‘BOM’ (with taglines as interesting as ‘One Day Ahead of Democracy’ and ‘Why Ban the Holy Weed?’), is a documentary, shot, directed and edited by Amlan Datta, which focuses on the remote village of Malana located in the Himalayas. The village “isolated from outside civilization for thousands of years has been fostering a primitive existence in harmony with nature and a unique model of democracy of consensus.” Also, it produces the best quality hashish in the world. The film tackles various issues ranging from mythology, superstitions, elections, village customs and traditions, cannabis, corruption, dichotomy of Indian polity among others. The most interesting aspect about ‘BOM’ is that it is absolutely non-propagandistic. The film does not offer any solution; instead it divulges all sides of the story and leaves it to the viewer to make his/her judgement. The film doles out more than a few uncomfortable truths. As a viewer, one gets acquainted with these harsh realities that the supposedly ‘backward’ parts of the country have been faced with. It is not an unknown fact that a country like India is filled with paradoxes. Our country inhabits the richest and the poorest, the modern and the backward, the saints and the sinners and more importantly, those possessing virtues and those possessing vices. At the beginning of the film, a character talks about there being two mountains, Mt. Virtue and Mt. Vice. In the beginning Mt. Virtue towered about Mt. Vice by quite a humungous margin. However, over the years, as the world has grown to become more negative, Mt. Vice has overtaken by a comfortable margin. It is said that the day Mt. Virtue disappears; the world will come to an end. This sequence appears right at the beginning of the film and gets the viewer into ‘introspective’ mode from the word go!
The documentary is among the best Indian documentaries made in this year (releasing in India in 2012). While it makes no judgement at the end, the vast amount of exposure it gives to this unheard village of Malana, is in itself evidence enough that something is not going right in this country. The tagline ‘One Day Ahead of Democracy’ is a poignant message in itself. Malana may seem ‘backward’, ‘uncivilized’, and ‘rural’ to us urbanites. However, what needs to be taken into consideration is whether the people of Malana have been given enough opportunities. The film makes you reflect and how! It is definitely a must-watch. By the trailers or the promotions, the film may sound as one that’s about legalization of cannabis. However, it goes on to talk about much more. Director Amlan Datta’s exceptional research, keen eye for detail and his brilliant comfort level with the villagers of Malana works wonders for this lovely documentary. The length of the film is just about fine. Long enough to encapsulate all the aspects of Malana along with the Indian democracy itself, and just about short enough to keep you thoroughly engaged.
The ‘protagonist’ of the film is Hemraj. The young man, like most other inhabitants, has spent his entire life in Malana, cut off from the other parts of the country. The people of Malana have their own culture, traditions, and ways of electing chieftains, lifestyle and sadly, their own limited means of livelihood. Most transactions in the village occur through the centuries-old barter system. They have their own system of giving out judgements and their democracy allows every individual’s opinion to be taken into consideration (quite contrary to the present state of affairs in our country touted to be the ‘world’s largest democracy’). The foundation of their civilization, popularly believed to be descendants of the Greek soldiers in Alexander’s army, is based on trust. And since, a given word is considered as gospel, the villagers have brushed aside formal education as well. The villagers have been producing the best quality hashish since several decades. Cannabis has been growing in this region since time immemorial, owing to the grace of Lord Shiva. They’ve used it for medicine, footwear, smoking, consumption etc. However, owing to disconnect with the outside world, the Malana inhabitants have never really known the true value of hashish. They have only traded with sheep wool and it is not enough for them to make ends meet. Apparently, some foreign tourists, back in the 70s, taught the villagers how to rub the cream and hence, prepare the more potent hashish suitable for the international market. This led to the recognition of the Malana cream around the world making it more like a home industry. However, the government used its muscle to bring those, who were breaking the law, under the judicial process. This leads to the government taking an active interest in the apparent ‘uplifting’ of the village. Dams are built, elections are held, bridges are constructed, and electricity, automobiles, cellular phones, educational devices are brought in, while laws relating to cannabis are still kept intact. So while Malana is opening up to the outside world, there is no real source of employment for its people besides cultivation of cannabis. Owing to their financial constraints, people such as Hemraj are forced to get involved in the illegal trade, unaware of the fact that if bought to book, they will be faced with the stringiest punishment possible. The film is about this state of doldrums that Malana finds itself in. To choose between the life inflicted upon them by the government (which, added by the corruption and the opacity in the bureaucracy, is only making it difficult for them) and their own age-old lifestyle which they have grown to become so comfortable with. Director Amlan Datta gets varied opinions from across the board. From the villagers in Malana, you get opinions from people as diverse as the 103-year-old head priest Vudeiram, erstwhile Chief Ministers of State, local politicians from the Congress and the BJP, his own brother-in-law Shanta who gives away profound thoughts about the state of affairs (albeit in a high state).
All perspectives towards the sole topic of inconvenient modernity v/s convenient age-old tradition have been brought out well. The political fervour given to the film towards the end, wherein you have excerpts from the speeches given during election rallies, do rev up the documentary a bit. The contradictions in the speeches of politicians such as Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi will definitely lighten you up. However, the sheer double standards of our politicians will give an immense amount of pain as well. India is a vast country. Cultures, geography, history, languages, traditions, lifestyles across the country are immensely different from one another. Having read up in detail about the making of the world’s largest democracy, there is tremendous amount of respect for the makers of our glorious country. At the same time, the state in which we find ourselves now is quite appalling. Most of our countrymen talk about ‘change’. People in Malana are talking about being ‘resistant to change’. Now, whether to leave people as they are, or to use force to get them attuned to the ways of the rest of the country, is a highly debatable topic. While one may think that the people of Malana should be left alone, the others may get up and say that some of their methods are actually old-world and unacceptable in today’s day and age. Now as tempted as the protesters may be to say that ‘who is to decide what should/should not change?’, it must be remembered that we are a functioning democracy. ‘Change’ can take days, months, years, decades, centuries, millenniums, or sometimes even minutes. Talking about it doesn’t really yield any results. All one gets is fake reassurances. The people of Malana are left in such difficult circumstances that the current situation can either make them or break them. Thoughts go out to this little village, lost somewhere on the enormous map of our country! Malana is the one of thousands of other such villages that has remained disconnected with the outside world all these years, and suddenly find themselves in the middle of our deteriorating democracy. The discussion is left wide open.
Hemraj’s wife Kekti has been sentenced to ten years imprisonment for trafficking hashish. She was never aware about the laws and now, suddenly she has been exposed to this strange world of ours, which truly is becoming a difficult place to survive in. ‘BOM’ is a poignant, thought-provoking film. Watch it and get enlightened.