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Is there a possibility of recovering the poetry, the common possession of humanity, beyond attempts to construct meanings and achieve pre-assessed meanings?

Joshy Joseph’s, taps into the kinetic deposits of memories (of the Mizo community), placing next to it and often, intermingling, interventions of Duniya Mikhail’s poetry (translated and recreated in Malayalam), and filmmaker’s own will to go beyond the ‘unofficial’ martial surveillance imposed on the past, and, resultantly on the present. Joseph becomes a cultural itinerant crossing boundaries of linguistic signs, regimes of imagery, ontology of filmic practices and much more. He gives way to an essayist impulse with not individual but autonomous looking towards his explorative subject. This exchange does not incur a surplus.

The opening image in the film is a sound of shattering glass followed by the movement of drone camera towards the Pukpui night sky (contemporary Mizoram), an almost physical entry. Thereafter the archival footage of the armed struggle of the Mizo from 1966 to 1986 relates the past to the present. Film tip-toes into contemporary Mizo households and communal spaces holding out Mikhail’s poetry in Malayalam translation, enlivened by Joseph’s voice. Everything melds – sound, voice, music, lyricism, visual, imagery, frames, photographs, objects, listening, responding, history, memory, present, time, space, fluttering picture, arrangement of household items, consciousness, feelings, bodies…everything comes together in this constellation. Nunovi’s  aged skin folds encapsulate the untold history of experiences which float in her voice, through her memory, via the conversation with her son unto the surface of the film, into the cognition of the viewer, creating eddies in the consciousness. The simple subject of the conversation – how modern technology mediates and coalesce the community together through the mobile phone technology criss-cross with the other military technology (of war machinery) which tore into the very heart of the community during the Mizo struggle. Personal and communal mourning of the troubled past, its understanding and meaning for the Mizo community in the present is not a matter for rousing political analysis. It is the very matter that resides in their everyday life: in intimacies of bodies in familial and communal relationship, in the household chores, in gazing upto the sky, in religious beliefs, in lived reality, in perceived fractures, the detritus suspended in the air itself.

The film is at once personal, also extending into the world that the filmmaker has ventured into. But film stays in the present, enacting the vital hesitation between image and meaning, enabling human gestures ordinarily subordinated to action or intention. It also sidesteps the dramatic structure, the cause-effect tension, which documentary films have come to master and dwell upon. To put it differently, the beauty of the film can only be experienced, not defined.

So what is Echo from the Pukpui Skies to a viewer?

It is a personal investigation involving both the passion and intellect of the filmmaker; strategy is self-reflective and self-reflexive which makes the film digressive, playful, contradictory, and political. The filmmaker confronts the collective national and cultural memory with what it does not admit, what is invisible, inaudible and ‘othered’. It is a shock out of amnesia. Since the filmmaker has worked out his  style of filmmaking via past films and experiments, the space and time of this film is devoted entirely to explain and show the idea which drives it. The film culls out material from everywhere: affective memory, voice, contemporary understanding, landscape, innocence, half-truths, reflections from elsewhere, poetry, cross-cultural and inter-cultural intersections. Mikhail’s poems are re-rendered in Malayalam; rustling recitation by the filmmaker extends into a lateral montage – from eye to the ear.

German scholar Friedrich Schiller has defined beauty as the refusal of subordination to an external order, while discussing the connection between art and emancipation. The beauty in Echo from the Pukpui Skies, emerges (for the viewer) not just as a matter of understanding it, but feeling, lovingly grasping its appearance. It is this grasp that is a turn from biopolitical to biopoetics; from politics of body/body-politics to grasping the potentiality of bare life. Biopoetics is a movement, mobility, a flight: away from structural ideas of identity politics, towards opening up of ethical dimensions. This links the history of Mizo as well, who do not situate their narratives against or in conjunction with the larger Indian ethos. But as an experienced reality, at the fault lines of actual, historical, forgotten, remembered, forgotten, remorse, assertion. The Mizo identity’s construction is inward-looking and self-referential. This aspect of Mizo community remains intact even after a traumatic past of ‘The Troubles’.  Time has caused a little attrition to the past and filmmaker can barely take notes of elicited half-stories, information and bodily expressions. Several loose ends remain and Joseph seems to have deliberately left them for the viewer to work out.  The film fervently slights the thin ethnographic style of filmmaking that documentary has embraced, especially those produced by the state funded institutions and projects in India. It uses a thick-description style in which visual information is stacked up, analyzed and processed rather than depicted. There is no attempt to gloss over the past, nor is there an attempt to intellectually sympathize with it. What happens then are explorative talks, ending in not acquisitive style of ‘capturing’ or ‘shooting’; not a hostile take-over of the Pukpui hills, but to understand its people, atmosphere, landscape and the rippling affect it creates. The narrating voice floats like water in a rivulet which traces the pebbles, dances with the sunlight, splitting light lovingly but never causing any disturbance or ripple. There are many traditional shots – as found in traditional mode of documentary but all those melt away the moment narrating voice (very soothing by-the-way) whispers history, love, experience, human cost, remainders and reminders into the ears. It is caring, for Mizo community, and by extension, for India and by further extension, the universe.

To take note of Mizo history means to embrace the community. The embrace is not limited to the social gesture of conviviality, but a complete acknowledgement of presence, being, existence, feelings of people. This requires an emphatically aware and attentive understanding. The sensitivity to realize the trauma of : leaving standing crops behind when village regrouping was done , and because land was scarce in the grouping centers, it was soon over-cropped and exhausted; being  harassed by military supervisor  on suspicion of supporting the underground; drop in agricultural yields causing people to became dependent on hard-to-get wage labour and government handouts; on being turned from self-sufficient agriculturalists into needy dependents; drifting into towns in search of work; becoming disoriented and impoverished – all within a span of decade, not long after independence from British. It requires awareness, both political and cultural, to come to terms with traumatic memories of another community. Memories of: being strafed by the military of the country one has political and citizenry affiliation with, of being caught between competing political ideologies, of being judged guilty before examination of facts. It requires a complete understanding that the revolt was as much a demand for political identity as the anger of people driven to a man-made famine, caused due to sheer apathy for people based on cultural ignorance and differences. It calls into question the unequal administrative policies and a complete turn-around in attitudes.

Perhaps the staunchest political statement that the film etches is in its sublime qualities of eliciting a silent empathy, thereby indicating a quiet revolution and re-thinking that gets generated in the viewer. Of course, the institutionalized viewer is likely to experience a cognitive dissonance here. The institutional anxiety of neatly package creative results, obsession for taxonomy and forecasting effects and affects will be frustrated. It is possible that even those looking for an ideological utopian background to MNF will feel stonewalled. That which is not pronounced and mainstream is handled like a bomb scare, after all.

However, viewing such a film is a ‘national duty’, a cultural imperative. To miss a film about a community which signed a peace accord and despite a past of secessionist violence for twenty years, remains the most peaceful state in India will be an immense loss. Moreover, recovery of poetry and its vitality asks for it. Above all: intimacy, care for human understanding call for it.

Surbhi Goel is a poet, a film-maker and an aesthete working in the English dept of Punjab University.

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    The saga of struggles of Mizos has not been adequately debated in national and international circles. This attempt is appreciable