In Vinod Raja’s documentary Sikkidre Shikari Ildiddre Bhikari (If I trap a prey, I’m a hunter, else, a beggar), a man named Depot recounts how he got his name. “There was a drought,” he says casually. “My parents lived near the local depot. Our rice came from this depot. They hadn’t found a name for me. So I was named Depot by my grandfather.”
A few minutes later, we meet Division and later, Minister, who now calls herself Newsbee. They are all members of the Hakki-Pikki, a group of nomadic tribals who live across colonies in Karnataka. Originally from north-west India, the Hakki-Pikkis travelled across India over the decades and settled in various parts of the country. They have different names in different places. In Karnataka, they came to be called Hakki-Pikki, which in Kannada refers to their traditional occupation of trapping or hunting birds in forests and selling them along with trinkets and teddy bears.
The names that the Hakki-Pikki tribals give their children reflect their free-wheeling nature and irreverent attitude to conventions – Punjab, Government, Inspector, Apple, British, Jailor and High Court. The documentary also reveals the price of an existence on the margins of society – the Hakki-Pikkis have had their access to the forests cut off over the years, and they have struggled to change their nomadic ways and settle on land allotted to them by the Karnataka government.
Sikkidre Shikari Ildiddre Bhikari has been scripted and narrated by Madhu Bhushan, an activist formerly with Vimochana and the Centre for Informal Development Studies who had been working with the Hakki-Pikkis in a settlement near Bannerghatta National Park on the outskirts of Bengaluru for nearly 20 years. She was helping them secure title-deeds for the land that was allotted to a few of them before she and Raja thought of making a documentary.
“In 2008, afraid that the first-generation testimonies of the community will be lost once the elders pass away, Madhu asked me to document a few of their stories,” Raja told Scroll.in. “We made a 20-minute film about their origins, their ways of living and then forgot about it.”
In 2014, Bhushan and Raja thought of revisiting the tapes. “It was all there in those tapes, waiting to be explored further,” Bhushan said. “Since I had been working with the community, we sat down with them and chalked out a map of all the Hakki-Pikki settlements in Karnataka. The question on everyone’s mind was to find out how the other settlements were living with or without land.” They shot over three years, and condensed their extensive material into an 82-minute documentary.
“Across settlements, the common grouse would be, you brought us out of the forest saying you will give us a sustainable way of life, but that has not happened,” Bhushan said. “Land was given to them and the government did put in a lot of money, but that did not last too long. Why should a nomadic tribe change its ways in five or even ten years? In a lot of ways, their older ways of living are still sustaining them, even though they’ve been enticed from the edges of the forest into the edges of the city. The larger question for us was, what are the settlement policies that are suitable for nomadic communities?”
In more ways than one, the documentary mirrors the life of the Hakki-Pikkis – the filmmakers wander from one colony to another, recording one story after the other. Occasionally, they stop a little longer in one place to attend a wedding or watch a film being made by younger members of the community.
“The community was interested in travelling to other settlements and recording their own histories,” Raja said. “It was a participative form of filmmaking. During the shoot, our challenge was to get people to stop talking all at once. Often, it was complete chaos.”
The Hakki-Pikkis are not homogenous to make a common solution possible. There are those that live in dismal conditions, and then there are those that have migrated to Trinidad and cities in Malaysia. There is a fascinating sequence of a woman speaking about the “herbal only” beauty services she offers when she goes abroad. Speaking a range of languages, she is a compelling saleswoman and a fantastic performer. She embodies the wandering spirit of her tribe in a globalising economy.
“They are a community that thinks on its feet – a typical survival technique of a nomadic community,” Bhushan said. “Just like the title of the film, which is a line a man from the community said to us once. They take what they get and move on.”
What did the Hakki-Pikkis expect from the documentary? “I think the documentary was a way of reflection for the community,” Bhushan said. “There is no easy solution to their plight. The mainstream will want to integrate and domesticate them. But the Hakki-Pikkis lead very autonomous lives. They will become a part of the mainstream but only on their terms.”
The film sums it up: “The hunters are refusing to become the hunted.”