Director: Nila Madhab Panda
Writer: Nila Madhab Panda, Mayank Tewari
Cast: Faria Abdullah, Nassar, Sudev Nair, Makrand Deshpande, Shrikant Verma, Deepak Sampat, Maninee De
The chicken-and-egg conundrum of Indian cinema is: Does the intent come first or the craft? In other words, is it enough for a narrative to be ‘important’ or technically sound? Ideally, it should be both. But the fact is that these two traits tend to be mutually exclusive – especially in terms of social-impact storytelling that also strives for mainstream identity. If this conundrum had a name today, it would be Nila Madhab Panda. The National-award winning director has tackled with everything from child labour (I Am Kalam, 2010) and sanitation (Halkaa, 2018) to water shortage (Kaun Kitne Paani Mein, 2015; Kadvi Hawa, 2017) and climate change (Kalira Atita, 2020). His focus on ecological and cultural issues has been unerring over the years. However, his language of fiction is a deal breaker of sorts.
Most of these titles play out like documentaries that are reverse-engineered into plots for mass consumption. Which is still fine; that’s the name of the game. But a lot of the design lacks technical prowess and production value – the very fundamentals of film-making – almost as if a subject’s authenticity is meant to atone for its rough-cut drama. His long-form debut, The Jengaburu Curse, is defined by this skewed balance of some substance and no style. I found myself constantly wanting to get behind the intent and geopolitics and regional insight, but the execution kept making it harder to root for.
Marketed as India’s first “Cli-fi” (climate-fiction) show, the seven-episode series finds the right land to dig. Set in the fertile world of illegal mining, tribal displacement and Naxal violence, it inflates an industrial-apathy tale into a global nuclear thriller activated by a missing-father story. The cli-fi is clumsily stretched to breaking point – inches short of a science-versus-mythology theme – in pursuit of a simple nature-plundering message.
A London-based financial analyst named Priya Das (Faria Abdullah) rushes back to Odisha when her father – professor and long-time activist Swatantra Das – is declared missing. The police declare he has been abducted by the Naxals, the media pounce on this narrative, and Priya is placed under protection. As the days pass, though, she starts to see through the smokescreen. She learns that the truth is far more complex – her father and his colleagues may have ruffled powerful feathers with their anti-mining activism and solo investigations. Priya is slowly sucked into a conspiracy that forces her to confront her own identity as a ‘displaced’ Gondria tribe member fighting for justice. As it turns out, this spirited NRI daughter is up against a deadly nexus of institutional power and international corruption. Dissenters are killed, phones are tapped, deals with North Korea are cracked, JNU (Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University) graduates are accused of being Naxal sympathizers, and top-secret mining sites are infiltrated.
I like the real-world specificity of the characters. There’s a guilt-ridden IAS officer, who seems to be waging a lone battle in a broken system. A local doctor and his wife keep the rebel movement alive in the face of dwindling resources and government surveillance. A modest constable ends up protecting Priya against his corrupt colleagues. A greedy police inspector dances to the whims of corporations and politicians. An ex-army-man works as a sinister agent for a private mining firm. A rotten minister softens when he is diagnosed with lung cancer. A British whistleblower hustles to find evidence through local fixers. An honest auditor decides to investigate the mysterious site.
There’s also an unusually kind NGO veteran who insists on steering Priya through the bureaucratic mess. You can tell these people emerge from a lived-in and well-researched reading of the place. Each of them represents a victim of society that, if isolated from the narrative, morphs into disparate underdog stories. As an outsider, Priya Das becomes the frantic lens through which the viewer engages with this ecosystem. The series transforms Priya into an urgent disrupter – a successor to her father’s legacy – by keeping her on the run. Her journey features plenty of escaping, bleeding, awakening, hyperventilating, crying and sleuthing. Which is to say: The fabric of this series, at least on paper, is compelling. It has all the ingredients of a knotty eco-espionage drama. Including a solid opening credit sequence, which features a mix of tribal art, narrative nods and composer Alokananda Dasgupta’s haunting score.
But that’s where the (green) cookie crumbles. The Jengaburu Curse falters at the strangest hurdles. Take, for instance, the naive staging of scenes. Priya is introduced as a corporate hotshot, but while speaking to her boss, she sprinkles mineral water on a random plant as an unsubtle act of foreshadowing. When she reaches Odisha and has a press conference, the reporters scoff at her job like Eighties’ Bollywood villains (“financial analyst? LOL”) and mock her for not talking in Odia. When a crucial character is killed while crossing a river, the water turns red in separate cartoonish shots, after which the camera shows the rebels awkwardly wading across like they’re in stealth mode (they’re not). You can almost hear the crew quickly canning the shot before the light fades.
Another example is when the doctor and his wife do an awful job of hiding in the back of a truck at a checkpoint – they can clearly be seen, yet for the sake of the shot, the cops have to pretend like they’re invisible. At another point, Priya’s childhood friend talks to her like a giant exposition dump: “You went to London School of Economics and became a gold medallist without tuition and support, you are great”. At another point, the camera jerks while shooting an abduction scene, but this is passed off as gritty visual grammar. The reaction shots of characters are stilted, too, always holding for a few seconds more than necessary. The chase sequences – and there are many, across jungles and cities – lack the timing and finishing touch, both in terms of performance and colour correction.
A series of this scale can’t afford to look tacky. The dubbing can’t afford to look so incidental – Nassar’s character, in particular, seems to have had much of his dialogue added in post production. A phone call can’t afford to sound like an in-person chat. The shady Asian businessmen in a scene can’t afford to sound like Indians putting on a Japanese-Russian accent. A group of angry locals led by Priya can’t afford to sneak into a heavily secured mining site and expose it as if this were a kiddie Spy Games set in a finale that hurriedly diffuses four hours of build-up. The climactic scenes look spoofy; the action just spills over from one moment to the next, without any emotional continuity. This craft bleeds into the plausibility of the premise. The true nature of a character is revealed midway through the series as if it were some grand twist that wasn’t already obvious with the casting of a popular actor. Most of all, the “mystery” of what is being mined at the site – a place repeatedly seen in evil-castle-like aerial shots – is milked till the final minutes of the series. By then it barely matters what the rare mineral is, what the secret lab is doing, or what its world-ending powers are; the writing focuses on all the wrong revelations.
There’s no reason to treat everything like a twist. This feels like a consequence of the fact that the film-making looks physically incomplete. It may sound like nitpicking, but these things matter. The details add up to disorient the viewer and distract from a landscape worth mining. Sometimes, we hope to tolerate the fragile craft in order to appreciate the intent. Particularly when the intent is novel and curious. Odisha deserves the awareness as well as the scrutiny. But a series like The Jengaburu Curse, unlike a feature-length drama, has nowhere to hide. Making a statement is futile if the words are all jumbled. Finding a niche is self-defeating when the voice lacks conviction. This is the new-age curse of the Socially Cognisant Storyteller.