Feisty documentary filmmaker and vociferous social activist Saraswati Kavula played an active role in the movement against illegal uranium mining in Andhra Pradesh in 2004. She decided to make an investigative documentary on illegal mining in Nalagonda and soon realised that making documentary films was her calling.
Her latest Telugu film with English subtitles, Dam’n’ed, deals with the issue of displacement as a result of the construction of the Polavaram Dam, the largest one in the country, in Andhra Pradesh. “When I thought of a title, I could not think of anything beyond that Damned— the lives of the people, the environment and the project itself. A totally useless project that is going to send more than two lakh adivasis to damnation, while not being of any benefit for farmers of the region,” says Saraswati, who is in her early 30s.
Then she makes an interesting reference to the illegal mining in Nalgonda. “During our campaign against the uranium mines in Nalgonda, we (Movement against Uranium Projects) translated the film Buddha Weeps in Jadugoda by Shriprakash, into Telugu and showed it in all the affected areas, to journalists and political parties that made a lot of difference. And to initiate a public discourse, there can’t be a better medium than a good documentary,” says the Hyderabad-based environmentalist. “The difference is that with a work of fiction there is a larger outreach, however, it may just soon be forgotten whereas a documentary is a presentation of real life, so though the outreach is smaller, the impact is always greater,” she points out.
All her films have been about the resource politics and its resultant impact on environment and people’s lives and livelihoods. “Most of my films are about environment and developmental issues. There is a close connection between environment and human rights. The whole world is embroiled in resource politics and the paradigm of development which is basically the money based, capitalist industrialised model that is at the back of all conflicts,” she says. “However, we try to look at them in a piecemeal fashion. My effort had always been to present a holistic picture of all these and try to bring in the connections,” says Saraswati, who is also the joint convener, National Alliance of People’s Movements, Andhra Pradesh Chapter.
Saraswati says she realised long ago that if we must reverse the ill effects both in society and in the environment, we need to go back to simpler living. “Instead of creating these megacities which become unsustainable, we need to start living in smaller communities and use local resources sustainably. But then, I can’t be sitting in a city and saying that, so, I shifted to the rural set up of Yacharam where my father lives,” she says. “It did take a few years for me to be mentally prepared to do so. But other than this, my own involvement in making films on agriculture got me interested. And I also realised since I won’t be able to make much money, it is also useful for me to have a small piece of land where I can grow my food, have a small place to live and be independent,” says Saraswati, who divides her time between Yacharam and Hyderabad.
Saraswati grew up in Nalgonda and the seeds of love for the environment were sown by her geography teacher in school. “She would give us projects regarding environment, deforestation and that got me thinking. I was also fortunate to study in schools that were close to natural places. My school in Nalgonda had a farm where we grew vegetables needed for the hostels. So automatically I felt an affinity with nature and never really liked the concretisation of Hyderabad,” says Saraswati.
“If we must save ourselves and our future, there has to be total overhaul on what we call ‘development’,” she argues. “There are people who say, ‘lets have SEZs but let the benefits go to the farmers.’ The ancient wisdom of living in harmony with nature has gone out of the window. We want better facilities or ban plastic or grow more trees or things like that. But we don’t want to get to the root of this whole mess, which is this resource depleting industrialisation-at-any-cost model of development. I don’t say we don’t need industries, but to what extent and at what cost—that is the big question,” she asks.
She loves her work but admits that it doesn’t pay much. “There is always the option of doing commercials and corporate films. But that is something against my belief system,” says Saraswati, who went to the UK to pursue a course in filmmaking, which was followed by a stint in commercial cinema. She was the assistant director and costume designer for Morning Raaga, a film starring Shabana Azmi and Perizaad Zorabian. “It’s difficult to make a living as a documentary maker. I could not repay my loans for my studies in UK, nor would I have been able to live in Hyderabad. I have managed to do well, thanks to a very supportive family,” she says.