River Song (2018) — Review

Still from River Song
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When I was watching Sange Dorjee Thongdok’s River Song, a film about a cross-culture friendship set in the backdrop of the Dibang dam construction in Arunachal Pradesh, I couldn’t help thinking of two other films with dams at the centre of the story — Jia Zhangke’s Still Life (2006) and Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (2013).

While Night Moves is evidently a movie (a thriller) that one would not compare immediately with River Song, a drama (in that regard, Thondok’s film is a lot closer to Still Life), I felt there was something akin to the unravelling of the two characters in the respective movies, even though the two characters couldn’t be more different nor their situations. In both the movies, the protagonists commit an act of violence at the climax that, at the beginning of the movie, one would not have expected them to commit, even though there’s enough evidence throughout. The evidence is more in your face in case of River Song.

The comparison with Still Life is less far-fetched. Both the movies focus on the displacement of people because of a dam project and the destruction of the local environment. However, the scope of Zhangke’s film is wider as it provides a more panoramic view of the social and cultural impact of the Three Gorges Dam on the village of Fengjie, China. Thongdok’s film takes a more intimate approach to revealing the disastrous outcome of the Dibang dam project.

The protagonist of River Song, Tashi runs a rundown fuel station at the outskirts of a small town in Arunachal Pradesh, selling fuel out of barrels illegally. Like the desolate tin-reinforced house he lives in, Tashi is a loner, with only a couple of friends, who are socially more active than him. He spends his time fishing, attending the fuel station and occasionally visiting the site where his brother had died. Tashi’s property is one of the many that run the risk of being flooded. He keeps receiving eviction notices from the government, but he chooses to ignore them. One day, he meets Eshna, who is in the town with her husband, who is in charge of overseeing the construction of the dam. Away from her home in a new place and an indifferent husband, Eshna too is a loner. Despite the language barrier Tashi and Eshna hit it off; they find a kindred spirit in each other, with both dealing with loss, guilt and loneliness.

The theme of displacement runs throughout the film. The tribals and locals of the town are being displaced because of the dam. Some are leaving the place, but many more are fighting for the land they grew up in, the memories that they have of the place, the ecology they hold so sacred. Tashi too fears the prospect of displacement, so he holds dearly on to his property and his memories of this place. Eshna too deals with displacement both physically and metaphorically. Both of them are awashed with a sense of guilt. Even as they try to hold on to something stable — Tashi to his property and Eshna to her marriage — the two keep drifting in the vastness of loneliness and uncertainty. When they find each other, they find in the other an anchor. They find a relationship that they can rely on — a risky notion in the face of an ecology rendered unstable and a community uncertain.

As much as it is about displacement and dealing with personal traumas, River Song also is an allegory of how mainland India treats the hill regions of Northeast India. From imposition of language to forcing of consent, the natives of the region find themselves at the mercy of the intruders. Eshna’s story is introduced like an intrusion into the film as she literally knocks on Tashi’s door. I wonder if it’s by design that her scenes with her husband seem a bit in disharmony with the rest of the movie. However, when she is with Tashi, the movie sails smooth.

The movie turns a critical eye towards the intrusion of the government that is insensitive to the environmental concerns of the region, which is a seismic zone, and the lives of the people. Thongdok uses real protest footage and sound bites from radio and places them strategically to amplify the voice of protest even as Tashi slowly finds himself reluctantly becoming part of the movement against the project.

The cinematography by Pooja S Gupte, who had also shot Thongdok’s National Award winning debut Crossing Bridges (2013), captures the beauty of Arunachal Pradesh in all its natural glory. The colour grading seems close to the natural hues of the greens and mist that descends upon the hills. The preference for natural and ambient light adds to the realism of the movie, even as a layer of surrealism is apparent in the fabric of the narrative.

The performances are natural, with Tenzing Khechog’s grounded portrayal of Tashi at the centre of it. Although I felt the performance by Vinamrata Rai, who plays Eshna, didn’t have quite the bottled-up intensity that the character required. However, that does not mean Rai was not good. In fact, she did a good job; it’s just that I felt it could have been better. The rest of the cast is a competent and does a great job in helping flesh out the wider concerns of the story.

Watching River Song in the wake of the tragedy in Chamoli, Uttarakhand, where the death toll has reached 70 and nearly twice as many are missing, provides perspective into the importance of the voice of the tribals, the locals and experts who time and again warn the authorities of the risks such developmental projects pose to the environment.

A scene in the police station sums up the government’s stance on the management of resources and the treatment of the locals. The officer in charge of the station, a non-native, assaults Tashi for beating up government officials. He rebukes Tashi for not speaking Hindi (confused by many to be the national language when it is one of the official languages) and apparently not knowing the national anthem. The government’s use of nationalism to impose policies and decisions on people is evident in the police officers’ use of the nationalist vocabulary to discredit and accuse Tashi. The centre uses similar tactics to discredit criticism and imprison opposition. For the government and the corporate sector the resources are theirs to exploit. For them the locals mean nothing, their history, beliefs and experiences are pushed under the carpet of a monolithic narrative of nationalism that benefits the people in power.

To further humiliate Tashi the police officer orders him to sing a song while standing on one leg. Tashi sings the river song, “O sacred river, sacred river. / You keep flowing and all our lives, sustain and nourish us. / O sacred river, sacred river.” This is what the tribals and the locals stand for. This is what they want to protect.

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