Ever heard of Jadav Payeng? In case you haven't, an environmental activist from Jorhat, Assam, Payeng was honoured with the Padma Shri this year for single-handedly planting and tending trees covering an area of 1,400 acres. He turned the area into a lush forest reserve. In 2013, documentary filmmaker Aarti Shrivastava captured his selfless work in the film Foresting Life.
President Pranab Mukherjee presents the Padma Shri to Mishing tribe environmental activist Jadav Payeng. (PTI)
You hardly come across such inspiring tales on a regular basis. In fact, geologists fear that there could be a link between climate change and natural disasters. According to Newsweek, University College London's Bill McGuire, professor emeritus of geophysical and climate hazards, said, "Climate change could play a critical role in triggering certain faults in certain places where it could kill a hell of a lot of people". The recent Nepal earthquakes are the biggest examples.
So, how do we deal with environmental crisis? The first step is to educate the people which can be done through films which are a strong medium. In a country that absolutely loves Bollywood, the industry can be the harbinger of change. Sadly, though, there is an insignificant number of films addressing the issue while Hollywood's already made blockbusters on it. Remember Avatar, Erin Brockovich, Bambi, The Day After Tomorrow and FernGully: The Last Rainforest?
James Cameron's Avatar talks about the lush alien world of Pandora where the primitive but highly evolved Na'vi beings reside away from the poisonous environment (top), whereas Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich talks about a cover-up involving contaminated water in a local community which is causing illnesses among its residents (bottom).
By far, the most popular Bollywood film that hogged the limelight is Girish Malik's Jal starring Purab Kohli. A 2013 film, set in the Rann of Kutch, it is about an overconfident water diviner named Bakka (Purab Kohli), who tries to solve the drought problem in his village. Another film that fleetingly highlights water problems is Nagesh Kukunoor's Dor.
Earlier this year Jayaraj's Ottaal, an adaptation of Anton Chekov's short story Vanka, won the Best Film on Environment Conservation/ Preservation at the 62nd National Film Awards. However, the Malayalam film which highlights the problems of fish-kill (a sudden appearance of dead fish in a lake or pond due to lack of oxygen or depleting water levels) failed to bag a nomination at the other popular Indian award ceremonies.
Why? The answers are innumerable. But at the most basic level, most content-driven films without a star value fail to make it big. So, is it a little too harsh if we say that each one of us is to be blamed? The mainstream film makers may get away by saying that the Indian audience is not yet ready for such films, but just like sex, violence and 'sanskari' values have been glamourised with an intent to sell, isn't it time the same be done for films on environment? Now, don't make that face. A film on a 'serious' issue doesn't necessarily need to be boring. Remember Buddhadev Dasgupta's Bengali film Bagh Bahadur?
Located between Dibrugarh and Tinsukia districts of Assam, Jeypore sanctuary is one of the three parts of Dehing Patkai, the only rainforest in Assam. The film Boraxhat Aranya talks about the illegal logging in the area (top), while Bagh Bahadur is a film about a man who paints himself as a tiger and dances around the village demonstrating the hardships of a rural life (bottom).
Until now mainstream filmmakers have smartly steered clear of investing in such projects, but they can easily come up with ways to repackage it for the Indian audience. They can even take inspiration from Indian documentary filmmakers. One such example is Boraxhat Aranya (The Rainforest) by Diganata Mazumdar. The film, based on a real life incident, talks about a dedicated forester, Dipankar Dutta who single handedly fights the evils of illegal logging, corruption and poaching in Jeypore Sanctuary. The film brings the focus back to Assam's heavy deforestation, in fact so large that the forests have dwindled to half the size.
A few other noteworthy films are Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh's Timbaktu (the story of an entire community living an organically sustainable lifestyle with its focus on nurturing and respecting the land), Biju Toppo and Meghnath Bhattacharjee's Iron is Hot (a film about India's sponge iron industry and its health hazard) and Anirban Dutta's In For Motion (an account of farmers who lost their land to the rapid expansion in Kolkata). Unfortunately such films only have a limited audience as they are screened at film fests.
It's high time that Bollywood supports content driven films that are about more than just romance, revenge or urban problems. Bringing films on environmental crisis to the mainstream is a must with big names addressing the issue. In a country where Bollywood and its actors have cult following, it is the only hope that's left.
Note: According to a 2013 World Bank report, in the last 20 years, the Asia-Pacific has accounted for 61% of global losses from disasters, with more than 1.6 billion people affected in the region since 2000. Experts are of the opinion that the excess rainfall and its ebb and flow in the river deltas of India and Bangladesh have affected the underlying tectonic plates which in turn triggered the Nepal earthquakes or at the least hastened its occurrence.
(The author tweets as @deekshitabaruah . The views expressed are personal.)