Pushpendra Singh’s approach to documentary might have infusions of fictional storytelling, but there are some things you can’t plan. Manganiyar elder and poet Nijre Khan is rhythmically reciting to an audience of young children about their heritage when his flow is broken by a gust of desert wind that finds its way into the hut, covering both speaker and listener with dust. It’s a small miracle bottled, nature adding its own commentary to a scene.
Maru ro Moti (Pearl of the Desert, 2019), which is playing online at the Dharamshala International Film Festival (29 October-4 November), originated during the production of Lajwanti (2014), Singh’s first feature as director. He was talking with Anwar Khan of the Manganiyars—a desert community in Rajasthan known for their musical traditions—who asked if he’d make a film on them. Singh didn’t want to cover the same ground that he’d seen in documentaries on the community, which has become famous in recent decades through touring and exuberant stage shows. He asked Khan if there was something he could focus on. The musician told him about bhanat, a harvest ritual. “I was reading this Rajasthani dictionary and found that bhanat also referred to education,” Singh said. Already impressed by Manganiyar youngsters, who'd surround him and sing when there was a break in shooting, he latched onto the idea of a film from the perspective of a young musician.
When the director accompanied Anwar to his village of Barna, he became fascinated by the Manganiyar oral tradition of teaching. There, Singh came across Anwar’s nephew, Moti, a talented young singer. Moti’s journey—his musical education, lessons from his uncle and Nijre Khan, and his first steps towards a performing career—became the story of the film. It took five years to make, Singh returning periodically to Barna to shoot. In this time he also directed a second feature, Ashwatthama (2017); his fourth, Laila Aur Satt Geet, released this year.
In several scenes, Singh had Moti and others re-enact events. He then blended these with more traditional documentary footage captured without rehearsal. “I’m more interested in the truth than reality,” he told me, saying he wanted to give the impression of staging, and giving the example of one of the great early documentaries, Nanook of the North (1922), which was later found to have been largely staged by director Robert Flaherty. It wasn’t always the rehearsed option that made the final cut, though. There’s a spectacular acapella performance by Moti as he sits on a camel cart, leaving home on his first trip abroad. Singh shot it twice, at first capturing the audio with a basic camera recorder, and later giving Moti a proper mic. But he ended up using the raw first version.
The Manganiyar are Muslim, but their patrons are mostly upper caste Hindus, which has resulted in a syncretic art and way of life for the community. They might almost be mistaken for a Hindu tribe in the film—they use Hindu legends in their art and speech, a group prays at a temple—but there are also songs in praise of Allah, and of course everyone is named Khan. Their lower social standing is alluded to: Singh says many upper-caste patrons consider them on par with Dalits, the power imbalance clear in one scene where Manganiyar musicians sit on the ground and serenade their listeners, who are on an elevated surface. In another scene, Anwar and a few men talk about discrimination, though caste isn’t mentioned explicitly.
Singh’s approach to the material isn’t ethnographic; his aim was to make something that was both a documentary and a musical. There are stunning scenes with Moti in the desert, his voice echoing through the deserted landscape, and of bhanat work songs, the call-and-response vocals a primal link with tribes in other parts of the world (“They have this idea of projection,” Singh said, “of singing in open spaces”). Even with their recent fame outside their home state, there is a sense of the difficulty of sustaining livelihood and maintaining tradition. A man complains about the difficulty of continuing their way of teaching, upon which Singh mercilessly cuts to a group of children singing the hit film song Main Tenu Samjhawan.
At one point, Moti is warned by an elder, “Our heritage is poetry, couplets, traditional songs. You can sustain yourself with them. Do not fall into the trap of the hotels”. Yet there’s also a clear-sightedness about where the boy’s efforts should be focused. Anwar Khan, dropping the boy to his village after his first foreign tour, asks him about his plans. When Moti defers to him, he says, “You won't get anywhere if you leave music.” Moti’s answer is immediate. “I will never abandon music. I'll die without it."
This piece was published in Mint Lounge on 30 October 2020.