India's first Uranium mine was The Jaduguda Mine in Jaduguda village in the Purbi Singhbhum district of Jharkhand. The deposits at this mine were discovered in 1951 and operation commenced in 1967. The Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL) had a dream of producing 40,000 MW of nuclear power by 2030 but not long after it started on this journey, the corporation left behind it a trail of death, deformity, destruction and displacement in Jaduguda and its surrounding villages.
A docu-fiction movie called Tortoise Under The Earth takes us deeper into that gruesome story. Directed by the Mumbai-based filmmaker, Shishir Jha, the film is about a tribal couple coping with the loss of their daughter and the anxiety of displacement due to uranium mining in Turamdih, a village near Jaduguda.
It premiered in March last year at the Mumbai Film Festival, had a special mention at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and was screened at the São Paulo International Film Festival, Dharamshala International Film festival, Kolkata International Film festival and People’s Film Festival, and Common Good International Film Festival.
Tortoise Under The Earth is an exploration of the deeply intertwined connections between tribal communities and the forest that is their traditional home. The film starts with 'Sohrai', the thanksgiving ritual of Turamdih when the crop is harvested and ends in 'Baha', when the seed is sowed. It captures the one-year cycle of the lives of 'Santhals', the indigenous tribe living in Jharkhand and Bihar.
Although the film covers the subject of displacement and loss, it's not about the uranium mine itself but rather about the people that it affects. It's a beautifully told story of social interest through human lives. It depicts how like a silent, distant 'ghost', the mine and its radioactive waste has taken over Turamdih; poisoning its water resources and wildlife with "a mystery illness" that has brought upon darkness over a peaceful village that was coexisting in balance with nature.
The protagonists of the film are a couple that are trying to deal the threat of displacement day by day as it encroaches closer and closer. The wife spends part of her days 'day-dreaming' and missing her daughter while the husband tries to support her as best he can. Despite the pain, they have a sweet relationship and a gentleness in their love story that contrasts the looming dangers of radioactive poisoning and dispossession.
Tortoise Under The Earth is full of folk songs and long scenic shots of Turamdih that definitely elicits its beauty but there's an eerieness and melancholy in the air that the viewer can never quite shake-off. The women singing, collecting wood during the day can't help but pause in shock as they hear a distant explosion in the mines. The silence is intrusive and discomforting.
Hindustan Times called Jaduguda 'The Nuclear Graveyard' and rightly so the way the mine slowly finished an entire generation of tribals living in the area. The village became a radioactive nightmare causing hundreds of cases of congenital illnesses like lumbar scoliosis and muscular dystrophy and high incidence of infertility, miscarriages, and premature deliveries among the tribal communities living there. The trees and the animals weren't spared either.
Tortoise Under The Earth tells its story through a humanistic lens. It's succulent with both the love and pain of the tribal communities. Deftly interweaving the vivid colours of their festivals, their folk songs and the sense of community that binds them together, the film is a poetic elegy to a world that is rapidly disappearing, subsumed by unchecked development and displacement. It left me with one question — if karma is real, why is it that the ones who do no harm and live in harmony with nature are the ones that are the most vulnerable and left to face the man-made hells wreaked by corporations?