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Southern Lights: The Old Man And The Hill, Film Companion
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Director: Girish Kasaravalli

Cast: Soundarya, Avinash, M. V. Vasudeva Rao, Harish Raju

Only the lower gates of the dam have been closed, and already the water levels have climbed to half the height of the hill known as Sita’s Peak, home to a few hundred tribals. Soon, the upper gates will be closed. How will the little household at the film’s centre – father Dugajja, son Ganappa, daughter-in-law Nagi – hold on? The neighbours are slowly leaving, but this family depends on a rite Dugajja performs at a local shrine, a rite named Nema. For generations, this family has been the custodian of this shrine, this rite.

Hence this plea by Ganappa to the Relief Officer who wants him to just take his compensation and clear out: “If we move to a new place, the money you give us can buy us a meal, but not this respect. Can you compensate for the honour and dignity our people give us?” An aide at the office says that the government has fixed the compensations according to the value of the land, the house – according to “assets,” in other words. “But these people have no such property.” Essentially, he’s calling them squatters. He’s telling them that even this compensation money is more than what they are rightfully owed.

Ganappa insists. “But we have respect and honour. How does one assess honour and dignity? Evaluate us by the way we live. Don’t measure our life with your yardstick.” And we come to the crux of the matter. How does one reconcile the corroborative necessities of modern law and the easygoing flow of an ancient way of life? It’s the difference between a dam and a river, and the Relief Officer seems touched by Ganappa’s insistence. He sets out with a team to verify Ganappa’s claim.

Dugajja leads them further up the hill, climbing like a goat, easily outpacing the much-younger men panting behind him. They reach the spot after which the hill is named: Sita’s Peak. And we get a sweet little irony. This spot offers a beautiful view of the dam below

On the hill, Dugajja takes over. He leads the team to the shrine and narrates the legend behind it. “There once lived a tyrannical king. He tortured farmers. One of the farmers rebelled, and the king got him killed. That farmer, in turn, became a spirit, and took revenge by killing the king. The spirit of that farmer is worshipped here.” An aide of the Relief Officer, holding a book of property records, has only this to say: “Our records show this temple isn’t yours.”

Dugajja says, “It is.” The aide asks, “Did your forefathers build this shrine?” Ganappa butts in. “The villagers did…” The aide shakes his head, surely annoyed at what he already knew was a waste of everyone’s time. “Then it’s public property, not your own. How can you claim compensation for that?” Ganappa glances back at the idol in the shrine, as though perplexed at having to prove something this obvious. “But the villagers believe that…”

The Relief Officer intervenes. “Don’t mix faith and facts. One’s belief cannot become truth for others. For it to become truth, it should have an entry in the government records. Show us something that belongs to you.” And so Dugajja leads them further up the hill, climbing like a goat, easily outpacing the much-younger men panting behind him. They reach the spot after which the hill is named: Sita’s Peak. And we get a sweet little irony. This spot offers a beautiful view of the dam below.

Dugajja attempts, again, to convince the team. “When Rama and Sita were in exile, they would sit here and share their joys and sorrows… Officer sir, we belong to the tribe that helped Rama in his exile.” By now, the Relief Officer has abandoned all pretence of a serious evaluation. He laughs, “Such fairy tales won’t strengthen your case. The hills are state property. Show us concrete evidence.”

Will the dense bamboo grove help? That’s where Dugajja takes them next. He points to the trees around and says, “Nagi makes baskets, fishing nets from this. They are in huge demand. She earns 500 rupees every year.” The Relief Officer says, “Thank your stars I am not a forest officer. Don’t you know the cutting of bamboo is prohibited?”

Dugajja storms off in a huff. When Ganappa catches up, he says, “There’s no point in talking to them. They all sing the same song. ‘This tree isn’t yours. The shrine isn’t yours.’ If you let them go on, they’ll even say this loin cloth isn’t ours and snatch it away.” Later, at home, he tells Nagi that the Relief Officer has no brains. “They consider only farmland as property. But do we think so? We consider this hill, this river, this forest as everyone’s. There’s no ours and theirs.” He says he will never leave Sita’s Peak.

Nagi is worried that the monsoon will set in soon. They must leave before that, otherwise the waters will rise over their heads. Dugajja scoffs at her fears. “Are you mad? Rama and Sita lived here. This sacred place will never submerge.”

Watch the film here:

 

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