Oonga takes a new Avatar for young adults

Writer-filmmaker Devashish Makhija’s critically acclaimed film Oonga has been reverse-adapted into a novel for young adults. Published by Tulika Books, it was released at the 14th Jaipur Literature Festival.  

The article was carried in all the editions of The New Sunday Express magazine and The Sunday Standard magazine on May 16, 2021. https://www.newindianexpress.com/magazine/2021/may/16/devashish-makhijas-oonga-book-review-tabling-the-counter-perspective-2302390.html

Q 1. The blue-skinned Dongria Kondh boy, Oonga, resembles the Na’vi of James Cameron’s Avatar. What is the back story? 

Devashish Makhija (DM): The story of Oonga finds its seed in a small anecdote I heard while in Koraput, Orissa. Sharanya Nayak, the local head of Action Aid, told me how she had taken a group of Adivasis to watch a dubbed version of Avatar. They hollered and cheered the Na’vi right through the film as if they were their own fellow tribals fighting the same battles they were. They felt like it was their own story being shown on that screen. But they were shocked when the film ended. It ended ‘happily’! Though many years later, the group of Adivasis were still fighting the same battles and losing. Something about that not being reflected in Avatar distressed them. When we conceived the story of Oonga, he was to run off to watch Avatar in the nearby town, and return convinced that he was a ‘Na’vi’ and could save his village from pillaging the way the Na’vi did. But, of course, things don’t play out in the real world like they do in the movies. We replaced Avatar with its source material, the Ramayana, as we developed the story further.

Q 2. What was your most crucial literary tool for reaching out to young readers?

DM: Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s idea of the ‘collective unconscious’ has perhaps shaped me as a storyteller. As Jung’s words suggest, there is so much shared information in all our unconscious minds that we – as creators and consumers of stories – find resonance in one another’s mythologies and experiences. This shared understanding gives rise to archetypes. Like most storytellers, I’m very interested in these archetypes, in what makes a story about a little corner of Orissa resonate with a Dutch musician in New York. What emotional experiences do these two share? Hence, what elements can make a story culturally specific in its details yet emotionally universal in its appeal?

Q 3. How was it documenting the Adivasi crisis and their conflict with the corporates, juxtaposing it with mythology, and presenting it for young adults?  

DM: Stories are the ‘people’s perspective’. The people cannot write history books. Those in power do. And history books end up being the primary source of information of our times for future generations. It is dangerous that any other perspective but the ruling regime’s is always missing from the history books – since time immemorial. In storytelling, we can document the flip perspective of the people… of those being marginalised. I see myself as a chronicler of this counter-perspective before I see myself as a storyteller even. Young adults will be the decision-makers of tomorrow. And I need them to travel into tomorrow armed with both sides of the argument – the side they will receive with almost a military lack of choice from their curriculum; and the side they will actively choose to receive from stories like Oonga, outside their curriculum.

Q 4. Using a 10-11-year-old tribal boy as the medium to convey the more prominent and more pertinent message to young adults. Why is he not an adult?   

DM: Children are naïve hence fearless. If you don’t know, something can hurt you that something won’t scare you. And the absence of fear is a very attractive quality that draws young audiences into stories like nothing else can. Youngsters are constantly being told what NOT to do. If, suddenly, they are shown this little boy or little girl who, despite being told NOT to undertake certain journeys, proceed to undertake them, the youngsters reading the story love to live their own fantasy of rebellion out vicariously through such characters. Once that is achieved, once I have reeled them in, I can then slowly immerse them in the deeper questions I seek to raise through the story.

The Iranian cinema of the 1980s and 1990s did this successfully. Oonga is me trying to attempt that.

Q 5. What are the similarities and differences in your writing process when you chose to pen a novel for young adults (vis-à-vis children’s books and short and feature films)?

DM: A novel is a gargantuan beast.

In a short story, a children’s picture book or a short film, I don’t have the liberty of character establishment. I often need to get into the thick of the action almost as soon as the story begins. Also, a short story cannot ‘end’ in a conventional way. Closing the loop neatly in a short story is almost impossible given how little time we’ve spent with the characters. It becomes very important there to choose very carefully the ‘portion’ of the characters’ journey I want to make the story about.

The other thing this allows for then in the shorter mediums – short story, children’s book, short film – is multiple revisits by the reader/viewer. A short story or children’s book could be like a favourite song that you can play again and again. A novel demands much more time and attention and investment to provide this kind of a relationship with the reader.

I consciously approach a shorter format story in a way that the narrative doesn’t close its loop by the end. Questions stay unanswered. Characters stay partially undiscovered. The story feels like it could go on.

But with a novel like Oonga each character has his/her own complete arc, even as the story has one of its own. I map each arc beforehand, so I know their intersectionalities, convergences, and divergences before starting the physical writing process. The abruptness of a wildly open-end can leave the reader very dissatisfied in a novel because I have drawn them into a ‘world’ that they inhabit with the characters for over 300 pages.

Whereas the shorter storytelling forms allow me to undertake more of an exploratory creative process, a novel needs all the engineering, cartography, universe-building skills I can muster. Whereas the shorter forms end up mostly being about the character(s), a novel like Oonga needs to be about a well-charted story, an amply-detailed universe, as well as deeply-plumbed characters.

The mind, the heart and the eye need to be prepared differently for both.

Q 6. Dialogue is one of the most important themes that you have touched upon in this book. How do you think this novel can help start a conversation around the issues that you have spoken about in Oonga? What are your expectations from this novel? 

DM: There are some things in life we don’t think about often and deeply enough. Our daily lives always get in the way. Death, Injustice, our Anthropocentrism, our capacity for Hate, our very imbalanced view of Development… I like raising questions about these through my stories. Generally, I never have a solution or an answer. I simply share with the viewer my own heartburn, hoping that these questions will haunt them once they emerge from my stories, and keep asking them too.

Q 7. Do you think a socio-political writer or artist can bring about a real tangible change in society?

DM: No idea. Of course, all of us harbour delusions of grandeur, hoping to affect people enough to get them to question the status quo in more significant numbers to effect social, political, anthropological change. We see dreams of this happening when we write our stories and create our art. But can an artist or a storyteller achieve that? Like a policymaker or political leader can? Who knows. I’m not holding my breath for it.

All I can say for sure is that I create my work this way because if I didn’t put my unrest and heartache and rage and questions and protest into my stories, I’d self-destruct. I do this so I can get some sleep at night, however, disturbed.

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