Art & Entertainment

'Tortoise Under The Earth': A Story Of Mining In Jharkhand That Reveals The Faultline Of 'Development'

Uranium mining in Jharkhand has been going on since 1980s resulting into huge displacement of Adivasis. Focusing on the loss and dispossession, Shishir Jha’s recent film 'Tortoise Under the Earth' looks at the entanglement of myth, memory and mining.

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'Tortoise Under The Earth': A Story Of Mining In Jharkhand That Reveals The Faultline Of 'Development'
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A couple coping with both the loss of their daughter and the anxiety of displacement due to uranium mining in a remote part of Jharkhand shape Shishir Jha’s recent film Tortoise Under the Earth. The docu-fiction screened at different international and national film festivals have grabbed the eyes of the critics through its nuanced understanding of Santhal culture and struggles against uranium mining. Jha speaks to Outlook’s Abhik Bhattacharya about his journey. Excerpts:   

In the 1980s, uranium was found in Jharkhand and since then dispossession and displacement of the Adivasis have been regular phenomena. Yet hardly any work has been done on this. What drove you to work on this?

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The rural people in the state, even before the identification of uranium, realised its presence. As you see, at the very beginning of the film, we reflect on their beliefs. The presence of the banyan tree symbolically represents the presence of ghosts. Far before the scientific evidence came up, they understood where the uranium concentration was high.

At Jadugoda, in East Singhbhum district, children were born deformed. People thought it was due to some magical power, but in reality, extensive uranium contamination was the reason. With time, scientists came and uranium extraction started and they became aware of it. Turamdih, where we shot our docu-fiction, is a new tailing pond near Talsa village.

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What is a tailing pond and what are its effects?

A tailing pond is a sort of man-made pond where uranium waste is disposed of. There are some scientific measures that need to be taken for safety—like there shouldn’t be any people in the nearby area. This tailing pond not only enhances exposure but also overflows sometimes, making things worse.

Turamdih is around 10–12 km from Jadugoda. There is a continuous expansion of mining and now they have reached Turamdih. In Jadugoda, there is also a tailing pond and now Turamdih is the new spot.

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A poster of the movie

There are hardly any reports in the media, even in the vernacular media. So, how did you get there? Tell us about your journey.

I studied at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. I have a huge interest in folk stories. The work of Paul Olaf Bodding on Santhals influenced me a lot. While I was reading his book Folklores of Santhal Pargana, I was really driven by the thought that despite this place being so near to my native district Darbhanga, I never knew much about it. At this juncture, I decided to leave my corporate job to learn and work on it. Bodding’s work dates back to pre-Independence times. So, I started to read some contemporary literature and I found The Adivasi Will Not Dance by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar. These two books were very inspirational sources of material.

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As an outsider, I tried to understand the Adivasis first through books and then decided to move into the place to get the first-hand account of Santhals and their culture. For the first two months, I simply roamed around East Singhbhum without thinking about what the story would be. I just wanted to understand the culture. Social activist, Jeetrai Hansda, accompanied me throughout the journey. He guided me about the culture and other aspects of Santhal lives. I realised that Bodding’s Santhal is far away from today’s Santhals—there are new problems, new possibilities and new issues.

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Caught in Frames: Stills from the film

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Iranian filmmaker Abbasi Kiarostami once said, “The day Iran will run out of petrol, Iran will be free.” In a similar manner, Jharkhand has mining and the culture and ‘everyday’ of its people is now contaminated with mining. I could relate with Kiarostami’s words so well. After roaming around for two months, I accidentally had an encounter with the protagonist couple of my film. While roaming around, I saw copper mining as well, but I was not interested in making a story on mining. Rather, I was looking for a human interest story.

So, then you found the couple who lost their daughter...

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Yeah. Nothing can be apolitical. So, I wanted to uphold the story in such a way that it connects to the people. You can see in the film that mining is part of the story.

‘Nothing can be apolitical. So, I wanted to uphold the story in such a way that it connects to the people,’ Film Maker Shishir Jha

When I was going through Turamdih, I found the landscape somehow haunting—definitely not in a ghostly sense. There was something unnatural. I had no clue that it was uranium mining. There was something different in its essence, the sound, the smell. Then, Binod Hansda, who accompanied me for a year and helped me in shooting the film, made me aware of this uranium mining.

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I started meeting people and got to know about their displacement, dispossession, loss of land and home. Many of them were evicted but were not given jobs.

What was your experience in the field? How were you received? Tell us more about your ground experience.

When I met the couple, they were extremely welcoming. The way we show our homes to the guests, he took me across the jungle to show his ‘home’. With him, I treaded through his childhood memories, learnt the mythological stories, and heard about the utilities of the jungle. There was a certain connection that I could feel.

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Caught in Frames: Stills from the film

See, what I understood before shooting them was it was their story. They guided me throughout the journey. I was just the learner. Their culture and mythological stories were so embedded into their lives that the story took it along. The film starts with Sohrai, the thanksgiving ritual when we reap the crop, and ends in Baha, when we sow the seed. So, it is a cultural journey of Santhals for one year, a cycle you can say.

What was the reason behind choosing the title Tortoise Under the Earth?

Belonging comes whenever you know someone’s history only. Jagarnath Baskey told me the stories several times. According to their belief, the world was beneath water in ancient times. Earthworms dug it and had put the soil on the tortoise’s back, which brought it up and is still now holding the earth on its back.

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In the film, there is also a conversation where Jagarnath’s wife asks him whether the tortoise could be found as the people have been digging so deep. As the film goes along with the mythology and talks about the digging, I chose the name.

Did you find any protest emerging against the displacement?

Look, activism of all kinds are all around. People are talking about it. They are well aware of the tailing pond, the deadly effects of uranium. But what can they do? They are not going to leave their land. And rightly so, why should they? It is against human dignity.

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How are you planning to disseminate the film? How is the response?

It is very difficult to disseminate such films to people apart from festival circles. Still, we are chalking it out. Whoever has watched it has given a positive response. We will take this to the villages where it had been shot as well and will show it to them. We together will have to work to disseminate it across regions to make people aware of the reality of mining and its consequent developments.  

(This appeared in the print edition as "Digging The Tortoise to Death")

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