have internet access on their phones, but there is a constant conflict between the old beliefs and the new awareness created by the exposure. If somebody falls sick, they immediately go to the hospital for treatment. At the same time, they perform an old ritual at home to ward off evil spirits. I had no idea what uranium mining was before going to that place. When I visited the remotest part of the village, older generations told me a ghost story about the peepal tree –a sacred fig — but they knew something was wrong with that place too. And in towns or villages nearby, people know about the ill effects of uranium mining. That is how I decided to make a film on mining when I visited that place. It is a very strong and urgent message, and you can’t ignore it.

Dharti Latar Re Horo Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘Hadinelentu’ Filmmaker Prithvi Konanur

Dharti Latar Re Horo Interview - 2022 Shishir Jha Movie Documentary Film

DS: Before entering into the lives of the couple, Jagarnath Baskey and Mugli Baskey, you show a vignette of tribal life in the region as they participate in a festival that keeps the spirit of their traditions alive. What was the reason behind such an approach?

SJ: For me, being an outsider, it was a very curious experience. I don’t belong to the Santhal community, so it created a lot of curiosity in me. It was the same as seeing rain without thinking about anything. I wanted to share those experiences with others. The tunes and the sound had a mesmerizing effect. I wanted to go through them with their tradition and culture because it creates a sense of belonging.

DS: You shot the film with non-professional actors in the village. How did you convince them of their roles, and what were the challenges in bringing authenticity to their performances?

SJ: I am not from that community, so it was really challenging to get acceptance from the local people. I don’t speak Santhali. The places I went to get the essence of people were extremely remote. Many of them only spoke Santhali. Hindi is spoken and understood by only a few of them. They used to run away. It was really hard to talk to people. It seemed impossible to make a film before I met Jeetrai Hansda — a social activist — and Binod Hansda, who assisted me in the film and also recorded the sound for the film. Jeetrai Hansda is very popular in the community. Initially, for a few months, I traveled with him and tried to gaze and understand. It helped me a lot to understand them closely. Also, visiting the same place again and again and spending time in the area help create acceptance. I met Jagarnath Baskey accidentally, and the moment I saw him, I felt strongly connected with him. Luckily, Binod already knew them, so it was not difficult. I know shooting is not difficult, but creating the connection and the bond is more important. So, we did not start shooting immediately. We keep visiting them and trying to get to know them better and create our friendship. We did not shoot much; there were hardly any retakes except for a few scenes. In this kind of film, retakes take away the truthfulness and ease of the character from the screen. We shot for two-three hours a day for 30 days in total but stayed there for a year for those 30 days.

Dharti Latar Re Horo Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘Niharika (In the Mist)’ Filmmaker Indrasis Acharya

DS: Jagarnath does not want to give his land to the government. He consoles his wife, Mugli, with the assurance that if the government is displacing them, then they will take them to a very good place. But he does not want to leave the village like other people. What makes him decide to part with his wife but not his birthplace?

SJ: People with ideas or resistance are very unpredictable and adamant. Jagarnath is very certain about his feelings for his birthplace, which is full of memories of their loved ones, even those who are dead. He already knows the suffering involved in choosing this path. He always thinks better of his wife. He is very uncertain about the new place — where the villagers are going and what it has to offer — but it will be better for her. At least there are other villagers that will take care of her, and there will be support as a community.

DS: Photographs play an important role in Jagarnath and Mugli’s lives. In the beginning, when Mugli is lamenting the absence of their young daughter, Jagarnath gives him an album that consists of photographs. In another scene, before going to the fair, he tells his wife that he will bring him lots of photographs despite not having any money. Please comment.

SJ: We carry our identity through our memories; if we start losing them, it affects our identity. In a scene, Jagarnath confirms to the wife that they have already [been] displaced once. Again, this will not happen. If they do it again, he is going to build the house again, and then his wife asks, “Does he have that kind of money to build the house again?” Pain is worse in the absence of money. When you get hurt easily and deeply, you become more empathetic. You start relating to other people and feeling their sorrow. It brings a change inside you and an immense love for human life. Ultimately, surviving becomes the greatest art.

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DS: In another scene from Dharti Latar Re Horo, we observe young men from the region visiting the tailing pond and talking about its detrimental effects on the population. The casual manner in which they speak to one another gives the impression that they are less concerned about such hazardous activities of the government and have negotiated with their fate. What is the importance of this scene?

SJ: Sometimes awareness alone can’t solve a problem. They are aware of what’s going on with them, but they are helpless. There is no option with them. They are not ignorant of the situation. Then what should we do?

DS: Most of the shots in the film are static, and at the same time, the editing pattern also does not adhere to lots of inter-cutting. Since you have done the cinematography as well as the editing for the film, how did it help to develop the narrative pattern and visual style?

SJ: You can describe it as slow cinema. It has long, static shots with less cutting. In this way, you can listen more to them, impose less and observe more. Their sense of time is greater, which blends with the landscape and their lifestyle. You relate better to actual time. After a point, you stop questioning and accept the flow, allowing yourself to be in that space. In the end, you don’t feel cheated or manipulated when you come out of the theatre. It seems you have seen or experienced life rather than collected knowledge or information. I think that is the whole purpose of cinema. I tried to achieve this through the film.

Dharti Latar Re Horo Interview: Related — An Interview with ‘Shesh Pata’ Filmmaker Atanu Ghosh

Dharti Latar Re Horo Interview - 2022 Shishir Jha Movie Documentary Film

DS: The soundscape, which alternates between solitude and the immaculate ambient sound of nature, helps the viewer conjure up a vision of a place far, far away from the din and bustle. How did the sound designer, Dhiman Karmakar, contribute to creating the aural space of the film?

SJ: The landscape of Jharkhand is unique. The film is shot over the course of a year, during all four seasons. Dhiman did full research on the seasonal birds and the landscape. It has around 15 folk songs. I have wanted to work with him for a long time, but it did not happen with the previous project. This was the first time I worked with Dhiman, but I was aware of his work, which I admire a lot. [The] shooting [had] no schedule, so having a sound recordist was a challenge. I had a crew of two, including myself, so Binod Hansda was also assisting and translating, and I taught him a little bit of sound recording. He recorded the sound on location. With that, I approached Dhiman with a rough soundscape of the film. Further, he discussed and improved it in terms of sounding natural and realistic while keeping the same rawness, which I felt worked a lot for this film.

DS: Dharti Latar Re Horo is anything but conventional in its treatment, and you have dared to address an issue that many filmmakers tend to avoid. How are you planning to distribute and release the film?

SJ: I chose to go with a more conventional and accessible treatment for the film due to the language barrier. The treatment of the film evolved from listening to the perspectives of my protagonists. The film has received positive reviews at numerous film festivals; however, it remains difficult to find a place for this type of film on major OTT platforms. After the film festival rounds are completed, we plan to reach out to OTT platforms that are interested in this type of film.

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DS: Are you currently developing any other project?

SJ: I have a few ideas that I’m interested in developing further, including a single-person story that I have been working on for quite some time.

Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.

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