As names go, The Head Hunter is something of a misnomer. The feature film is neither about recruiting ace employees for the corporate world nor about the culture of the small tribe in Arunachal Pradesh which was once defined by its practice of considering the heads of the humans it hunted and killed as trophies. Rather, the film is a scathingly critical celluloid essay on the skewed development planning that takes a toll not only on the life of a particular individual, but of an entire community
How a small tribe in Arunachal Pradesh has, by deliberate design, been destroyed by the establishment is what The Head Hunter, an outstanding film, portrays. While doing research for this article on the film, this writer discovered that almost all the material available about the tribe was localised and focussed on their cultural practices, highlighting their practice of hunting human beings with bows and arrows, as well as the art of tattoos that affirms the membership of the tribal people within their community. There was little or no information available about the plundering of entire communities by the establishment. Nilanjan Dutta’s The Head Hunter fills that vacuum.
Through the story of the leader of a particular tribe, from whom the film gets its title, The Head Hunter describes how the culture, food, lifestyle, everything that defines the tribe, were destroyed because of the compulsion to fulfil official targets such as building a highway, resulting in the elimination of the tribe’s traditional living spaces forever.
Dutta says his trigger for making films was the feeling that though his roots are firmly established in Nagaon where he was born and bred, it is an ongoing struggle to be accepted as an Assamese and integrated within the Assamese community. “The constant question of not being an Assamese bothered me a lot and this somehow spilt over into my films. The critical question of feeling uprooted even when one is rooted gave birth to The Head Hunter,” he says.
The cinema of Ritwik Ghatak, Nagisha Oshima and Jean Luc Goddard have influenced Dutta deeply because he feels that they deal with the constant question of politics, identity and land. I feel deeply drawn to films on human existence vis-a-vis the politics of the state. “The Head Hunter is an allegorical film about the mainstream consumerist approach of trying to create one world order and sense of morality. It is also about the helplessness of the aboriginals, especially the ones who still believe in their culture and ethos but are constantly challenged by the changing times,” Dutta says.
Head-hunting was banned in the 1900s. The impoverished and desperate Wancho Tribe has been slowly vanishing. The person who betrays the trust of the head hunter in the film was himself once a member of the tribe, but moved out into the mainstream after acquiring an education. He is the only one among the ‘development team’ who can communicate with Old Man Apu. He uses the ability not to safeguard the community and its ethos, but to ensure that the construction of the road, part of a government plan, was not held up or blocked, thus making certain of his own promotion. The role was assayed by Mrigendra Konwar, an Assamese actor, who made the effort to learn the Wancho language.
The Head Hunter also portrays how mainstream society reduces the half-naked Apu to a joke as he wanders the streets of the city looking for food. Mainstream society does not understand, or want to understand, his needs, his language, his culture.
Apu does not understand currency notes. The waiter at the hotel cheats him over a packet of cigarettes; a street fruit vendor cheats him over a bunch of bananas. And when he is dropped back at the point from where he was picked up, Old Man Apu cannot get his bearings in his new surroundings. He finds himself at the side of the new highway, with trucks and cars speeding past him, unceremoniously interrupting his prayers to his god, using stones and pebbles. It is a moving end to a sad story that mirrors life.
Old Man Apu is brilliantly portrayed by Nokshaa Saham, who is not a professional actor. The film was shot in the Nameri National Tiger Reserve Forest, located at the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, and also in the Bomdilla and Tawang regions of Arunachal. The filmmaking process was in itself a journey into unknown terrain. The crew had to cross a river every morning and walk four kilometres to reach the core of the forest. They had to be sure to be back before sundown, because the forest is home to a lot of wildlife, some of them dangerous to man.
“The location shooting within the city was relatively smooth except that it was freezing cold and my main actor, Apu, had to be almost without clothes for the role. For one scene, the whole team, me included, had to take off most of our clothes at minus four degrees to inspire and support Apu,” says Dutta. The film reveals, layer by slow by layer, the filmmaker’s complete familiarity with his subject and also his deep concern for the people represented.
Dutta, a graduate of FTII (Film and Television Institute), Pune, is currently associate professor of film editing and academic coordinator at the institute. The Head Hunter, his second feature film, was screened at the Mumbai International Film Festival, the 46th International Film Festival of India, the Bengaluru International Film Festival and the Canada International Film Festival in Vancouver. His first film, a documentary called Bhanga Ghara, won the National Award in 2009.