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The egregious description of Sikkim as an insurgency-affected state that had never produced any cinema, made by someone as cosmopolitan as Priyanka Chopra, revealed yet again how marginalised the Northeast is in the narrative of our nation. One would have expected Chopra to be a little more knowledgeable; she had, after all played Mary Kom in the eponymous biopic of the boxer in 2014. Her casting had sparked a furious debate on why a Manipuri actor had not been selected to play the role. However, the benefits accruing to the project because of it being helmed by a Bollywood superstar and Chopra’s performance had vindicated the casting decision. This time, however, there is hardly any defence of this ignorance.
Yet, to make Chopra the exemplary scapegoat for a symptomatic problem would be unfair. The industry she works in, Bollywood, has been equally blind to the Northeast, the eight states that comprise the region merging into a homogenous whole. Of course, one reason for this is the insurgencies in different states of the region — who can deny it is difficult to shoot a film in such conditions? The only mainstream film to take on the issue is Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se (1998), which depicted the love between a reporter from Delhi and an insurgent from Assam — the representative of the mainstream and the margin — as heartbreakingly tragic.
Ratnam’s vision, punctuated by some of A R Rahman’s amazing composition (Dil se re..., Aei ajnabi...), is essentially romantic. A more clear-eyed vision, at least of Sikkim, is to be found in Satyajit Ray’s forgotten and nearly lost documentary on the hill state. Made in 1971, the 55-minute-long film was banned by the Indian government in 1975, when it annexed the then-independent kingdom. It was believed that all its copies had been destroyed. What remained was Ray’s nostalgic recollection: “I cut... a shot of a piece of telegraph wire. It’s raining and there are two drops of rain approaching on a downward curve. It’s a very poetic seven minutes. And the end is also very lively, very optimistic, with children, happy, laughing, smoking, singing. The whole thing builds up into a paean of praise for the place.” Since then, and its rediscovery in the early years of this decade and the overturning of the ban in 2010, the film was lost to obscurity, preserved only in foreign archives, and unseen by Ray aficionados.
Very early in Sikkim, the audience is offered a shot of the majestic Kanchenjungha, as Ray himself provides a commentary on the Himalayas. The significance of the image would have been obvious to Ray’s audience; he had already made Kanchenjungha in 1962 — his first colour film, and also first one he wrote. Sikkim was commissioned by the Chogyal, Palden Thondup Namgyal and his American wife Hope Cooke. Their marriage in 1963 would focus global attention on the hermit kingdom for the first time in decades; it was also perhaps the inspiration for the last part of Dev Anand-starrer Jewel Thief of 1967. By the early Seventies, the royal marriage was on the rocks, as was the future of the state of Sikkim.
The hill kingdom was a protectorate of India since the 19th century, the agreement extended by a 1950 treaty that allowed it complete internal autonomy. In his documentary, Ray comments on the small size of the kingdom and the difficulty of finding it on a map. Like its Buddhist neighbours, Tibet and Bhutan, it had remained self-consciously obscure to avoid the attention of the more powerful China and India. But in the early Seventies, monarchies were becoming unfashionable all over the country — an amendment of the Constitution in 1971 had abolished the Privy Purse of royal houses scattered all over India, sounding a death knell for the out-of-date royalty.
The merger of Sikkim, in 1975, however, was a less smooth affair. In his 1984 book, Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, Sunanda K Datta-Ray, described how India sent in its army to put the Chogyal under house arrest and killed at least one palace guard in the ensuing skirmish. To provide legitimacy to the merger, India conducted a plebiscite, in which 97 per cent of the votes cast were in favour of Sikkim becoming an Indian state. But both the results of the plebiscite and the way it was conducted have been questioned, with the Chogyal’s family claiming that 70-80 per cent of the voters were Indian citizens who had crossed the border. Internationally, Pakistan and China called the referendum a farce, but the “annexation” was supported by the US and Russia. The political turmoil had disastrous effects for the royal family, too, with Cooke returning to New York, and the Chogyal himself dying of cancer in 1982.
Ray’s documentary is somewhat akin to the manuscripts one can find in the hidden monasteries of the state, thought to be lost and forgotten, almost a legend in the mist that envelopes these hills. The other films he made around the same time are the gritty Pratidwandi (1970), Seemabaddha (1971), and Ashani Sanket (1973). The first two, in black and white, are set in Calcutta, ravaged by the Naxalite movement; the third, in colour, depicts the 1943 Bengal famine. The colour in Ashani Sanket is very different from the colour in Sikkim. In the former it is stronger, suiting its more political theme; in the latter, the colour is almost leaking away from the frame, like the early 20th century Bengal School watercolours, like nostalgia.
Yet, Sikkim is not only a poetic tribute to a lost kingdom; it is also political in its own way. Ray does talk in some detail about its economics — the farmer’s markets, the agrarian culture, the peaceful cohabitation of Hindus and Buddhist, and the free education (that was still a far cry in India). A reviewer in the Statesman described the film as a sort of well documented travelogue; but if that were so, why would the Indian government ban it? Notably, the annexation formally took place in April 1975, barely two months before Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in India. While the harsh geopolitical reality of the subcontinent that lead to the annexation cannot be denied, the purported motive of expanding democratic values seems a little far-fetched. Ray’s film, emerging after decades of being lost, is a sort of tribute to that lost time and place.