Oonga: Mumbai Review

A story about genocide, torture and guerrilla warfare ambitiously but oddly combines with a youngster's trip to the city.  

A little boy’s innocence stands in stark contrast to the destruction of tribal India by a ruthless mining company.

There are a lot of good ideas in Oonga, the most openly political film to unspool in the Mumbai Film Festival so far; perhaps too many for first-time director Devashish Makhija to assemble convincingly. His dismaying depiction of a tribal village in rural India threatened with destruction to make way for a mining company calls to mind tragedies from the American West which still haunt recent films like The Lone Ranger. The chilling difference is that in India, this is not happening in the past.

Films have the ability to cut through the confusion of human motivation and controversies, and in this sense Oonga does a pretty good job explaining why the regional police and the Naxalites, Maoist-inspired guerrillas coming from native tribes, are in a standoff in modern India. The answer Makhija gives is simply a thirst for usurping land by big mining interests, whose methods include intimidation, corruption and murder. At the same time the film takes its distance from the violence of the Naxalite fighters, who use torture as the police does. Mediating the two sides is the figure of a sunny, passionate schoolteacher modeled on real-life tribal activist Soni Sori (played by popular actress and director Nandita Das), who believes the villagers can resist the mine as long as they stand united for their lawful rights. But the ending of the film casts doubt on her optimism, and it’s not too clear what it’s advocating in the final shot.

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All of this is background to the main narrative about Oonga (a remarkably mature Raju Singh), a wiry 8-year-old boy who misses out on a school trip to town to see a religious play featuring his hero, the warrior-king Rama. So he decides to go on his own, following directions from a schoolmate on a journey through forests, fields, valleys and big roads. After many travails, he watches the play and his courage grows. He returns home covered with blue body paint, a sign he has become Rama himself.  He arrives in the village just in time for the final showdown.

This is not a children’s film. Makhija and co-screenwriter Harish Amin incorporate shocking images of torture from both sides of the conflict, but sympathy is with the frightened, innocent villagers all the way. They have seen a neighboring village swallowed by the company and survivors have talked about seeing their families shot and burnt in front of their eyes. With all the evidence in favour of the tribe, it’s a classic case of overkill to depict the police chief as a ravenous monster ordering his men to round up children. By forcing the story to conform to the ideal story of Rama, Sita and Ravana, the police end up so flat and unbelievable that it cheapens the whole film.

In the main adult role, Das brings sparkling intelligence to teaching the village kids Hindi by drawing on a blackboard and telling them a story with an ecological point. Her confrontation with the guerrilla leader (a commanding Seema Biswas) hits just the right note of conflict.

Cinematographer Jehangir Chowdhury does a wonderful job creating paradise in the early forest scenes, full of giant trees that Oonga scampers up like a character in Avatar. The villagers, discretely tattooed and wearing three distinctive gold nose rings, have little to do but smile and frown.


Venue: Mumbai Film Festival (India Gold), Oct. 20, 2013.

Production companies: Speaking Tree Pictures, Moo Print Pictures

Cast: Nandita  Das, Raju Singh, Seema Biswas, Alyy Khan, Salim Kumar, Vipin Sharma, Anand Tiwari, Priyanka Bose

Director: Devashish Makhija
Screenwriters: Devashish Makhija, Harish Amin
Producers: Harish Amin, Mehvash Husain
Director of photography: Jehangir Chowdhury
Production designer: Mustafa Hussein
Costumes: Shweta Bangaloree
Editor: Anuradha Singh
Music: Krsna
No rating, 98 minutes