Documentary: ‘A Rifle And A Bag’ Is A Poignant Portrait Of Ex-Naxals’ Interactions With The Indian State And Society

posted on 2nd of September 2020

Somi wears a broad smile. She’s in her late twenties—or early thirties, she doesn’t know—and pregnant with her second child. “I think it’s a girl”, she tells her husband Sukhram, five years her junior. Somi cooks, washes their clothes and takes care of their first child, while Sukhram is about the house doing nondescript work. They have a pet parrot and raise poultry in their plot of land. It might be the picture of a modest but ordinary family, except for the fact that both Somi and Sukhram are renegades from the Naxal movement who surrendered to the Indian state, received amnesty, and were resettled under the country’s rehabilitation policy for ex-Naxals. Their “second-life” in a colony in rural Maharashtra comprising refugees like themselves, is the subject of a compelling new documentary titled A Rifle and a Bag, which screened online at the Visions du Réel film festival last week.

In long, fixed shots, the opening passage of the film gives us a sense of the couple’s everyday reality: scenes from domestic life, Somi’s visit to the pregnancy clinic, the couple’s conversation about their to-be-born second child. These images of quotidian life are, however, soon punctured as we learn about Somi’s past as a Naxal commander, the deadly reprisals the couple have risked in their surrender, their lingering feeling of deracination. Somi’s role as a wife and a mother is in stark contrast with her older role as a Naxal higher-up. But Somi makes no remark about this conventional distribution of labour, content instead to secure a future for her children.

A large part of A Rifle and a Bag presents the couple’s interaction with the Indian state and civil society on a day-to-day basis as part of their rehabilitation. Somi runs from pillar to post to unsuccessfully obtain a caste certificate for Sukhram, who can’t safely go back home to Chhattisgarh to get one. Without this certificate, they can’t admit their son into a school. The film develops around the central irony that Somi and Sukhram, of a tribal origin, have to identify themselves in terms the Indian state understands. The state and the civil society, though, aren’t malevolent forces. In fact, the officers, teachers and doctors whom we only hear interacting with Somi could hardly be more understanding and sympathetic. It’s the system they help function, faceless just like them, that holds Somi and Sukhram in a vice-like grip. Earlier in the film, a self-congratulatory meeting organised by the local Rotary chapter, and blessed by the army, reinforces the new-fangled national identity of the ex-Naxals, pointing out that Naxalism is truly a national problem, affects as it does twenty-two states. Somi and Sukhram manage to find a place for their son at the boarding school, however briefly. In a scene at the school that puts too fine a point on it, the children are made to perform morning prayers, taught violently patriotic slogans and are, quite plainly, indoctrinated into the nationalist ideology. Somi, on the other hand, hardly has any national consciousness. Asked why she joined the Naxals, she says she wanted to get back at the local landlord who let the police harass her kin.

Through these contrasts, A Rifle and a Bag brings to surface the losses involved in the family’s integration into society. In their new colony, Somi and Sukhram don’t get land to farm on—their primary occupation—but simply a plot large enough for a house. They are not only alienated from the world around their settlement, which still associates them with Naxalism, but also their relatives in Naxal-dominated areas. That we seldom see them outside their house or within a community only exacerbates the impression of their isolation. Owing to their situation, they can only send their child to a boarding school, where the boy acquires a body of knowledge vastly different from their own, in a language not their own. In a poignant exchange towards the end, Somi recounts her Naxal background to her son, as though restoring his ties to the family history, against the narrative he will soon be taught. Not surprisingly, Somi appears to persistently doubt whether they have made right decision in surrendering, whether their new life is indeed better. To be sure, her family is objectively “making progress”. There’s a new bike, there are new clothes, the poultry makes way for cattle. Their colony has electricity and there’s cable television at home—material comforts contrasted with her past life in the jungle. But we never fully know why Somi or Sukhram left the Naxal organisation, or what they are hoping for through their rehabilitation. Somi continues to maintain that the ideology behind the movement is righteous, even though its ways may be wrong. It’s to the film’s success that its loyalty lies with Somi’s unavowed incertitude than with any ideological certainties.

A Rifle and a Bag was produced and directed by Cristina Hanes, Isabella Rinaldi, and Arya Rothe, a trio known as the NoCut Film Collective. They adapt a non-interventional style—familiar in international documentary practice—in which Somi and Sukhram play themselves, their reality fictionalised just enough to constitute the narrative structure. They punctuate the film with repeated compositions—the house gate, Somi across an office desk, the changing phases of the moon—to impart a sense of place. This restrained form, marked by large ellipses, nevertheless makes space for considerable feeling, allowing us to recognise the tragedy behind Somi’s perennial smile.

Published on May 13th, 2020 in Silverscreen India.

The original version can be found here.

The film – which premiered at Rotterdam, in the „Bright Future” sidebar – is the first production of the NoCut Collective, which is composed of Cristina Haneș (Romania), Isabella Rinaldi (Italy) and Arya Rothe (India), three young directors who studied together at the international documentary film school DocNomads. The concept of a collective doesn’t seem to be fashionable in contemporary cinema, but here it’s justified – if we look at the final result – for a series of reasons: first of all because it favours forgoing dominating norms and hierarchies of the industry in the favour of collaborative work, in which tasks are split in flexible and efficient ways; also, because it almost single-handedly evokes an entire history of militant political cinema, in which one Chris Marker or Jean-Luc Godard could travel to the ends of the world to supply hot anthropological documents, which contribute to the emancipation of peoples oppressed by Imperialist forces, etc., etc. We’re not in the same years, obviously – but it’s all the more surprising since the film, which stays loyal to this sparse economy, retains something from the utopic atmosphere of those times, in which everything seemed to be on the path of being invented and reinvented every single day.

A Rifle and a Bag obliquely explores the political points opened up by the interest that is granted to the above-mentioned family. Somi and her husband, who aren’t even thirty yet, are former Naxalites – meaning, former „rebels” that militate, gun in hand, for a different, more just means of organizing Indian society, and for the preservation of the jungle and so on – in short, for marxist ideals. The film follows across a longer period of time the ways of life of these people who have publicly rejected the guerrilla, who are now caught up in all sorts of dead-end administrative procedures: for example, the husband cannot obtain his caste certificate which would enable their kids to go to school. When their oldest son, age six, finally is able to go to school, the sequences which take place in his classroom unearths a traumatic process of precocious military drafting, wherein the kids are forced to sing patriotic songs and to show their approval of being drafted in the country’s army. This is the limbo – as critic Ionuț Mareș calls it – in which the family members are struggling: entering a conflictual situation with their former brothers-in-arms and knocking at the door of a society which, even though it leaves the impression of a favorable view on their integration, actually is hell-bent on humiliating them at any given occasion. This is all the more emotional in the long shot we have of Somi, sitting on the banks of a small body of water, as she – nostalgically – recounts stories to her son about her involvement in the Naxalite organization. Initially, the boy horses around – but throughout the course of Somi’s storytelling, we feel, along with the child, that something is gaining momentum, as if the belief in the former utopia could be born again out of a couple of words and memories. Somi’s mind is still there, in the jungle – while she also takes care, in extremely delicate sequences, of her children. It is thus becoming to see such a dignified figure that, although forced to live a precarious life at the margins of society, gives voice to a social concept that is much more advanced than the simplistic slogans thrown around through so-called developed nations.

It is unclear if the film – which questions this militantist worldview quite superficially, rather opting for vignettes of the family’s current domestic life – actually proposes to rehabilitate the ideal of political fight, which is by and large stigmatized, and not just in contemporary India. This interpretative flow is especially motivated by the film’s austere aesthetics, which is composed exclusively of „observational” shots that instill a kind of distance from the subject. After all, the strictness by which the directors cultivate this formal system – almost all scenes are made up of one single shot – simultaneously represents the film’s force and weakness. Its force, because sometimes this distance leads to instances of „profane illumination”, like the one in which the young father confronts the sadness and emotion of his son after a day of school, far from home; incapable of quelling his tears, the father regards – for one second – the camera with a sense of entanglement and shame, and that second concentrates in itself a great cinematic moment. But the limits of the film have to do with the fear of adventuring beyond the predetermined borders of this form, which sometimes feels much more like a convenience than a form of justice at the end – for example, we lack any kind of visually suggestive evocation of the jungle that can be hinted at in Somi’s eyes… Yet it’s possible that this rediscovery of an utopia by the mother might be favoured exactly because she is in the experience of being in front of the camera – because the film manages to camouflage, if not invert, the power dynamics of a white foreigner filming an indigineous person. The impression that’s left is that, while going against the current, Somi – much more energetic and at ease than her husband – takes the technology into her own hands and uses it exactly to gain wings of her own, to take her struggle to new places. Somehow reminding of Roberto Rosselini’s "India: Matri Bhumi" (1959), this anthropological gaze, which infiltrates into the heart of India from the exterior, will also have been marked by the process of tracing the shape of a small locus of resistance in front of the state leviathan.

Published on 24th of February 2020 in Films in Frames Magazine.

The original version in Romanian can be found here.

The English version published in Films in Frames can be found here.

Portrait of a rebellious mother in THE India of injustice

Review by Emanuele di Nicola
posted on 25th of February 2020

A Rifle and a Bag, the documentary film by Isabella Rinaldi, Cristina Hanes and Arya Rothe was presented at the International Rotterdam Film Festival in the Bright Future Competition. Set in India, the film tells the story of Somi: a former Maoist who rebelled against the injustice of the State, today mother of two children. The directors probe the real and in return they get a portrait of a great female character, not as a defeated but a living invitation to resistance.

Somi is pregnant. She is expecting her second child. She is sure it’s a girl: "When I had the boy, I felt differently", she says. Before we see her, we see a burning fire: the flames rise high against the background of the Indian nature. Shot entirely in India, A Rifle and a Bag is a documentary presented in competition on January 27th at the Rotterdam Film Festival, in the Bright Future Competition.

There is also an Italian talent behind its creation: the three directors, who co-founded the film collective called NoCut are Isabella Rinaldi, Cristina Hanes and Arya Rothe. The protagonist is also a woman: Somi, a former Naxal guerrilla, the Maoist-inspired rebel group (from the village of Naxalbari, in Bengal, where the first revolt broke out in 1967) that is still fighting for the rights of the tribal communities, neglected and discriminated by the central State.

But Somi has surrendered. Together with her husband she chose to leave the militancy and officially surrender to the government: in exchange she got a small compensation and a simple accommodation. She did it for her children, for the serenity of the family, and perhaps also for herself: it is a choice of field, not because she stopped challenging the iniquities of the state - like her ancestors before her -, but because she preferred the domestic nest to a life of opposition that would have affected her offspring.

A Rifle and a Bag - the title of the film already indicates an antithesis, the symbol of fight and femininity gathered here in one figure. The directors, who are respectively Italian (Rinaldi), Romanian (Hanes) and Indian (Rothe), literally followed the story over a long period of time: having gained the trust of the characters, they returned several times in this rural area of India to follow their evolution, as it becomes evident by the chronology: in the first part Somi is pregnant and then we see the baby.

The situation is complex: as a family of ex-Naxalites, Somi and her loved ones are third-degree citizens in a society divided into castes, and they don’t have the "caste certificate" that would allow the eldest son to go to school. To access the education they have to face a dead-end bureaucratic maze.

In 89 minutes the directors tell the story by relying on fixed sequence shots that probe the Indian nature, capturing episodes of the daily life: children, animals, the routine of every day. They never enter the field: they respect the matter represented, they treat it discreetly, they do not intervene but prefer to question the reality that speaks for itself. The wife and the husband talk to each other in front of the camera, their faces lit by the fire, and in the meantime they tell themselves both through the evocation of past events (they met in the commando of the Naxalites) but also through the minutiae of everyday life, such as the difficulties of managing two children.

On one hand they explain what brings the weakest to oppose, on the other hand they go back to the intimate: Somi first goes to the doctor to check on her pregnancy, then bathes the newborn, en plein air in an almost ancestral way, a magnificent scene that the authors manage to capture.

In the background there is the world around them that becomes a social tale: the documentary enters an Indian school, looks at the children, film a numerous classroom where the children sing a national song about the greatness of Mother India. "Who will join the army?" the teacher asks and everyone raises their hand.

At the end we see the mother and her son nestled in the Indian jungle barren and watered by a river, where the woman tells the child the story of the rebels as if it was a fairy tale: "We were at war against the police to help the ordinary people - she says -. The poor should rule the country, democracy is needed. " Militancy is a story to tell, passed on to the offspring, but at the same time a real tale that invites to critical thinking and becomes political education, so that the children will question the established powers of tomorrow.

Rinaldi, Hanes and Rothe bring to us their idea of ​​documentary cinema: different from many documentaries nowadays, which try to instill a judgment in the viewers, underestimating them, they just observe. It’s the school of Wiseman. They capture the everyday, even the obvious and the banal, they take a story and revisit it over time, patient and tenacious, returning to the same place.

This is what research is, this is what an investigation is, away from the speed of the contemporary. With this peculiar "co-production of brains", the six-hands film therefore outlines a memorable female portrait: a woman framed by women, and for once - without resorting to ideologies - the softness in the touch of the directors seems to really affect the result.

Because A Rifle and a Bag tells the twilight of militancy, the renunciation of the idea out of love, the activist who chooses to be a mother despite the injustice persists; but Somi also remains a great character, certainly not defeated, but a rebellious mother who, with the mere act of being and telling herself, makes up a gesture of resistance against the oppressing State.

Published on 27th of January 2020 in Bookciak Magazine.

The original version in Italian can be found here.