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Paltadacho Munis and the Coming of Age of Konkani Cinema

16 Jul, 2020 | Short Features by Isidore Dantas
Paltadacho Munis (2009)

Laxmikant Shetgaonkar’s debut feature received the FIPRESCI Prize for Discovery at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. It weaves in issues of mental health, the environment and power structures that operate in the Indian hinterland, and provided a much-needed boost to Konkani cinema. 

For a debut feature in a language that is largely unheralded in Indian cinema, it was indeed high praise. In its citation, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) said, ‘Far from the sensory overload of India’s big cities, this film explores smaller but enduring dilemmas, drawing together keen environmental sensitivity with a nuanced view of village dynamics. Director Shetgaonkar, immersed in the culture of the region, tells his tale with grace and attentiveness, taking the villages traditions and beliefs seriously, while casting a jaundiced eye on those who exploit them.’

Paltadacho Munis (The Man beyond the Bridge, 2009) also won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Konkani. It is based on the novel Adrusht by Mahableshwar Sail, a stalwart of Konkani literature who received the 1993 Sahitya Akademi Award for his compilation of short stories Tarangam.
Paltadacho Munis (The Man beyond the Bridge, 2009) also won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Konkani. It is based on the novel Adrusht by Mahableshwar Sail, a stalwart of Konkani literature who received the 1993 Sahitya Akademi Award for his compilation of short stories Tarangam. The author has been in the Indian army and part of the army’s peacekeeping operations in the 1960s. He subsequently worked in the forest department and his first-hand experience gives the novel and the film their authentic feel. 

The director, Laxmikant Shetgaonkar, was born in Goa. A graduate in theatre arts with a diploma computer applications, he worked as an actor-teacher in the National School of Drama in New Delhi and conducted many acting workshops across India. He also designed and directed several theatre productions like Hara Samandar and Karnabharam.

He worked as a screenplay writer and assistant director on several TV and film projects before starting independently. Before directing Paltadacho Munis, he made the Konkani-English documentary on HIV, Let’s Talk About It (2005). His Marathi documentary Eka Sagar Kinara (2005) was shown at the Mumbai International Film Festival and bagged the Golden Conch. His other non-feature films include the Konkani-English documentary Can You Hear My Silence (2007), on the origin and growth of sex trade in Vasco; Tales of Ganges, on the widows of Varanasi; and Navjawan, a probing look at the psyche of youngsters from small towns studying in urban colleges. For his outstanding achievement in building film culture in Goa, he was felicitated by the Goa government in 2009. 
An avid reader and nature lover, it is no surprise Shetgaonkar chose to adapt Adrusht, a novel set against the backdrop of Western Ghats and addressing issues of environment and traditions.
An avid reader and nature lover, it is no surprise that the director chose to adapt Adrusht, a novel set against the backdrop of Western Ghats and addressing issues of environment and traditions. Vinayak is a forest guard in a place called Sleeperhalli, which derives its name from the fact that Indian Railways prepares sleeper coaches using the wood from this forest on the border of south Goa and north Karnataka. He patrols the protected lands while memories of his dead wife continue to haunt him. He lives in the forest in a government house. He has made several applications for his transfer from here but they have all been rejected, since no one wants to live alone in the forest. His employers reason that since Vinayak has no family, the posting should not be a problem for him.
The novel and the film differ in many ways, with the director adding is own creative take.
One day, he finds a mentally challenged woman outside his door. He tries to shoo her away but to no avail. His humanity drives him to offer food to the frail and famished woman who shelters herself in the courtyard of his house. A tentative relationship grows between the two, providing Vinayak some company and a way out of his boredom and solitude. He cooks for himself and for another person, narrates stories of his dead wife and takes care of her. One day he finds her in a pool of blood and comes to know that she is menstruating. He remembers his wife who used to remain aloof during this period and used to eat in a separate plate and would not allow Vinayak to come near her. He hands over his wife’s clothes and ornaments for her to wear. The relationship develops and one day he realizes that she is pregnant. The villagers question Vinayak’s right over the helpless woman. They maintain that the relationship is morally repugnant. However, for Vinayak the woman is a companion and the mother of his child. Thus begins a conflict between a society that refuses to take responsibility of such a woman and a man’s determination to fight norms of society. 

The novel and the film differ in many ways, with the director adding is own creative take. In the novel, the woman (who discloses her name as Mitra) recovers her mental balance, whereas in the film she does not. The novel explains the reasons that led her to lose her faculties, and deals at length with her past and her family and that of the death of Vinayak’s wife. In the film, the woman does not talk about her past. She does not visit her family. The film makes a passing reference to the death of Vinayak’s wife, Uma. The director brings in the construction of a temple, this adding a touch of contemporaneity to the film. A politician enters the picture as the village headman. He wants to build the temple in the forest, unscrupulously using the forest and its trees for the construction. The headman gets elected with a thumping majority riding on the emotions roused by the construction of the temple. 
The novel and its adaptation brim over with several traditional beliefs of the region.
The novel and its adaptation brim over with several traditional beliefs of the region. Sandalwood and turmeric paste are used to purify the bodies of women after completion of their menstrual period. The whole house is sprinkled with cow dung for purification. Being born on a new moon day is considered a bad omen, people engage in practices of piercing cheeks and whipping as a mark of their devotion, the rituals of exorcising are highlighted. To the director’s credit, the approach is neither judgemental nor does it justify the beliefs. The director presents a way of life and leaves the viewer to interpret it in his or her own way. 

The cinematography beautifully captures the scenic splendour of the Western Ghats, its verdant greenery, its flora and fauna. The film was extensively shot in Gokuldem, Paddi, Subdolem, Morpirla and Cotigao sanctuary. The scene depicting the rope bridge was shot on Gokuldem river. The chirping of birds, the echoes of the jungle and the sound of the running water, the wood being sawed add verisimilitude to the film. Similarly, the blowing of the bugles, beating of the drums during the procession of the temple with the background music create a beautiful spectacle. 
The cinematography beautifully captures the scenic splendour of the Western Ghats, its verdant greenery, its flora and fauna. The film was extensively shot in Gokuldem, Paddi, Subdolem, Morpirla and Cotigao sanctuary. The scene depicting the rope bridge was shot on Gokuldem river. The chirping of birds, the echoes of the jungle and the sound of the running water, the wood being sawed add verisimilitude to the film.
What is also impressive is the film’s casting. Chittaranjan Giri as Vinayak is a revelation in a number of sequences. Requesting a transfer and the refusal thereof; his turmoil when the temple is being built; his aversion to exorcism and piercing of cheeks by devotees; his reaction when he learns that the woman is pregnant; when he gets a show-cause notice for remaining absent most of the time; when the woman runs away and sits at the creek and he follows her… Veena Jamkar is equally eloquent as the woman, her face a repository of myriad emotions as her belongings are burnt, when she goes running to open the door, when she is waiting to hear the footsteps of Vinayak, when he shows her a fish, looks at the moon with new hope, watches Vinayak through window when he is bruised and so on. 
For a first feature, it is heartening to see the director address a number of issues of contemporary urgency. Foremost among these is the degradation of the environment, a matter of grave concern to the region which has seen ruthless exploitation of its natural resources by unscrupulous builders in league with politicians.
For a first feature, it is heartening to see the director address a number of issues of contemporary urgency. Foremost among these is the degradation of the environment, a matter of grave concern to the region which has seen ruthless exploitation of its natural resources by unscrupulous builders in league with politicians. The film also obliquely refers to the institutionalization of religion and its unholy nexus with politics. The sarpanch uses the construction of the temple as a means to win the election. Uncomfortably echoing the current narrative in many parts of the country, he says that building the temple is a symbol of prosperity and of humanity and that the government cannot object to popular wish when it comes to this religious symbol. He adds that the temple will keep away sin and therefore people should complete the task without hindrance and that no law is greater than religious belief. One of the most pertinent aspects the film addresses is our society’s response to mental health and how we render people who are mentally challenged to the margins of society. It explores man’s responsibility towards those in need, and also asks when the protection offered can go too far.
One of the most pertinent aspects the film addresses is our society’s response to mental health and how we render people who are mentally challenged to the margins of society. It explores man’s responsibility towards those in need, and also asks when the protection offered can go too far.
While the novel is in standard Konkani, the film makes use of three different dialects of Konkani. The forest guard and the mad woman speak the Velip dialect. The director himself belongs to the same community and does a commendable job of capturing the essence of the dialect. The forester, who hails from Karnataka, speaks Konkani in Mangalorean dialect. These dialogues have been written by Krishna Kamath, a Mangalorean, and in charge of the Konkani section of Akashvani, Mumbai. The rest of the dialogues, written by the director himself, is in standard Konkani. This experimentation enhances the mood of the film.

The director deserves kudos for the final scene where Vinayak is shown snapping the rope bridge, depicting that no civilized society should interfere in the life of the villagers. The woman has at last escaped human depredations to attain a measure of independence. 

In its subtle and unsentimental exploration of contemporary themes, its performances and in realistically highlighting the dialects of the Konkani language in the furtherance of its narrative, Paltadacho Munis is an important contribution to the many cinemas of India. 

Producer: National Film Development Corporation of India
Story: Mahabaleshwar Sail
Screenplay & direction: Laxmikant Shetgaonkar
D.O.P: Arup Mandal
Editor: Sankalp Meshram
Sound: Rajiv Hegde
Music: Ved Nair
Executive Producer: Entertainment Network of Goa
Cast: Chittaranjan Giri, Vasant Josalkar, Prashanti Talpankar, Veena Jamkar

Awards & Festivals
•    FIPRESCI Award at Toronto International film Festival ’09
•    Hong Kong Asian Film Festival ’09
•    Cairo International Film Festival ’09
•    Mumbai Film Festival ’09
•    International Film Festival of India ’09
•    3rd Eye International Film Festival Mumbai ’09
•    Palm Springs International Film Festival ’10
•    Pune International Film Festival ’10
•    Berlin International Film Festival ’10

 

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About the Author

Isidore Dantas self learnt Konkani after leaving Goa at the age of 13 and resettling in Mumbai/Pune.
After scanning newspapers, pot boiler novels and anything written in Konkani, he has managed to pick up enough of the language to have penned a book on Konkani films in all its three major scripts, authored a biography of an artist Alfred Rose, penned a history of Goan journals and newspapers, published an English Konkani dictionary and acted as a translator for reputed clients. The name of his website is konkanicinema.com
He has been a freelance journalist since his teens and is now a regular contributor to Konkani, English and Marathi papers.
A contributor to the Konkani Wikipedia and Konkani Wiktionary, he has also contributed to social activities in Pune since 1965.