| A TALE TO TELL: Director Naren Banerjee with Akuli and her brother
Akuli Majhi is seven years old. The Santhal girl wakes up at sunrise every morning, walks 10 km from her village, Kalabani, in Purulia, to gather the cows, spends all day grazing them, returns them to their owners in the evening and then walks back home. For this, she gets paid in kind, grain equivalent to around Rs 40, once a year. The child gets no holidays and survives on a diet of rice and water.
She, along with her family, is the subject of a moving docu-feature film, Akuli, a 34-minute, black-and-white portrayal of the daily drudgery of their lives, and their acceptance of it. Akuli has two sisters and two brothers. Her elder sister is married, but has not been collected by her in-laws, and continues to stay at home.
Older brother Santosh, nine, accompanies Akuli on her rounds every day. The pair bathes, plays by climbing trees and hanging off branches and eats on the journey through the day, with only a stick and a worn-out umbrella as tools of the trade. AkuIi’s father was a herder himself, but had to retire due to eye problems.
“I was driving through the area one day, when suddenly, I saw this huge herd of cows being led by a slip of a girl, barely as tall as the animals themselves, and an older boy. I stopped to chat with them and ended up spending about six hours on their travels over Ayodhya Pahar. That was when I decided that I had to make a film on them,” says director Naren Banerjee. The man, originally from Purulia, says he connected with the kids through the language and then went in search of their home, to speak to the family. “I spent many weeks meeting and understanding the people,” he adds.
Under the aegis of his company, Shooter’s Paradise, which the 30-year-old started in Calcutta three years ago to sell filming equipment, Banerjee took about three months to script, shoot and score the music for the film, produced by Nandita Moitra. To be released “soon” at Nandan, Akuli has already been invited to film festivals in Kerala in August and Mumbai in October.
For Banerjee, who spent the past 10 years working in Mumbai and Delhi, there’s more in store. He’s working on two other docu-features — one entitled Rashmonir Agun, about an old dom woman working at the cremation ground, and another on Subhash Mahato, a 17-year-old, one-legged Chhau dancer from Jharkhand. Armed with these three poignant tales of survival, Banerjee intends to make it to international film festivals.
As a 20-year-old, he left home to make it in Tollywood as a camera ‘caretaker’. When knocking on numerous doors produced no response, he took up still photography and left for Delhi, and then Mumbai, and was also the West Bengal government’s official photographer in the Purulia armsdrop case. The switch to film-making proved fruitful, when he graduated from light boy to assistant cameraman and then cinematographer, working on commercial projects with names like Tinnu Anand, and even trying his hand at Hindi docu-features as director.
“I have learnt everything through experience, since I have no formal training. So I don’t know how Akuli will be received, especially since it is my first Bengali film. Besides, there is no money in documentaries in India. I have already spent more than Rs 6 lakh on this one film, with more work still needed on post-production, with no hope of any profits. My aim, though, is to concentrate on this area, before I make any commercial films, because there are stories I want to tell. I can’t change the world or the system, but I can make people think. And thankfully, a few producers have come forward and I am hopeful,” Banerjee sums up.