Why Devashish Makhija decided to adapt his film ‘Oonga’ into a YA novel

The book, which is about state violence against Adivasis and has an Adivasi hero, is based on Devashish’s film by the same name that was released in 2013.
Cover page of children's novel Oonga which shows a blue coloured adivasi boy
Cover page of children's novel Oonga which shows a blue coloured adivasi boy
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Director Devashish Makhija recently published a Young Adult (YA) novel with Tulika Books, a Chennai-based children’s publisher. While several books have been made into movies, the reverse happened with Devashish’s Oonga. The film, tracing the story of a young Adivasi boy belonging to the Dongria Kondh community, premiered at the New York Indian Film Festival in 2013. Now, eight years later, comes the book, with a striking cover.

The protagonist of the story, Oonga, is obsessed with watching a performance of the Ramayana in the city, one that his teacher Hemla had promised to take him to. However, Hemla is held by the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and subjected to torture and sexual assault. Oonga, who is unaware of this, decides to embark on the adventure himself and travels to the city.

The novel discusses several important issues, including the state’s attitude and approach towards the Adivasi community. In an interview with TNM, Devashish speaks about the book in detail.

Why did you decide to make your film into a novel and specifically, why a YA novel?

Most such decisions are a mix of conscious choices and presented opportunities. The film had not turned out as I desired for multiple reasons. For years I sought to retell it in any available medium.

Tulika, whom I had done two picture books with previously, wanted to venture into YA fiction of this sort. The timing was just right. I jumped at the chance to tell this story without the filters and contrivances and limitations and recalibrations that film production inflicts on a story. I didn’t consciously approach it as a YA novel. I wrote the novel I wanted to write. Tulika was incredibly supportive. The 16+ age group today is as receptive and mature and discerning as any adult.

Was it hard to write the book in English, considering the number of languages involved, and to get your characters to speak like themselves?

More than it being hard, there was a stark and implicit irony that I was acutely aware of right through the writing of this book. Here is a story of a ‘people’ of which I am not one. I’m trying, through this story, to get another kind of people (English-speaking, urban young adults) to listen to this story, understand, and feel for them; but I’m not being able to bring an Adivasi language front and centre in the telling of their story. This is ironic. And could be seen as tragic as well. But what choice do I have if I seek to focus on building empathy and awareness in a large swathe of people who otherwise have no other way of knowing or understanding Adivasis, and the scale and expanse of injustice they have had to put up with?

I read that the idea for the film/book came from your travels in the tribal belts of south Orissa and north Andhra, and you've called it an 'unseen karmic debt' to tell this story. But did you consider/worry about the appropriation debate?

I did. I always do. But there’s no easy way around it. If I feel rage on behalf of someone what do I do with it? Especially when such a big part of the population chooses to actively ignore what Adivasis have to go through. If I feel I can perhaps at least get some of those people (who I can speak to in their language) to become a little more cognizant of this, it’s worth a try? Despite the obvious pitfalls of what you call the appropriation debate?

When it comes to marginalised communities, we see that heroes and villains of mainstream celebrated narratives often exchange places. For instance, the burning of Holika during Holi is seen as a violent savarna celebration. Yet Oonga identifies closely with Rama — a mythical hero who has become symbolic with majoritarian forces in the country. How did you arrive at this interpretation of Rama?

I was walking a tightrope.

I ran (and continue to run) the risk of it being seen as an exercise in supremacy — to make the Adivasi protagonist of a story that seeks to question marginalisation, identify this closely with an entity Hindus consider one of their foremost deities, especially under the current near-fascist regime.

What I intended (and hope to have achieved) was the converse — to exemplify Rama as simply a storytelling metaphor, a symbol, a trope, a representation of an ideal, and hence open to interpretation. I sought to subvert precisely the symbol of the majoritarian forces you speak of, by making it possible that a little Adivasi boy can find in this symbol an idea that he can make his own – a blue Adivasi protector of the forest, thereby transcending the idea of Rama itself.

Working stills from Oonga, the movie

Sushil's character is interesting — a CRPF man who is unable to take the brutality he sees around him and loses it. Is there a parallel in the Ramayana you had in mind when you wrote his character?

None. Beyond the implications of the Ramayana as experienced by Oonga, I had no other reference or parallels in mind with this story. I see the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and all such merely as stories — mythologies specific to the times they were written/narrated in, to dispense values and ideas to those who heard/read those stories. In effect Oonga could be my own personal contemporary mythology. Perhaps seeing these as such may go some way in subverting and challenging the widely held majoritarian religious perspectives of the same?

The portrayal of Sita in popular culture has varied from a damsel in distress to an assertive queen and a tragic figure. Where do you see Hemla in this spectrum?

Hemla has no parallel in Sita (not intended by me at least) for me to place her anywhere within that spectrum. Hemla draws from real life injustices and people, foremost among them — Soni Sori. Hemla is also the vessel through whom I sought to explore my own wildly vacillating take on non-violent protest vis-à-vis state-compelled counter-violence.

There is a lot of violence in the book — including torture and sexual assault, and abusive language too. That's unusual even in a book meant for older children. Did you have discussions with your editors about it?

Of course. Such decisions don’t come easy. Any other publisher would’ve debated these in isolation using the words you have, but Tulika always saw merit perhaps in the larger debates I’m trying to evoke?

I face roadblocks even in the films I make, first while making them, and then while seeking audiences for them, because in most of them I don’t turn the gaze away from the violence of the act in question. It’s not as if I want to subject my readers to things they may not want to be subject to, but I want to open up debates around this — is exempting the reader/viewer from the horror of the violence Adivasis are subject to being fair to Adivasis who have had to experience that violence first hand? Especially since here I’m attempting to build awareness, acknowledgement and empathy in mostly unaware (sometimes apathetic) urban readers about a people whose tragedies they are so removed from. There are no easy answers. But it takes a special publisher to allow me that leap of faith, risking their own faithful readers in the process.

Working stills from Oonga, the movie

The book also shows how violence impacts/changes people, be it Laxmi who believes it to be an effective strategy of resistance or Pradip and Manoranjan who brutalise Adivasis. Hemla tries to break that cycle but she isn't successful. What do you think is the way out?

I don’t know. Like I said I have a dilemmatic relationship with this. I want to believe in non-violent protest with every fibre in my being. But perhaps like Oonga shows, when you are pleading/protesting/in dialogue with the barrel of a rifle or a barrage of tear gas shells or rubber pellets or water cannons, perhaps it all then comes down to how long you can stay your hand before it balls itself into a fist. Dialogue needs human faces to emerge from behind that mouth of the rifle. And the State has often shown itself incapable of doing that.

Have people from the Dongria Kondh community watched your film? Do share some of their responses if so.

My film managed nothing that I hoped it would. It wasn’t made the way I intended. If it had been, then there wouldn’t have ever been the need for this book. I acknowledge the irony in this yet again. The film could’ve transcended language barriers. I could’ve shown it to the Dongira Kondh and every tribal community I had the privilege to meet. A film — with image, sound and music — can reach out even to those who don’t understand the language being spoken by the characters within it. A book, by its very complete reliance on the written word, cannot. To begin with I wanted to show my film to all Adivasis who had watched Avatar and were disappointed by its unreal happy ending. It is them who inspired Oonga. But I let them down by not being able to make a film worthy of representing their journeys and struggles. This book may not achieve what the film could have. But I’m hoping the book will achieve other things that a film cannot. What those are, I hope to find out.

You can order a copy of the book here.

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