The Jengaburu Curse’s Nila Madhab Panda Turns His Camera on Odisha

The director, whose oeuvre is occupied with needling the social conscience of the public, returns with a SonyLIV television series on mining in Odisha
The Jengaburu Curse’s Nila Madhab Panda Turns His Camera on Odisha

One of the first visuals director Nila Madhab Panda remembers seeing on television is the telecast of former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s last rites after her assassination in 1984. Panda remembers the newsreel like an anecdote: “A colour TV had come to a doctor’s residence, who lived nine kilometres from our home. I didn’t realise that something on TV could move us like this. It was surreal on some level. What I was feeling after watching those visuals was from the beyond,” recounts Panda, “That was my earliest tryst with what images could do.”

Born in a village called Dashrajpur in the Sonepur district in Odisha, Panda is one of the few filmmakers from the state to have made an impact on mainstream storytelling. In the process, Panda has built a distinctive body of work, with his films tilting towards social and ecological awareness. In his latest, Sony LIV’s seven-part series called The Jengaburu Curse, Panda follows the fictitious Bondria tribe, who are displaced overnight by a mining company, labelled Naxals and are denied water from the local river due to how polluted the water has become. The situation is untenable — the members of the tribe are at the risk of developing egregious health issues. Starring Faria Abdullah, Nassar among others, the show looks at the economic priorities of the state of Odisha, which is rarely represented in commercial ventures (besides the mention of Kalahandi, one of the poorest regions in the country) at a time when it seems to have also embraced the idea of private jets.

Odisha as Inspiration

A lot of Panda’s works like Kaun Kitne Paani Mein (2015), Kadvi Hawa (2018) as well as his latest Sony LIV series borrow from folklore and fables. It emanates from Odisha’s strong oral storytelling culture, much like Bengal and Assam. “I was really attached to this old fisherman, who would get bored alone on his boat. So, he would take me along and as a way of paying me back, he would tell me stories,” said Panda. “The culture was he told me a story, and I should go and tell the story to somebody else. Just like how we gossip in the industry!” Panda pointed to Odisha being a state that celebrates 13 festivals in 12 months, along with jatra performances among other folk arts, as a reason for films not enjoying as huge a influence in this state, compared to nearby states like West Bengal and Telangana.

Growing up in a joint family, as the youngest amongst 12 sisters and seven brothers, Panda was not very academically-inclined. He was the first member of the family to fail in eighth grade. Despite this, he scraped through 12th grade with a third division. However, scoring 7.5 out of 75 in a Chemistry paper became the death knell for his brief college life. After taking a loan of Rs 15,000 from his family, Panda went to Delhi to join the National Institute of Sales in 1994 to train in marketing, an especially lucrative prospect in a newly liberalised economy. “I started off as a part-timer selling Nokia phones. I went and sold my first phone to Malayendra Kishore Chaudhuri, father of Arindam Chaudhuri, founder of Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), in 1997,” claimed Panda. 

From Doordarshan Documentaries to Movies

Almost serendipitously, he chanced upon a fellow Odiya man, who was the cameraperson for Doordarshan documentaries, and Panda convinced him to let Panda carry the cameras on shoot days as a part of the crew. Slowly familiarising himself with lenses and other components, Panda began freelancing as a cameraperson himself. “About a year later, a filmmaker called Robin Romanov was producing a documentary called Stolen Childhoods (2005), and he needed a local cameraperson for shoots across India. I joined the crew. The window opened and I was able to do what I wanted,” said Panda. Soon, he began to work on government-commissioned documentaries on social issues like female foeticide and child labour, which informs how he still aligns idealism with his films till date.

After a decade of diverse assignments, including a United Nations’ fellowship in 2004 and a scholarship from Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore (IIM-B) in 2006, Panda captured widespread attention with his feature film debut, I am Kalam (2010). The small, sincere indie debut, where the most recognisable faces were Gulshan Grover and Pitobash Tripathy, found its audience but gradually. Panda recalled how the idea for the film began to take shape: Sometime in 2002 or 2003, he encountered a child in a public restroom at Balasore railway station, and during their two-hour conversation the youngster earnestly proclaimed, “I will rule this country one day.” This encounter fuelled Panda’s exploration of the children’s expansive potential to dream. In I am Kalam, he skilfully manages to preserve a child’s purity which enables them to aspire, without feeling confined by their material limitations.

The “Water Trilogy”

Arguably, the zenith of Panda's cinematic career so far is Kaun Kitne Paani Mein, a film boasting a stellar star cast that includes Kunal Kapoor, Radhika Apte, Saurabh Shukla and Gulshan Grover. Through this film, Panda navigates the depths of water conservation, soil remineralisation, and the intricate tapestry of social stratification in rural locations, dictated by caste and class distinctions. Remarkably, even while addressing grave subjects such as honour killings, the film manages to retain its lightness, and not surrender to a self-serious tone. Panda adeptly interweaves subtle humour with his ideological discourse, an accomplishment that is not quite as prominent in Kadvi Hawa despite a remarkable performance by Sanjay Mishra.

There's a clear thread running through Kaun Kitne Paani Mein, Kadvi Hawa, and Kalira Atita (2021), forming what Panda fondly refers to as his “water trilogy”. Kadvi Hawa grapples with droughts in the Chambal region and cyclones on the Odisha coast, both simultaneous outcomes of climate change. Kalira Atita follows a man (Pitobash Tripathy) who returns to his village after it's been engulfed by a cyclone, tragically claiming his loved ones. One might argue that Panda's filmmaking prowess has experienced some decline with each project, as evidenced by his 2018 creation, Halkaa. This film traces the journey of a young boy residing in a Delhi shanty, who aspires to relieve himself in a proper toilet instead of using the railway track. Many insinuated that the film had propagandist overtones, and felt like a mouthpiece for the government's ‘Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan’ campaign.

Panda defended his work by explaining that he merely sought to explore a child's dream, akin to his debut film. "It was a straightforward film — circumstances coincided with the initiative. In my youth, we'd go to the nearby river, but the stench was so overwhelming that we'd resort to plastic for our needs. It was a simple notion of a child, nothing beyond that." Nevertheless, instances abound where Panda's meticulousness seems lacking, evident in his latest venture, The Jengaburu Curse. While the show manages to captivate for a significant stretch, it becomes somewhat sluggish towards its conclusion, detracting from its overall impact.

Although there's scope for refinement in his craftsmanship, Panda's intentions seem noble. One commendable aspect of Panda's nearly 25-year career is his conscious detachment from Mumbai, even as he collaborates with actors from the city. "I've always aimed to maintain some distance because my focus is on contemplating my subjects rather than discussing films incessantly," said Panda. "I believe it's contributed to preserving my sanity."

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