16 Sep 2023  |   04:20am IST

The last villagers in the face of migration

‘Ek Tha Gaon’, a film crafted by Srishti Lakhera, won the Best Non-Feature Film Award at the 69th National Film Awards. The film delves into the poignant narrative of relentless migration, which has transformed a once-thriving mountain villages into ghostly remnants. The film spotlights two compelling characters – 80-year-old Leela Devi and 19-year-old Kishori Golu
The last villagers in the face of migration

Nilankur Das

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eela Devi was an optimist, she embodied hope and she is the protagonist of the 2023 National Award Winner non feature film, ‘Ek Tha Gaon’ by Srishti Lakhera and team. One must congratulate Srishti for her intuition to keep Leela Devi’s life archived so beautifully in a film format. It’s not only her, but the whole concept of urban migration and the way one is losing time and traditions.

The plot of the film is on the Himalayan foothills. There, an 80-year-old woman and a 19-year-old girl are two of the seven remaining inhabitants of an abandoned village. The genesis of the film is Srishti’s observations of her ancestral village of Uttarakhand. A specific subtlety can be seen in those villages of Himalayan foothills - the effects of rural to urban migration. Uttarakhand has 1000 empty villages, Srishti mentioned, that is a huge number.

This urban migration concept is not new, but then it is ‘in your face’ in Uttarakhand, way visible and tactile. When Srishti started researching about the film in 2015, there were only seven people remaining in that village. She grew up listening to stories from her parents about how families after families are leaving the village, for greener pastures of cities. The abandonment she had seen created a distinct imprint on her to make this experience into something concrete. “I started spending time with these few people who were remaining in the village and I met the main characters who struck a chord for me to tell their story because they were very interesting - the circumstances they were living in - the perspective that they were bringing in. So I decided to go about spending time researching and working with them. And that’s how the story began. That’s how in some ways the story chose me because it comes from my own ancestral village,” says Srishti.

Srishti intuitively knew that a film on migration must be made, then she met Leela Devi, the protagonist. Srishti found her fascinating, she was over 70 years old and she was living alone in a big rundown stone and mud house, the house itself may be more than 100 years old. Her daughter lives in the city, she had lost one child and her husband: and everybody else, all her neighbors had migrated to the cities. She was pretty unique as a story herself in terms of how she was so old and unwilling to move out of that village. It’s been 60 years she has been in this village, before that she was in her village, before marriage, which is nearby. Her identity was her village.

She was a farmer all her life but because of her old age and dearth of people, she stopped farming. That was very upsetting for her, as if she has lost the vitality that she is not productive anymore. But still she did not want to leave the village, because if she leaves, she will lose her identity.

“If you’ve seen the film, you will realize that the things she had to say were very poetic. She was a magnetic personality, a great storyteller with a feisty spirit - apart from the fact that she lived alone in this house, without any neighbors: that was very brave of her to continue living life like that. She was really the reason that I was compelled that there was a film with her. She was happy for me to film her life. It was a great friendship that I found in Leela Devi,” Srishti observes.

Life is harsh in the mountains. Leela Devi is a widow, a senior citizen, without any social support. She gets a small pension money from the government that comes to her Post Office account in the adjacent village. She, with her Ration Card and Below Poverty Line status can hardly sustain herself. She cannot go to the next town to buy vegetables, it is not available in her uninhabited village. “I remember when I used to go to the town close by and she would look at me and she’d be like, can you buy me some tomatoes? As a person living alone, there was no support system in terms of civil society or the government for an old person to be living like this,” mentions Srishti.

Medical services are an hour away from her village. Most of the villagers depend on public transport, it took them more than two hours one way. One is remote, even from the health services, and in such a condition, aging Leela Devi was living alone.

The film, ‘Ek Tha Gaon’ is a film on migration. Film maker Srishti has also made some interesting observations on Goa’s reverse migration. She opines that though a bunch of people are coming to Goa and opening up either guest houses or establishments, there is a lag of integration to bring the agricultural and farming aspect back to life. She sees a lot of empty fields here and in her mind, it is a big loss for the community and sustenance.  

“When people stop being farmers or their lifestyle is not dependent on farming and that their livelihood is not coming from farming, they stop looking at land in a nurturing way, because their livelihood is maybe coming from working in a hotel, or a hospitality industry. The farmland that would be right next to your house but you’re not going to think about the right kind of plants to retain water tables, to make sure that some kind of insects don’t or pesticides don’t take over the land. So that kind of connection gets broken. If you were a farmer, you would constantly think about the health of the land, and you would constantly act to make sure to give back the health to the land and protect the land and the fertility. If there are many farmers then it contributes to a larger micro-climate, a larger landmass that would be healthier, and is taken care by human beings involved because simply they’re a farmer. If you are not thinking about the health of the land, that’s one loss I see when reverse migration happens. With the reverse migration, the occupation or the livelihood they bring back is never so connected with the ecosystem. That’s a major loss, I feel.” Srishti rues.

When the outsiders come and settle in either Uttarakhand or in Goa, there is no guarantee that those outsiders will work closely with the community. She observes that though there are exceptions, but for the majority, she feels it is a conflict of insider and outsider, everywhere. For a filmmaker like her, she would like to make films with and for the people with an empathetic gaze, to show the inner conflicts through her lens. “I do think there are stories here in Goa, that’s something I’m very interested in, to show how people live in their ecosystems and what are the narratives that come out of it. So for me, people in Goa living with their water bodies and living with their oceans and living with their mangroves, they are beautiful stories. But I need to go slow. I need to have those deeper connections with people and go out slowly to understand whether there is a story that Goans would want to tell and whether I could be the person to tell that story for them. I believe I take a longer time to become friends with people to genuinely be able to tell stories of communities and individuals,” she says.

She is particularly interested in people’s relationship with their landscapes, their narratives and the stories that come out of that relationship, as her subjects. She focuses on a modern understanding of the immediate environment, and also digs what one might be losing through their aspirations. She says, “My work is to emotionally touch people with these kinds of stories. And then hopefully, it will propel people to take action.”

IDhar UDHAR

Idhar Udhar