Seventeen year-old Kosa Muchaki, a bright young Adivasi boy who tops his class held promises for his father and his late mother, who had once hoped her son would become a "babu" (government officer) some day. But aspirations like these barely find room to breathe in a terrain as militarised as Chhattisgarh's Bastar, which is home to not only a large tribal population, but is also host to one of the longest-running insurgencies between the Indian State and the Naxal-Maoists.
Director and writer Mohit Priyadarshi's debut film Kosa " which poignantly brings to life this fictitious tale based on real events " made its Indian premiere at the 26th Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF) held from 8-15 January this year, after premiering internationally at UK's Raindance Festival in October last year. It could simply have been a story of mistaken identity, with the police arresting the wrong Kosa while looking for a Naxal leader by the same name, 30 years of age. However, the screenplay almost inadvertently lends itself to adopting a panoramic view of the plight of the Adivasis, whose oppression has been systemically perpetuated to facilitate invasive capitalistic development. Kosa is only one among the hundreds jailed wrongfully every day on fabricated charges of terrorism, awaiting trial in court.
Kosa, in parts, is sharply documentarian, as it meticulously places the key players in the Naxal-belt ecosystem " the locals, the government, the army, the insurgents, the police, the fearless reporter, the rebellious lawyer, the toothless judiciary and the avaricious businessman " complete with their obvious, and rarely implied, motives. This jarringly evinces the skewed power dynamics and magnitude of violence internalised by the local residents. The Naxals, however, while manifestly driving the narrative, remain curiously invisible through the film.
In a conversation with Firstpost, Mohit Priyadarshi talks about the making of Kosa, why he hopes for the film to be screened at protests, and how most of his actors were simply playing themselves.
Tell us a little about yourself, your background, body of work, and your journey in cinema.
I belong to Patna. My love for writing has been there since I was a kid. I was always composing poems and limericks, but my love for cinema is more cultivated. Like every Hindi cinema fan, I obviously loved the over-the-top, melodramatic form of commercial cinema. But it was around the time when I finished my board exams that I began getting exposed to other kinds of cinema.
And then this exposure just exploded with Torrents, which is the time I was pursuing my higher education. I studied literature in Delhi University, which helped me delve deeper into the human condition. By the time I finished my graduation, I knew I wanted to do something related to cinema. Since the Jawaharlal Nehru University was one of the few places in Delhi which offered a film course, I enrolled myself there.
Director Mohit Priyadarshi
It was a life-changing experience; JNU truly is a microcosm of India. And then, the teachers, the cinema that we were exposed to " it just made things clear for me. I was a writer, yes, but filmmaking felt like a calling. This is why I went on to pursue scriptwriting from the Film and Television Institute of India. I formed relationships and connections during my years studying that would later help me make Kosa.
How did you decide on making a film that talks about the plight of the Adivasis caught in the crossfire between the State and the Naxals? Does the story stem from any personal experiences or encounters?
After I passed out of FTII, I moved back to Delhi and began working as a freelance writer. I was always interested in the Adivasi condition but was aloof from it in many ways. With some of my friends who were pursuing MPhils and PhDs, we formed a collective called 'Matidari'. We hoped to get more insight into people's movements around the country and also draw artists into using their forms to express resistance. I don't believe in art's for art's sake, especially in our country. Where people can't afford basic human dignity, it was impossible for me to think of art as detached from people's actual lives.
Although Matidari existed only briefly, my friends and I organised some amazing small-scale film festivals and talks where we invited artists, journalists, lawyers, activists and people representing oppressed groups to share their experiences. It was during one of these talks that I first heard the story that inspired Kosa.
My friends and colleagues were my mentors. I'd write and consult with them, they'd give me their honest opinion and we'd take it from there.
A still from Kosa. Kunal Bhange playing Kosa (right).
Kosa is not even so much about the crossfire between the State and Naxals but more about a Constitution promising rights to its people and then successive governments not living up to even a word of it.
What was the process of researching for the film, and how long has it been in the making? How did you get sponsors/producers to fund a film that is critical of the State and its consistent violation of human rights?
In theory, I had done quite a bit of research. I was aware of how the State had behaved with impunity in these parts over the decades but I wanted to see for myself, be a witness. So, I asked my colleagues if they'd help me take field trips to Chhattisgarh. This was at the beginning of 2017. What I saw astonished me " I was not prepared for it. It seemed like a war zone in many ways. Maybe only Kashmir could be a more militarised zone in the subcontinent.
And I heard stories from people " I talked to young men; I met many Adivasi people whose predicament was all too common. Even more bizarrely, I could always feel someone was watching me...there's that feeling, and it was the first time I knew how activists and dissenters feel in this country. Sure enough, the authorities keep their eyes on the most innocuous of visitors. You can't freely visit your own country, which would make anyone think: does this standoffishness and a deep willingness to control movement mean there's something to hide? Well, there's a lot of stuff that never gets out.
So, from then to now, it has been three years in the making. And now we have entered the fourth year since the process started.
It was very difficult to find producers. Honestly, I didn't approach many people because I didn't want to curtail my freedom. Also, we were inexperienced, my entire team was new. We all had experience making student films but most of us had never made a feature. I didn't want someone to begin exerting control over this team because they had funded us. So, I started the process with my own money. Every step of the way, I asked for help, and sooner or later, somebody would chip in. I never had any proper producers but my friends and colleagues helped when they could.
This was perhaps the most intimidating part of the process. When you begin making a film and have to stop shooting not knowing if you will ever begin again, it can get stressful very quickly. But nothing was stopping us, so we were patient and finally, we managed to pull through.
Where was the film primarily shot? (The end credits mention Chara, Purnea, and Cuttack...) Could you tell us a little about the actors, especially the ones playing the locals and Adivasis, including Kosa and his family, and your experience of working with them?
We didn't shoot in Chhattisgarh because of the situation I mentioned. There's a lot of surveillance and I didn't want to create trouble for people who were already struggling to make themselves heard. My friend and I scouted many states and finally began shooting in Madhya Pradesh's Dindori district which has very similar villages to Bastar and where the Gonds also live. There're always differences but it seemed like the best place for us to shoot.
We shot the village scenes there without electricity, with very basic equipment. But the villagers supported us, guided us, and gave us enough strength to keep doing what we went there to do.
For the town scenes, we went to shoot in Cuttack first but because of unforeseen reasons, we had to shut down shooting. It was a traumatising time. But then we planned it all again and shot the last parts in Bihar, because I was more comfortable shooting there and it also cost less money.
We tried to cast non-professionals in those roles. We scouted for actors when we were conducting recce for locations; so many actors are from Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, including Kunal Bhange (Kosa), who is from Bilaspur. Gopal Dhurve, who played his father, is a village elder from Chara itself, so basically, I asked him to play himself. The girls Kareena and Mona are Adivasis from working-class neighbourhoods in Bhopal. The group which sings the song is an actual folk group from Chhattisgarh called 'RELA'. So I just tried to surround myself with people who knew what they were doing.
And then some of them, like Nooryaab (Saira) and Vitthal (Keshav), are connections from FTII.
The film very blatantly juxtaposes the idea of development at the cost of systemic oppression of the disenfranchised, which completely dismantles the notion that development defeats stigmas attached to castes and tribes. Ironically, such stigmas seem to have received a new lease of life in light of the prevailing 'development'. How did you navigate such sensitive nuances while making a film on the subject?
I knew it was a very complicated topic to try and address, but in the end, it was just about being truthful. Many such cases exist. Innocents have been killed and many captured innocents are serenaded [sic] as 'Naxals'. You don't even need to research a lot; just talk to the Adivasi people living in those areas. Hundreds of ground-level journalists remain incarcerated in Indian prisons, pro bono lawyers are threatened on a daily basis. Sexual violence is used repeatedly against Adivasi women.
The real-life cases are even scarier, more haunting. I actually had to tone it down. The real-life situation of the person who inspired Kosa was even worse. I just wanted to tell the real story without intervention, the way it happened. And while I knew it might be construed as being too direct, that was precisely what I wanted " to let people confront the inhumanity of the situation, no sugar-coating.
In that respect, the problem appears to be quite simple. The Adivasis have protected, mineral-rich lands but corporations need those minerals. So, it is about the acquisition of lands, and certainly, the Adivasis are going to resist it.
In your film, the depiction of violence is both obvious and insidious but never aestheticised enough to desensitise the audience towards its subject. Even in the scene where Kosa is picked up from his home by the police right at the end " where only blurry, shaky silhouettes and shrieks blending into each other against a dusky sky are shown " the disruptive, uncontrolled nature of the violence against the innocent is underlined. Could you talk a little about this approach and why it is so key to understanding the film?
Although I am a fan of Hollywood, I was careful not to make an aesthetic out of the violence in our film. Again, I believed in naturalism, the scenes speaking for themselves.
We wanted the film to feel raw, make the audience witnesses to Kosa's life. In that way, I didn't want to be distracted by the demands of a heroic narrative. So, we didn't overly stylise anything.
But it was also a practical decision. We couldn't use sliders or tracks or more expansive equipment, we had to make do with natural lighting, so we decided to shoot the entire film in a guerrilla sort of way. It gives the film a sense of urgency, which is what we are after. As filmmakers, our attempt was to turn our disadvantages into the language of our film and this story lent itself to it.
What were some of the most difficult bits to film, and how did you prepare your cast and crew for it?
Shooting everything in Chara was a monumental task. There was hardly any clean water and no electricity, so things that should take a day would take three days. More than half of my crew was hospitalised at some time or the other, and each time we needed to take them to Dindori, 70 km away. But we were not getting clean water or electricity or phone coverage for a period of a month " imagine the villagers who live there in such conditions for their entire lives. But the Adivasis are amazingly one with nature, and it is amazing to see how they can sustain themselves entirely on what is around them.
We also could not afford a lot of production design stuff, so we adjusted. We would shoot in schools, real houses; Kosa's home is a villager's home.
Thankfully, my crew was always driven by the idea, and we all wanted to tell this story. For technicians, it becomes difficult because they had to juggle between projects. They suffered as much as I did. We all went through it and it made us stronger " the process more exhilarating. Almost all of my crew members didn't take their fees, which helped with the budget too.
Did you, personally, have to unpack any of your privileges and prejudices to really understand the story you were telling?
Yes, of course. I am a city-bred guy, and I had to confront a different reality. People would tell me to be apolitical in my work, but for me, apolitical is not neutral, it's just not taking responsibility. But trying to be truthful carries its own baggage and I've had my fair share of it.
I needed to identify with the people, understand what they were going through. But, also, the problems are so stark and so in-your-face that it's really difficult not to notice them. You don't really have to be an Adivasi to see what's going on, you merely need to be human.
Where else will the film be travelling in the coming days? Are there plans of an OTT release?
The film is still on the festival trail. Next month, Kosa will be shown in the International Competition section at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). I expect the film to stay on the trail for a bit. But, what I would love is for the film to be shown to as many people as possible. I want the film to have screenings in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Maharashtra, the forested heartlands, but also working-class neighbourhoods in big cities. I want to see if the Adivasi people like it. I wish students would organise screenings; I wish it is shown at protests.
It might be too ambitious but we need to see cinema as being more than just a form of entertainment. There has to be that escapism, sure, we all love that, but at times it can be much more than that.
Eventually, yes, I do see the film making its way to OTT platforms but I'm not in a position to talk about it now, because those decisions are still some time away.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from making and telling Kosa's story?
As a filmmaker and an artist, the biggest lesson I learned is to tell the story that moves you, that you feel in your bones. Then, even with all the obstacles in your path, you will be able to navigate them because you never lose the motivation " you remember why you started.
We have also shown that there is no one way to make a film. There were lots of doubts on whether we would ever be able to complete the film and tell the story the way we wanted it told, but here we are. You don't need to be in Mumbai or Chennai or Kolkata to make films. There is a democratisation of resources and if you have the will and commitment, you can follow through. It is tough, but it works.