Change without hype

Change without hype
A still from Prakash Baba Amte - The Real Hero
In these times when a snappy slogan and a quick symbolic contour of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has everybody singing hosannas to a new age of national cleanliness, people should see Samruddhi Porey's Marathi film Prakash Baba Amte — The Real Hero, to know what sets slogans apart from getting your hands and feet dirty living the Gandhian way.

Here we see what real development means. It means respecting human beings for what they are and helping them to grow at their own pace and in their own way.

We are in the dense forest environs of the Lok Biradari Prakalp in Hemalkasa, a village in Bhamragad taluka in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, bordered by Telangana to the south and Chhatisgarh to the east. Lush with teak and bamboo, resounding to the calls of wild animals, this has been home to the Madia Gonds from unknown times and to Naxals in more recent years.

In 1973, Padma Vibhushan Baba Amte was given a tract of land here by the government of Maharashtra for the integrated development of the adivasis, who were still without education and health care, and therefore at the mercy of exploitative witch doctors, the State's forest officials and, more recently, the police.

In 1974, Baba Amte's younger son Prakash, a doctor, and his wife Mandakini, an anaesthetist, moved to Hemalkasa to set up a cottage hospital and a school for the Madia Gonds. Samruddhi Porey's film, subtitled in English, concentrates on those early years of struggle when it was only the indestructible commitment to the Lok Biradari Project that the couple and their associates had, along with their sheer physical and moral courage, the profound love they bore for one another and all things that ran, crept, flew and grew in nature, that gave them the strength to stay the course. That and laughter.

For two years not a single patient came to see them. Then one did.

This incident is one of the few that arouses laughter in an otherwise grim though inspiring film. Dr Amte (Nana Patekar) and Mandakini (Sonali Kulkarni) put all their knowledge to work. Aided by medical tomes, they treat what looks like a case of meningitis.

The patient lies out in the open, on his string cot, the same on which he was brought to Hemalkasa by his relatives. He doesn't appear to be responding to treatment. Then one morning, while the doctors and their aides are asleep under trees and elsewhere, he sits up, pulls out the saline needle from his arm, picks up his cot and trots off, accompanied by the only piece of music that works in the film. It is a simple, quick-beat tune that synchronises with the characteristic walk of the Madiyas as they bring their sick on charpais hung on bamboo poles that rest on the carriers' shoulders.

Another rather amusing scene occurs at the American Consulate. An organisation of Indians in America, have invited the couple to address them. The American at the counter says, "Salary"? Dr Amte answers "1,500 rupees." His visa is rejected. Who'll want to return to India on such a meager salary? The news makes headlines in the press.

India's Shweitzer couple, winners of the Magsaysay award, denied American visa. The couple are travelling home in a State transport bus when Dr Amte gets a call from the Consulate. We are very, very sorry; would you please, please come back for your visa. This gives Dr Amte his moment of fun. "I can't afford to come back on my salary of 1,500 rupees," he says.

There is one quintessentially Gandhian moment in the film. Dr Amte is sadly watching an adivasi woman making futile attempts at keeping her naked child warm with a corner of the rag she's wearing. He turns away from the scene, strips himself down to his vest and drawers saying, "I don't have the right to wear shirts and trousers when my people are shivering in the cold."

The subject of the film is so inspiring that one overlooks its erratic script. What gives the film its power is the location, beautifully shot by Mahesh Aney, the presence of the adivasis with their inscrutable faces, the excellent art direction by Abhishek Redkar and, most importantly, the stirring performances given by Nana Patekar and Sonali Kulkarni. The conviction that they bring to their roles has surely much to do with the sheer genuineness, humility and compassion of the couple they are playing. Quite obviously, they have lived their roles.