Shammi Nanda (Shikshantar)


I have been associated with film making for some years. Recently, I decided to have a zero waste shoot - at least, to try it. My companions and I decided to use coconut shell cups instead of plastic ones during traveling, cloth bags in place of plastic bags, copper water bottles for plastic ones. We also decided against using disposable batteries and to instead use rechargeable ones. I realized that some of the equipment is made to use only so called ‘disposable’ batteries, so I put an email out to an e-group of filmmakers, informing them about my intent and seeking info on such equipment.


Some appreciated it, while others were cynical and said that I am still using video tapes which are also an e-waste, so what does it mean to save on the batteries? I didn’t really understand this response, which I see as an escapism, i.e., “I will not take any small steps unless I can do it all.”  I am surprised that filmmakers who would otherwise make films about environmental issues rarely think about the environmental impact of film manufacturing plants and processing labs. For example, in the film institute I studied in, we rarely bothered about the amount of electricity we used while lighting the sets.


For me, Now Activism can be simply understood by what Gandhiji said a long time ago, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” I personally feel that I need to work with myself on so many areas. I feel the need to detoxify from the medicines and vaccines that I have ingested, from the toxins in the processed foods, from the pesticides and chemical fertilizers in the food, from the polluted air of the big cities... I need to detoxify my mind from media programming. I need to let go of the values I got from spending many so years in educational institutions and its visible and not-so-invisible curriculum. I need to rethink my way of looking at the world, nature and my relationship with people, and to rethink my relationship with money and wealth.


Someone once asked me, “Who is going to be the audience for your film?” I replied that I would make a film I would want to see. This question assumes that there is a target group, who needs to be made aware. It is similar to ‘development’ programs, where they talk of target groups who have to be ‘empowered’. People say they are working for children, women, street children, dalits, sex workers, villagers, etc., but rarely do people talk of how they are working on themselves.


The whole assumption behind ‘empowerment’ is that the other person is weak and you are powerful. But if you ask the so-called ‘empowered awareness-raisers’ to provide three meals to their family which are free of pesticides, they will quickly realize how empowered they truly are. When they talk of working with community media, it’s someone else’s community. When playing games and art with kids, it’s someone else’s kids in someone else’s neighborhood. We talk of malnutrition but can’t save our own kids from fast food, TV and sugar rushes — much less make the link between malnutrition and larger systemic forces. In health, whatever poisonous medicines we take, we want to push them down the throats of the ‘powerless’ too. We want to house everyone in the kind of unhealthy and toxic houses that we live in. Since we have forgotten how to shit in the open, we want the whole world to shit in toilets. Since we have no memories of fun and interaction at common bathing and washing places like ponds and wells, we want the whole world to have bathrooms. Since we have forgotten our mother tongue, we want ‘others’ too to speak in the dominant languages. Since we have not sung any songs while harvesting and planting seeds, we want the rest of the world to be spared the ‘drudgery’ of farming. Just because we put ties around our necks and wear uniforms to go to school every morning, we want everyone to be so ‘civilised’.  


Until some time ago, I was uncomfortable with the word ‘activist’, because activists were the ones who were doing things for or ‘saving’ others, i.e., being the ‘Saviors’.  In Brazil, the first port for the slaves brought from Africa was called Salvador, which means ‘the Savior.’ In the city square, there are historic places called Pelhorinho (the whipping post) and the Slave Holds, where tourists visit. It’s seen as a thing of the past — a ‘once-upon-a-time’ kind of fiction. We fail to see the slavery in our day-to-day lives. 


The Green Revolution came with the idea of saving us from hunger, and then went on to poison our soils and water. My friend Manish once said, “We have been betrayed by the colonizers so many times, and still we don’t understand their games.” When I say ‘colonizer’, I don’t mean people of any one country, but rather the dominant destructive ideology and its forces which control people and nature. So many of us are colonized — from a worker in Silicon Valley eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) to a villager in India buying pesticides and fertilizers. We need to protect ourselves from the Saviors.  


I am now understanding that what is not good for me, is also not good for nature and vice versa. The pesticide is neither good for me nor the soil. As for waste there is no such thing as ‘throw away’1, since there is no such place as ‘away’ on our planet. If traces of pesticide are being found in polar bears and umbilical chords of newborns, then I cannot get away from them. I might be putting toxins directly into nature, or my lifestyle is indirectly creating toxins, which are being dumped in nature. Eventually, I will get them back.  If I expand the definition, to see my self as an integral part of nature, I can see that by poisoning the earth, I poison myself. If I see nature as an adversary, and see my self as outside of it, then I will be disrespectful to it, and my actions will be irresponsible. If I accept money as the prime determinant of wealth, I will not think twice before adopting lifestyles that pollute rivers, air, the soil and myself. I had once read that we are suffering from Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD)2. I know that whenever I have experienced nature closely, it has had deeper meaning for me, and I have become more loving to myself. For example, experiencing the beauty of bathing in rivers and ponds made me stop using soaps, which are also harmful to my body.


As an activist, I feel a great need to heal physically, emotionally and spiritually. In fact, the de-tox and healing have to happen simultaneously. Creating time and space for experiencing natural living and nature is one part.  Stopping to examine the poisonous parts of our lives and changing them is another part. It’s not a one-time thing but a process, where we can be clear of the direction and take small steps. If I can do it and be happy, maybe my friends and family will also take things up in some ways.


Back to the film shoot. I spent time with Karuna and her family, who do organic/natural farming, live in a mud house, and are trying to practice natural living. While we were having lunch, she said that 80-90% of what we have been eating is from their farm. That was the most inspiring moment for me during my stay with them. That’s when I realized how free they are. That’s where she becomes an activist and a friend. And when her life becomes a message for me.



1 William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle, 2002.

2 Adbusters magazine.