Long trek to track and shoot tribes

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By Staff Reporter
  • Published 4.03.04
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One is a 28-year old filmmaker with six years of work already behind him. The other is a decade older than him and his work with the camera has been for even longer.

Meet Subhrajit Mitra and Rabin Dey, who have just finished shooting 23 rigorous hours of footage on the little-known Ambengs tribe of the West Garo hills in Meghalaya, and their annual festival, the ‘Wangala’.

Those 23 hours are currently being whittled down to a 40-minute pilot episode of a series on lesser-known tribes of the Himalayas — Himalayas: Unsung Unseen. The pilot, among other things, will decide whether National Geographic will buy the series or fund the rest of it. “The concept and script have been approved by National Geographic,” said Mitra, “and the budgeting is currently being done.”

Always passionate about making films, a degree in software engineering could not dampen the enthusiasm for Mitra, who simultaneously did a diploma in filmmaking. A foray into telefilms and features followed, including working with Shyam Benegal as production assistant for two years in films such as Sardari Begum and The Making of Mahatma.

The move to documentary really happened through Dey, who prefers to work with the form. Mitra has done the research, screenplay and creative direction for the documentary while Dey has manned the camera. “We were thinking about doing something on the various tribes of India in November last year, when we heard of the Wangala festival,” recalled Mitra.

“The festival sees an annual get-together of 12 Garo sub-tribes, along with the Ambengs, with over 300 dancers paying tribute to the tribal gods.” The Ambengs, of Tibetan origin and over 2,000 years old, are one of the 12 sub-tribes of the Achiks (popularly called Garos).

Government help was needed for the project and the Meghalaya government provided a lot of it. “The tribes live in dense, unreachable jungles which we could access only by helicopters. Terrorism is also a worrying factor. The government provided security, waived certain fees and eased the permission processes,” said Mitra. This was in addition to the risks of filming the private lives of the tribes, completely out of touch with the world and with habits like eating “any living creature on land and water”.

The post-production work is expected to be completed by March 10, as a 25-member team works at a furious pace. Next in line is screening the pilot at international film festivals — 15 of them have been short-listed so far by the city-based duo — and then a possible deal with National Geographic. “Several steps are involved in that,” said Mitra.

The series, as conceptualised, will have 13 episodes on tribes residing in the Indian Himalayas and 13 more on those settled in the Himalayas outside India. Already, a German distributor has offered US $50,000 for the distribution rights in Germany, claims Mitra.

It’s a wait for the duo till a decision is reached by National Geographic. Then it will be another long trek in search of the tribes.