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The making of Man Manthan (A Documentary Film for Seva Mandir)

Anannya Mehtta


The making of Man Manthan (Internal churning) was a challenge for me. I was unsure I could capture the spirit of Seva Mandir's work meaningfully. The film is set in the village of Barawa, which is in Badgoan block, a region where Seva Mandir has being working for the last four decades.

Man Manthan portrays the relationship between two old friends. One of the men, Savalba belongs to Barawa and believes in the work that Seva Mandir has been doing. The other, Manulal, is skeptical and cannot see any good coming from long drawn efforts at social change. The film starts with Savalba's journey from the city to his village, Barawa. En route Savalba stops at a teashop that belongs to his friend Manulal. The film focuses on the conversation among those who are at the teashop and brings out the conflicting and unresolved views of the many protagonists present in the shop - the teacher who is absconding from school, the young migrant worker just back from the big city, the sarpanch who is hoping to recover his election expenses from NREGA, the latest government scheme. The discussions revolve around the frustrations of Manulal at having Seva Mandir workers promote girl child education and much else, the implications of a big high way coming to their area, the country's rapid growth as reported in the newspapers, etc. Manulal joins Savalba on his onward journey to Barawa and attends a village gram kosh meeting in Barawa. He is aware that Seva Mandir has been working in Barawa for many years.

The central theme of the film is the ability of people to make change possible through individual and collective efforts. The story brings forth the idea that change is underpinned by following a system of ethics in which the common good takes precedence over narrow self-interest. The film is a docu-drama based on a true story inspired by the real Savalba who is from Barawa, who gave up his corrupt practices while working as an elected representative to join hands with Seva Mandir, in a voluntary capacity, to work for development of the village. Manulal continues his journey after leaving Barawa with the feeling that the whole village works as a unit in Barawa and those long standing divisions of caste and economy no longer stand as barriers that divide the people of Barawa.

We would frequently stop for chai breaks while traveling. I loved those little breaks of ours. The atmosphere in the chai shops was a rare fix of cynicism and hope; family problems and politics were discussed within the same conversation. They had the wisdom to understand that the new roads or the introduction of another government scheme by themselves would not magically change their lives and that the real agents of change were the villagers themselves; that till they did not take responsibility for bringing about changes in their relationship to each other, the strangle hold of oppression and fear and greed would not be broken.

The film is shot in Barawa with non- actors, with villagers playing their parts. The film is 19 min long. I had not previously done any film project on this scale; thus the idea of the film was exhilarating. None of my past projects had so many people emotionally, and intimately linked with the making of the film. The whole village of Barawa was continuously my sharpest critique and gentlest of guides. It was comforting to see that the villagers as well as some of the crewmembers felt a clear sense of ownership towards the film. Liaqatji, a Seva Mandir driver, would often stop the jeep near small village hamlets ' while I would finalize locations for the shoot. His charm and ability to make friends easily would draw people, mostly children towards him. The conversation with the children would be about school, wild animals found in the jungles or about which of their goats was the most disobedient. As soon as we would leave the children behind Liaqatji would declare looking through the rear view mirror, "we must have this scene in our film from my jeep's mirror ' it's the best angle". He would then mutter to himself ' things have changed; when I joined Seva Mandir 27 years ago, I would never see village girls in school uniforms. It is not easy to convince people to send girls to school. In silence then, the jeep would make its bumpy journey deeper into the heart of the Aravalli countryside.

The film crew had little or no prior experiences of working on a film set, but in retrospect their enthusiasm made up for their lack of skills in filmmaking. No production demand was ever impossible to meet. I had support in friends and family who took time out of their jobs to come help with the shoot. The shoot meant barely four hours of sleep every night and a twelve-hour working day under the intense summer sun. The cameraperson Honza Sipek ' from the Czech Republic - was a tireless worker. Without understanding the language, he was able to grasp the complexity of the character's personality and work of the organization. Priyankaji and Neelimaji rescued the film at various points and they devotedly helped with the translation of the script into Hindi and English from Mewari. Yakubji who had rehearsed the dialogue of Savalba with me for many hours after his working days were over gave up the role when it was felt he may not be suitable in representing a village person. The actors themselves bore with patience and humor the several re-takes. On many instances the villagers would neglect their farms and other household chores to help with the film or play the role of extras at considerable cost to themselves. It was funny for me to see that by the sixth day of the shoot villagers and my good intentioned but unruly crewmembers responding to the sound recordist's plea for silence immediately which previously was an insurmountable goal to achieve.

Each time I felt myself day-dreaming by the possibilities of the project � I was bought back to earth quickly, with knowledge that the story I had to tell was of a people whose lives were not easy and that the efforts of Seva Mandir to bring about change daunting in complexity; resisted equally by the politically and socially powerful; and by the views of the villagers themselves as people without choice but being defined by a predetermined script based on oppressive hierarchies and exploitation. But in the midst of resignation I found faith, belief and real work geared to struggling against oppression and working to make a difference to lives of the poor both, through the work of Seva Mandir and through the personal stories of courage of the villagers.

From the start of my research for the project, I would often wonder if I would be able to learn about the secret of village life, of the struggles of ordinary people, and the needs of respect by their souls. From a distance the world of the village seemed self contained and outwardly peaceful, it is upon entering the village that I witnessed that gaining access to basic facilities of health, education and water is a struggle, that women remain invisible, usually restricted within the confines of their homes. Many government schemes crowd the world of villagers and yet they do little to empower people. The poorest remained alone. The village is supposed to be a community yet in many cases is divided along lines of caste and patron client relations. In spite of these divisions something inexplicable glued the villagers together and an intense loyalty and affection towards the village marked our conversations. I hope my film has captured these mixed feelings but also the deep hope that informs the work of Seva Mandir and the villagers who associate with it.

The film is an attempt to foster dialogues and to celebrate and explore the many churnings, at the personal and institutional level, over the issue of how to make our society better and more humane.

Anannya Mehtta