Nee Engey ‘Where Are You’

INDIA / 2003
Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, other languages of India 153 min
Director, R.V. Ramani

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We cannot lend this video for any other purposes. This film is distributed by Magic Lantern Foundation:

In search of people who once staged shadow plays across South India, we find that the craft survives and the songs live on. However, now performers dance to film soundtracks, the main business shifts to selling accessories and modern skits are added to the Ramayana shadow puppets. But still the thrill when the light comes on behind the white cloth remains unchanged. While there are many amusing anecdotes, such as the time puppeteers were so hungry they ate the leather dolls, the real joy is the encounter between the directors own free-spirited camerawork and the shadow players.

[Director’s Statement] I consider shadow puppeteers to be the original filmmakers who created moving images on the screen. Before the advent of cinema and television, shadow puppet theater was prevalent and extremely popular for many centuries in India. Puppeteers led a nomadic life, traveling, camping, setting up screens, and performing the story of Ramayana, adapting local languages and flavors. Today there are only a few puppeteers still practicing this art form. Stories and lifestyles have changed.

As a practicing documentary filmmaker, I feel one with the predicament of the puppeteers. Independent cinematic expression is getting increasingly difficult, as the medium is getting caught in the whirlpool of commercialization. The rural society of India, which at one point sustained the traditional shadow puppeteers and their performances, is now at a crossroads with changing values. Opportunities for the puppeteers to perform are diminishing. Today we find many of the traditional shadow puppet theater families shifting into other vocations.

In my search for the puppeteers, I experienced a complete sense of belonging with this community. This film with the shadow puppeteers living in South India is a journey in search of a missing link that is common to all communities, cultures, traditions and artistic expressions. The film is a celebration and dedication to the art of moving images, its original practitioners and community, and an impressionistic ethnography reflecting on shadow puppet theater, history, mythology, cinema and our lives.