We recognise now that in a bid to make India the next Shanghai, the way of life of millions of people is being altered, inconspicuously. What is curious is the fact that these transformations are hardly ever spoken about by the urban media which seems content to focus on the gloss and leave the details of corruption, land grab, harassment and exploitation out of their stories.
Documentary films have played a huge role in initiating a debate around development politics. Pankaj Rishi Kumar's new film titled In God's Land does just the same, presenting the viewer with arguments from all sides. The film documents the journey of a tiny village – Inam Alungalam in Tamil Nadu which is robbed off its land in order to construct a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Interestingly, the SEZ and the politics of such a concept of development are not directly spoken about in the film. "It was a conscious decision to not make it an all-out anti-SEZ film. Rather, I wanted to look at all aspects of life in that village without taking sides", said Pankaj Rishi Kumar, the director of the film. The film's stand is pretty clear though not thrust in your face, a directorial choice that works brilliantly for it allows the audience to engage with the issue on their own, making up their minds individually without being spoon-fed a 'point of view'.
Land penetrates every aspect of life for those who till it and this deep connect gets reflected in the film as well.
In God's Land also raises some very interesting questions about the nexus between the state and temple authorities of the Vanamamalai Temple which owns and controls land worth millions in surrounding villages. "How does a temple come to own so much landed property in independent India?" the film asks. While continuing to pay rent to the temple, the villagers claim rights over the land through accounts of oral history tracing their lineage back to the original six clans who turned the barren land into a wet and fertile one. Here Kumar uses some wonderfully done animation to chart the mythical birth of their village. "Oral history accounts are difficult to relate on film. Animation allowed me to recreate in some way the emotion with which these stories were narrated to me" he added. It is in these animation sequences that Kumar's stand on the issue comes through most clearly, in the way he satirizes temple authorities or in his critique of exploitation sanctioned by religion.
Despite this deep and historical relationship with the land that they till, the villagers are unexpectedly left landless when the temple sells off their land in a hush-hush deal with the state some ten years ago. "Today, more than a decade later, the land remains as it is without any construction in all these years. Perfectly fertile land was first declared barren and now it is just laying waste", said Kumar.
Land penetrates every aspect of life for those who till it and this deep connect gets reflected in the film as well where Kumar litters the narrative with sights and sounds from the fields. By focussing on land and in effect provoking questions about larger theories of development, Kumar facilitates a reflection on the oppressive nature of development ideals that rarely benefit those who are asked to make life altering sacrifices. One is left wondering what fate other areas might be left to if this is how life for people living on this god's land ended up becoming.