A year ago, Iewduh, a crowded traditional market in Shillong, was in the national news for the conflict that broke out between its long-time Dalit Sikh residents and a group of Khasis.
A minor fracas escalated into a stand-off over the rights of the Sikhs to continue living in the Iewduh locality of Punjabi Line, where they have been since the 1930s, working as cleaners and sweepers for the Shillong Municipal Board.
Claims of illegal settlement and counter-claims of long-standing rights led to days of violence and curfew in the city. The case is currently before the Supreme Court.
And now Iewduh, a new Khasi feature film directed by Pradip Kurbah, is making waves as a realist depiction of small-town characters. The film’s portrayal of an intimate network of humans and space, relationships and dreams, is getting it high praise. It recently won the Kim Ji-seok Award at the 2019 Busan International Film Festival in Korea.
Most reviews have highlighted the film’s prescient depiction of working-class characters and the network of relations they web among themselves along with the practical challenges of filming in a crowded market. Nandini Ramnath in Scroll.in puts it well when she says “the collective journey of the characters, who spiritedly dodge curveballs and find strength in community, is also a journey into the heart of the market itself, which emerges as a character in its own right”. What they miss is that in addition to portraying a the complex social set-up of Iewduh, the film also finds a new, more fluid way, to imagine Shillong – not as a city of rigidly contesting identities but compatibly different and often nebulous ones. The aesthetics of the film cannot be divested from its politics, even when the film is not overtly ideological.
Mike, the charismatic central character, is a cleaner and coin collector at a public toilet. He is Khasi and orphaned, having been found as a child outside that very toilet he grows up to manage. The story follows people whose lives intersect with Mike’s. Hep, a young adult, is a former drug addict who shares a room with Mike.
Lamare, an old, abandoned man that Mike looks out for. Priya, a clothes vendor, who Mike tries to save from her alcoholic husband, and Edwina, a tea seller who Mike is in love with, but so are others like Pun, the vegetable vendor. Other characters, like Sharma, a quintessential non-tribal shopkeeper, indirectly shape Mike’s world.
In the wake of the Punjabi Line controversy, depicting Mike, a Khasi, as a cleaner, is a great reversal of the rigid politics that made people draw arms.
But the film doesn’t philosophise, instead, it proceeds to expose other stereotypes. When Pun complains about Edwina marrying a non-tribal, instead of a Khasi, or, with a pause, not even him, a Jaintia, a micro politics is revealed. Jaintias and Khasis don’t always see or present themselves as different to an external audience, especially a non-tribal one. Showing Edwina, a Khasi, in love with Navin, a Khasi speaking non-tribal, is not the radical move. But Pun’s pause, in which he locates himself somewhere between a non-tribal and a Khasi, does something to displace a neat tribal-non-tribal distinction.
Iewduh is not about the Punjabi Line, but neither does it elide the vexed questions that lie at the heart of that controversy. Whose market is it? Who decides how people interact, love and co-habit across social lines? What forms of belonging are engendered by time and proximity, rather than legality?
All these questions are artfully dealt with, through a series of inversions. Inversions of staid, handed down notions of what is meant to be Khasi, tribal, non-tribal. The metaphor of the market, its unstructured structure, is carefully used to depict the crisscrossing nature of these lives. The boundaries of community, family, individual, have all been set by time and society, like the lanes of the market dedicated to different products. But slippages happen and are creatively worked on.
A Khasi could be a cleaner; a woman could marry someone slightly or decisively foreign. A third inversion, and this goes deeper and darker, is Mike’s recurrent dream of a woman who is framed as a past or future lover because he speaks of her with so much longing. At the end of the film, when Mike is shown playfully repeating the name of this woman, it suddenly strikes him that she could be his mother whom he’s never seen or doesn’t remember seeing.
In a fourth inversion, Sharma, who runs a classic halvi ki dukkan, has a daughter who appears to be harassed for dowry. This is revealed through a series of phone calls, and towards the end we learn that she escapes her tormentors and is happily back in Sharma’s house who himself is elated. Here the convention of the non-tribal parent not taking in an already married daughter is broken.
But going further, a similar situation with Priya, a Khasi woman selling clothes at thirty rupees a piece is not resolved in the same way. She cannot escape her drunk husband and meets with a bitter end. This is a playful inversion of the trope of the strong, liberated Khasi woman, the kind represented by, say, Tipriti Kharbangar, the famous blues singer from Shillong. The film doesn’t placate identity stereotypes; it challenges and surprises us at moments, and then moves on.
Iewduh’s depiction of time is fascinating. It certainly sets out to represent today’s Shillong – the electric glare from the hills, the tightly-packed houses that Mike and Hep look out at night, are all recognisably in the present. Yet the imagery the film evokes is of a time gone by or standing still. No one is seen using a mobile phone or driving a car or watching TV and that’s not because these things don’t happen in the market. Shillong’s urbanity is very much about these things. Time in the film is textured by human experience, not by a changing relationship to things.
The same with space.
A lot of the film is shot on a wide flat terrace, which is an interesting vantage point to think about Shillong, precisely because Shillong doesn’t really have a terrace life, like the way cities in the plains do. In popular discourse, Shillong, like other hill towns, partly derives its charm from its sloping roofs and smoking chimneys.
Iewduh introduces us to a flatter Shillong, a more functional, possibly a more non-tribal aesthetic, but at the same time one which gives us, literally and figuratively, a more expansive view of the city. Mike does a lot of thinking and talking and drinking on the terrace; it is his space, unlike the lanes of his working day.
The message, in the end, is about interconnection and equivalence between people irrespective of origin. But for me, the film is more about living with difference – making the difference between people bearable and exploring the possibilities that ensue from that. There are big differences and small differences. Mike and Sharma have nothing in common, barely say anything to each other but survive next to one another, can even fit in the same frame.
In this, Iewduh develops an uncommon approach to the social – how to begin not with sameness but with difference as the common denominator for imagining community life.
Black & White photos by Tarun Bhartiya. A version of this essay was published first on The Wire