Sikkim: The lost and found Documentary of Satyajit Ray (1971)
– Amshan Kumar
Sikkim was not only the work of Ray which did not see the light of the day after its completion but also got banned by the Government of India. Sikkim got annexed to India but still nothing changed the fate of the documentary. Meanwhile the story went round that the film its negative et al were irretrievably lost. But in 2003 it was reliably learnt that the film was spotted in British Film Institute and it was in good condition. The film itself has surfaced only last year. With that all the works of Ray are there for public viewing. While seeing Sikkim one wonders what was objectionable in the film that led to its ban. Did the Indian government think that a film on the mountain land would bolster up the nationalistic spirit of the people inhabiting it and stand in the way of its merger with it? We do not know but the film would at no stage would have whipped up partisan frenzy in the minds of viewers and coming as it does from Ray who had never attempted anything that could be called agitprop.
Sikkim is for the most part an elegant film that captures the flora and the people of the region tucked in the splendorous Kanchenjunga, the third tallest peak in the Himalaya belt. But Ray forewarns the viewers that Sikkim cannot be easily located on the map and then proceeds to give the lie of the land and its boundaries. It is surrounded by West Bengal in the sSouth, Nepal in the Westt, Tibet in the North and North east and Bhutan in the East. These demarcations were made in 1971 when the film was made when Sikkim was a separate monarchy. Subsequently in 1975 Sikkim became part of India after a referendum but still the boundaries exist geographically if not politically. After showing for a few minutes the mountain range dotting Sikkim Ray shows an array of flowers and orchids with arresting visuals. The winding roads that lead to the mountainous terrain and the people engaged in various simple chores that give them their livelihood.
There is a small market place that is formed every Sunday morning where the villagers sell their wares. Those who want to put up their shops get permission which is handed out to them in a piece of paper. The big market is in the capital town Ganghtok known as Lal Bazaar where one can also see Indians. Sikkim was traditionally inhabited by people from Nepal who who brought with them their religion Hinduism. But the official religion is Buddhism of the Mahayana faction. In addition there are others like Christians in a small percentage. All live in an atmosphere of peace without losing their identity whether they be in the dress they wear or in the language they speak. One other important feature of it was that 25% of the annual budget was allocated for the education of the people.Being a quiet country Sikkim had no reason to complain for not being noticed. But when its Chogyal(King) got married for the second time after the death of his first wife, Sikkim was in the news since the bride was Hope Cook, an American. The king makes a few appearances in the film. He joins the people when they enjoy games . He is present in his ceremonial attire during the long festivities towards the end of the year and the beginning of the new year. The festivities take most of the concluding part of this 55 minute documentary. Dances of people wearing uniquely made masks and the feasts are shown in detail. As culmination of the festival a makeshift shrine is torched bidding farewell to the evils of the past year.
The film is scripted , music scored and directed by Satyajit Ray. It is stated that Ray was not allowed to have editing control over the film and that is plainly visible throughout. Shots are often very brief and the transition from one shot to another is sudden failing to build an inner rhythm. No doubt Ray did not speak very well of the film himself. The lyrical beauty of the film is restricted to the first seven minutes over which he had some control. Throughout the film the people are gazing at the camera and Ray has not pretended that his camera was an invisible presence . Only during the rituals people mind about their business turning away from camera. The film has no interviews like his first documentary film Rabindranath Tagore. Setting aside its imperfections the documentary shot in color, a rarity in those times when even features including Ray`s own were in black and white, is the only source for future generations of the ways of the people that lived in that mountainous kingdom.