Film Review: Sikaisal (2022): The enduring power of conviction
The strength of the story lies in the characterization of Maheshwar Patar, a strong figure who is hushed by hope and let down by reality, writes noted film critic , Dipankar Sarkar
Dipankar Sarkar, an Indian film critic and an alumnus of FTII, Pune, writes, “Dramatically, the narrative proceeds at a slow pace, and the filmmaker never tries to make a major point or display a patronising perspective towards the Tiwa community.”
Bobby Sarma Baruah’s Sikaisal (If Only Trees Could Talk, 2022) is a Tiwa language film that discreetly criticises the "babu-culture" amongst government officials through the persuading tale of a village school teacher's tenacity. In doing so, the film raises an urgent question about the appalling state of education among a disadvantaged rural population.
Based on actual occurrences, the real-life character of Maheshwar Patar portrays himself as a teacher at a primary school constructed with bamboo. Since the institution is not provincialized, he makes multiple rounds of the government office to obtain official recognition. In order to complete his task, he does not hesitate to use domestic food items to grease the palm of a government official. Maheshwar eventually sees a ray of hope when the school becomes provincialized, allowing him to retire in comfort. However, his dream is crushed when he learns that no one appointed by the government has ever joined the school as a teacher after he left. The children who previously attended the school are now spending their days without any constructive activities. On informing the government official, he receives resentment. The indisciplinary state of affairs compels Maheshwar to teach the children on his own at home. He embarks on the difficult journey of negotiating with the backward attitudes about education of the people of his village and persuading them about the importance of education.
Image: Filmmaker Bobby Sarma Baruah
The most effective narratives are those that translate life into a story rather than try to replicate it. Sikaisal is exactly what it sets out to be: succinct, endearing, and powerful in its analysis of a pervasive social issue. Dramatically, the narrative proceeds at a slow pace, and the filmmaker never tries to make a major point or display a patronising perspective towards the Tiwa community. Her approach is deliberately evasive. For instance, in one of the scenes, a poor tribal shopkeeper is cheated by a well-to-do customer, and Maheshwar comes to the rescue of the naive soul. The shopkeeper expresses his rage by claiming that people from the plains are constantly trying to dupe him. It’s a powerful statement and speaks volumes about the plight of people belonging to the ethnic group. It is a short-lived moment in the film that Bobby Sarma examines in minimalistic increments. Like most social-issue films, Sikaisal does not have the air or manner of a propaganda or preachy film. The focus of the film remains on the protagonist's grit to bring about a change in society.
The technical departments work in tandem to help Bobby Sarma realise her vision. The cinematography by Yuvraj Dhir brings a befitting visual quality that is rendered with consistency. Ratul Deka’s fluent and flowing editing style anchors our interest in the story. However, the length of the film could have been easily shortened to bring more compactness to the narrative. The sound design by Amrit Pritam effectively brings out the nuances and the reality of the location. The cast, which is mostly made up of amateur actors who are playing themselves, performs enthusiastically and effectively, lending weight to the story.
Many filmmakers have addressed the issue of the availability of basic education in rural places, and nearly every aspect of it, from hesitant parents to disinterested students, has been depicted on films, both nationally and internationally. Therefore, Sikaisal doesn't bring anything new to this overarching idea of a teacher overcoming obstacles and imparting knowledge to the uneducated. The narrative also has its share of flaws. One of them is the retired teacher's problem, which is conveniently solved by involving the village head. But the strength of the story lies in the characterization of Maheshwar Patar, a strong figure who is hushed by hope and let down by reality. He understands the importance of preserving one's roots and identity and is determined to change the unprogressive thinking of his community. His understated attitude subtly appeals to our emotions and gives us enough justification to watch the film.