Trying to mix multiple streams in one column: millet, music, film extras and environmentalism.
The old woman in Palani—down the hill from Kodaikanal– was trying to recruit me to be a movie extra. Muniamma looked like a rock star. She was about 80, with weathered skin about the colour of a coffee bean. She was clad in a soft white cotton sari sans blouse in the fashion of village women in Tamilnadu.
Muniamma’s recruitment strategy was fool proof. She would make me homemade “kuthirai-vaali kanji” for lunch if I would dance in a video that her grandson was making. I said yes without asking any more questions.
Kuthirai vaali belongs to the Echinochloa family and is called barnyard millet; bhagar or varai in Maharashtra; jhangora in Hindi, and odalu in Telegu. Kuthirai vaal means horse’s tail in Tamil and for a moment, I idly wondered if it would give me the strength of a horse, like Ashwagandha does in Ayurveda. Muniamma gave a knowing smile and said that the effects of barnyard millet wasn’t mere strength; it was more like the effects of Moringa, widely touted as an aphrodisiac in Tamilnadu. “Your husband will be very happy tonight,” she said, with a knowing, if sexist smirk.
Muniamma approached me as I stood outside the tonsure shed in Palani, contemplating whether I should shave my head: an action that I have often considered. Even though I was wearing a sari, she had pegged me as a “jeans-pant Madam,” who were, apparently in short supply in the area: Dindigul district. Her grandson wanted to make a video to protest the dumping of garbage in the Shanmukha lake in Palani. He needed extras to dance behind him and fill up the screen.
“Don’t worry, nobody will see you,” he said reassuringly if somewhat quixotically. What was the point of dancing in a video if nobody would see me?
After filming, he would post it on Youtube “just like that Kodaikanal girl had done.”
That was how I heard about Sofia Ashraf, the star musician of a viral Youtube video called “Kodaikanal Won’t.” Smartly set to the tune of Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda, which earned the Indian video a tweet from its muse, Kodaikanal Won’t has garnered over 3 million views and some amount of action.
Most environmental issues, unfortunately, involved a clichéd set of actors: Big Business who is usually the villain; and the Disenfranchised Poor, who are usually the victims. So it was with Bhopal; so it was with the Uttarakhand and Kashmir floods where rampant real estate development led to an environmental collapse; and so it is with Kodaikanal’s case against Hindustan Unilever, where it alleges that the company’s now-closed thermometer factory caused mercury poisoning in 600 people; water pollution; widespread environmental problems; and 45 deaths. Ashraf is the protagonist. In a video interview, also posted on Youtube, she comes across as a spunky, funny, independent woman– the kind you’d hope your daughter would grow up to be. She got involved, she says, because three NGO’s– Kodaikanal Worker’s Association, The Other Media, and Vetiver Collective—who have been fighting Unilever for years asked for her help. They also roped in Bangalore-based Jhatkaa.org, which does online campaigns. I enjoyed Jhatkaa.org’s website, flowing as it was with the milk of human idealism. This isn’t a fly-by-night operation. They have run campaigns to “Save the Western Ghats,” “Clean Ganga,” and fight moral policing, rape, censorship and sexism.
Once the video gained traction, Unilever CEO tweeted that he does “not accept” different standards of environmental compensation. Then, he added, somewhat unnecessarily that he believed that “all humans are the same.” In its website, Unilever refutes all allegations. It says that that its former employees, and the environment, did not suffer any adverse effects because of its presence in Kodaikanal. Each side has offered its version of “proof” to substantiate its statements. The issue is being negotiated on an ongoing basis.
As an interested observer, I hope that the issue is seen through to conclusion. Now that the spotlight has been cast, the aggrieved parties need a different cast of characters. Rather than dancers and actors, they need environmental experts, lawyers and accountants to look through regulatory codes and mercury levels to figure out if and how much compensation would make sense.
For people such as Paneer Selvam—Muniamma’s grandson and wannabe rapper—the video has inspired copycat ventures; and the hope that they can change things. Citizen action is often a nebulous exercise. How many times have signed change.org petitions? I have signed countless online petitions, mostly because they came from friends and happen to align with causes I support. The problem is that such online action doesn’t have good follow-up. The petitions vanish into the Internet and the signers don’t really know what happened to the issue they supported. I have friends who scoff at online petitions as “useless efforts” that don’t really move the needle in terms of the effect they generate. I happen to be one of those idiotic idealists who believes the opposite: that each individual action, however small, can make a difference. Perhaps the way forward is to mix creativity with causes.
Petitions usually come with a nauseating amount of self-righteousness that says, “They are wrong. We are right.” They are serious and cause you to flip the channel or stop reading simply because you don’t want to be weighed down by the words at the end of a very long day. They are stern and do the email version of the principal’s pointed finger. In the future, perhaps such folks should do a Sofia Ashraf and lose the stern, self-righteous seriousness and use social media in ways that are both effective and fun.
Shoba Narayan didn’t make the cut to star in Paneer Selvam’s video. Anyone interested in performing should contact Muniamma at Virupatchi Village, Oddanchathram Taluk, Dindigul District, Tamilnadu.