Khasi cinema was brought further into the national limelight with the release of the film Ri (Homeland of Uncertainty) was adjudged as the Best film in a ‘Language other than those mentioned in the Eighth Schedule of Indian Constitution’ at the 61st National Film Awards. The film attempts to capture the complex political landscape of the state of Meghalaya, primarily focussing on the tussle between the State and anti-nationalist militant organizations. It traces the trajectory of the protagonist named Manbha, a young man who when we first encounter is a passionate member of a militant group but who ultimately abandons the movement and surrenders to the police. Thus, interestingly enough, the narrative concludes with a celebration of the reconciliation between the two historically antagonistic parties: the Indian State and the militants.The film begins with a scene in Bangladesh, a country in which many militant groups seek asylum and build their base. The protagonist Manbha, along with his comrades are enthused about their future trip to Shillong (capital of Meghalaya), which was a potential step towards the actualization of their vision about a Khasi nation. Dialogues around the refusal to observe 15th August as Independence Day resonate with arguments of the only active militant group in the Khasi and Jaintia Hills, the Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC).
The film strengthens its plot by the replete usage of stereotypical representations of characters. Amongst the planning and the strategizing, the group obtains arms from none other than a Muslim trader while in Bangladesh. Of course, this scene falls into the trap of reinforcing the general prejudiced idea of Muslims being associated with violence and terrorism. It appears to be suggesting that the violence in Meghalaya, India is literally fuelled by the Bangladeshi Muslims. Apart from this racist injection, there is also a very distressing representation of women. The woman character whose house Manbha takes shelter in becomes the moralizing tool who eventually drives him into surrendering. Much of the film’s political rationale is amplified by this woman, who through multiple conversations with Manbha promotes ideas of Indian patriotism, interestingly underlining development as a cause for being grateful to the Indian State. The woman thus emerges as merely a prop in the “moral” journey that Manbha undergoes; she is a character whose existence is primarily to serve the male protagonist’s ultimate fate of reformation. The woman thus performs the stereotypical role of the female character who is the deliverer of conscience, the person who brings back the male counterpart from a strayed way and facilitates his final transformation into an obedient and non-violent subject of the State. The other visible female character in the film is the journalist who appears to be clandestinely involved with SP D. Kyndiah, the person behind the crackdown on Manbha’s crew’s return to Shillong from Bangladesh. The journalist similarly has a peripheral role in the entire plot even though technically, she is the central link between the case and the public. Further, one cannot ignore how sexualized her character is, especially when there are several shots which draw the viewers’ attention to her body and attire. And most importantly, although as a representative of the media, the woman journalist is expected to maintain a neutral position vis-a-vis the case, in her sporadic appearances in the film we observe how dependent she is on the information given by Kyndiah. In fact, in the conversations between her and Kyndiah, the voice of reason and knowledge would often emanate from him while she listens and observes. Thus, women in this film are reduced to stereotypical positions , one being that of the redeemer/saviour (the house-owner) and the other of the sexualized marginal woman whose existence is chiefly to add some excitement to the sub-plot.
The political dynamics that Ri portrays is not particular to Meghalaya at all; there are numerous other secessionist groups in various regions of North East India which have taken up arms in their fight for independence from the Indian nation. However, without any care to specify the context, the film casually moves into a representation of militancy in Meghalaya and the North-East at large as something which is endemic and perpetual in the region, not as one which emerges out of a deeply complicated colonial and post-colonial matrix. Moreover, although the film’s argument (as articulated by the woman in whose house Manbha lands up) about how militant groups in Meghalaya are often driven by groundless ideologies and sometimes greed is not far from the truth, it refuses to acknowledge and reveal that in Meghalaya and many other North Eastern states, there exists a tight nexus between politicians and these very groups. In fact, the sky-rocketing level of corruption in the public sector of these states is almost proportional to the intensity of militancy in the same. Further, as Goirick Brahmachari argues in his review of the film titled “From the Heart of Meghalaya,” while the film clearly positions itself against the recalcitrant attitude and often violent tactics of such groups, it does not however problematize the rampant prevalence of State violence in the North East at all. If the discourse on violence is really what the film attempts to engage with, it does so with a careful filtering out of historical facts which may tarnish the wonderful image of the Indian government as the keeper of justice and the spirit of democracy. As mentioned before, the film ends with a final reconciliation between the State and the militants, as exemplified by Manbha’s surrender to the police. However, what is most fascinating about the conclusion of the film is the convenient but rather sudden entry of religion, posing as the instrument of conscience-building for the protagonist and later, the guarantor of his ultimate reformation. The last few shots of the film document Manbha’s repentance in the church and also his act of confession where he admits to the “sinfulness” of his involvement with the underground. The priest assures him of god’s forgiveness and Manbha happily walks out of the church, ready to submit to Kyndiah who is already stationed outside with his entourage. There is also an accompanying celebratory music which serves to intensify the viewers’ experience of such a climatic scene. The significance of this last section of the film is the fact that it is reveals more than any other, the lack of depth and complexity in the entire plot of the film. Christianity, which hovers in the background (or perhaps foreground?) of Khasi and Jaintia society is also realized here as the indispensable authority to which people’s conception of morality is glued.
Ri’s achievement is therefore confined to its cinematography, which is rather quite stunning for a film made within the budget of twenty-two lakhs. It certainly has one of the best camera works amongst contemporary Khasi fiction films. However, in terms of plot and script, it is not really up to the mark, especially taking into account the fact that it has been endowed with a national award. In fact, the oversimplified reading of the political situation in Meghalaya, accompanied by the deeply moralizing tone that runs throughout the film, makes it seem as if it is a product of government propaganda. The strong emphasis on reconciliation and Manbha’s move from criticality to acceptance of the Indian State clearly reveals that Ri’s idea of justice and peace resides in the militants’ surrendering of arms and not in the State taking similar responsibilities.