Going up in Smoke
The camera walks you into a beautiful valley, stumbling along the dangerous terrain, to reach a view simply described by a character from the film as ‘Our heaven’.
The valley spreads out against the mist playing hide-and-seek, revealing a landscape pristine and magical. The camera stays on the image of clouds floating across two distant peaks as the character recounts a local myth surrounding the two, Mt Vice and Mt Virtue. “The gods resided in these mountains,” Shanta, a boy from Malana, continues, “This depicts the ratio of virtue and vice in the world. See, Mt Virtue is melting away. People say when Mt Virtue melts entirely, the world will come to an end.” The voice continues, lamenting the diminishing peak of virtue.
The camera waits patiently till the two peaks melt into the mist. The surreal curtain of mist sets the mood for a trip into a world that is struggling to preserve its unique identity, language and system of sustenance.
The film begins like a fairytale, the story of a little village in Himachal Pradesh called Malana, held in India’s popular imagination as the mystical land where top-quality cannabis is grown and traded.
Bom (2011), which means ‘a celestial void’ in Sanskrit, is a stunning National Award winning documentary by Amlan Datta. It breaks the boundaries of the documentary form in a way that the director could not even imagine when he began this cinematic journey. The film has another title, One day Ahead of Democracy, and it too describes the ‘republic of Malana’ perfectly. It is a remarkable attempt by both the director and the audience at understanding a little-known community that has its own cultural narrative— where myth and history throb together. It is also an account of the reality and rhetoric of democracy, which often effaces indigenous socio- cultural practices and systems of belief that do not fall in line with the mainstream idea of law or morality.
Right at the very beginning, the director prepares his audience for an unlikely journey: “I went for an ancient democracy and the world’s best hashish, but what silently pulled me towards Malana was my destiny.”
It is 15 August, the auspicious day of a local festival in Malana. The community has gathered to celebrate their god. It is also the day that voter ID cards are being handed out.
Buiya Ram, the 103-year-old endearing head priest of Malana, collects his voter card, which gives him his right to vote. Coaxed by Election Commission officials, an amused Buiya Ram poses for the camera with the card.
Democracy is not an alien concept in Malana. The village has its own system of local self-governance, ‘the court of Malana’, in which its head priest is chosen by God. Malana’s general assembly comprises the head priest, deputy priest, speaker and deputy speaker.
There are eight others in the assembly who can be replaced every year with a fresh ‘selection’. A member of the village explains, “Our traditional system has four wards. One person is chosen per ward. [Elsewhere] they elect by voting, here we select.” The community also gets together to select the village council or ‘servants of God’. All decisions are taken by consensus.
“I was 20 when I took up the service of God. Haven’t you seen God?” Buiya Ram asks the director.
“He’s in the musical instruments.”
And the film cuts to the day in 2007 when Datta arrives in the village with his two cameras, one of which is a century-old view camera, something that nobody here has seen before.
Around this time, the village is preparing for Shanta’s wedding. Datta and his camera are invited by the family to document it. And, a wedding video later, Datta—and his camera—enter the local community’s circle of trust. The bride’s family also adopts Datta as a godson. Datta, Hemraj and Shanta develop a friendship and become co- travellers into one another’s worlds.
Hemraj, who had never left Malana, is fascinated by the splendour of Delhi even as he grapples with modern concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘democracy’.
The two men from Malana take Datta and the audience through an ecology and culture that revolves around the beautiful landscape. They also debunk popular myths about their community, including one in which they are believed to be of Greek descent as their ancestors had fought alongside Alexander the Great.
The film explores the other side of ‘reforms’ and the weaning of locals off cannabis as a means of livelihood. It tracks the story of Malana at a time when the rest of the country was preparing for the 2009 general election.
Herein unfolds a story of change and rupture, as Malana is co-opted into the mainstream through modern amenities, electoral reforms, mobile phones, and promises of progress.
The film explores their struggles and their traditional dependence on cannabis cultivation and trade—which India’s narcotics law considers a crime.
Cannabis is a major crop in this valley, and is also used for making medicines, clothes, ropes and footwear.
The film bares the history, contradictions and debate surrounding Malana and its alleged progress through the voices of the local administration and political rhetoric. It highlights lack of rehabilitation and unfair trials of locals, against the spectacle of a Republic Day parade. The green meadows are slowly replaced with the dust and noise of trucks breaking through the landscape. The peace is broken by the sound of dynamite, getting closer, breaking in, interrupting the ecology and stability of the village. Development intrudes upon harmony.
Change is forced upon Malana through administrative control, roads, vote-politics and that oft-used symbol of progress, electricity, which once literally reduced the fragments of their ancient culture—and the distinct look and architecture of the village—to ashes by sparking an inferno.
The story and the years roll by, making Malana, the way it once was, a thing of the past. In the film, Datta gives a voice not just to the village but also to the differing perspectives expressed by administrators and electoral officers, even Himachal’s sympathetic former Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh.
The director becomes a part of this narrative about struggle and loss as the story becomes a real part of his life, moving through the cycle of life and death. Continuing the journey beyond the film, Datta has established a charitable trust, Bom-Bom, to create alternative means of sustenance for the people of Malana by using their skills and local produce.
In the end, this extraordinary film, which captures the honesty and warmth of the community, also leaves one with a sense of anger towards State authority and its apathy towards ordinary lives.