Lipika Singh Darai’s documentary Some Stories Around Witches has many quietly devastating moments, but few are as heart-rending as the one in which a five-year-old girl in a school uniform says she was accused by her teacher of turning into a cat at night and sucking the blood of her fellow students.

Moumita was rusticated from her hostel, and she returned only after the intervention of the courts. When interviewed for the film, Moumita has an air of inevitability about her. In a culture in which belief in witchcraft is widespread and unshakable, Moumita doesn’t seem shocked that she has been added to a long list of girls and women who are believed to have the power to cast spells and turn into animals.

Set in the filmmaker’s home state Odisha and shot in the Mayurbhanj and Keonjhar districts, Some Stories Around Witches reveals how superstition and ignorance have ruined the lives of many innocent people. “There is a mystery surrounding tradition and myths about witchcraft but we should also see it in the light of socio-economic conditions and politics to understand the complexity of the events,” said the Film and Television Institute of India graduate.

Ever since the Odisha government passed the Prevention of Witch-Hunting Act in 2013, two or three cases are reported in the regional media every month, Darai notes. The uptick in the number of incidents is possibly a result of better reporting as well as more rampant score-settling. Women are the typical targets of abuse and violence, but men are not exempt.

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The trailer of ‘Some Stories Around Witches’.

The Public Service Broadcasting Trust-funded film follows three cases, one of which involves the social boycott of a family accused of being forces of evil. The case study, titled Chicken Meal, makes it clear that the family is a victim of worldly problems. Simple acts of supposed transgression – an argument over the use of water in the fields, cooking chicken before the end of a panchayat-imposed deadline on the consumption of meat – have snowballed into accusations of sorcery. The family is kept to the margins and treated with hostility and suspicion. The charges could fade over time, but the damage has been done.

Two other widely reported incidents reveal the ease with which people can be vilified, beaten up and in some cases even killed. With curiosity that never crosses over into sensationalism and sensitivity that doesn’t collapse into hand-wringing sentimentality, Darai looks at the strange case of 16-year-old Niru. In 2012, Niru walked into a police station with the severed head of her sister’s mother-in-law. Photographs of Niru holding up the consequence of her moment of madness were splashed across the newspapers. She served time in a juvenile home for the killing and is back in her village. Niru explains her motives to Darai: her victim would constantly harass her sister over property maters, and would boast of possessing supernatural powers that had the ability to cause problems and even take lives.

Niru (right) and the filmmaker.
Niru (right) and the filmmaker.

The third account, called Electric Pole, is of a group of women who were labelled witches after the sudden death of a young man. One of them was stripped and strapped to an electric pole, and was freed only after local police officers managed to convince the mob that the law would take care of the women.

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A clip from ‘Some Stories Around Witches’.

The woman who lay for hours in front of curious crowds, which included children, was reported to have died as a result of her trauma. It turns out she was alive. The filmmaker tracked her down to an old age home, where she lives with her deaf husband and sister and struggles to put distance between herself and her horror.

Darai says she was profoundly disturbed after meeting the woman. “I went into a depression after meeting the old woman, which delayed the completion of the film,” said Darai, who has won National Film Awards for Gaarud (2009), Eka Gachha Eka Mainsha Eka Samudra (2012) and Kankee O Saapo (2013). The awards were returned in 2015 to protest the Centre’s crackdown on the FTII student strike.

Darai was contacted by Sashiprava Bindhani, who was one of the petitioners for the enactment of the law against witch hunting, in 2013. Bindhani, who is now the Odisha State Information Commissioner, wanted a filmmaker who had the empathy and complexity to tackle the problem.

Bindhani’s faith in Darai is borne out by the maturity and delicacy with which she approaches the material. Some Stories About Witches is bereft of the tabloid sensibility that usually marks investigations into the ancient practice. Darai and cinematographer Indraneel Lahiri merge into the rural landscape, whose emerald beauty and neatness makes it a startling stage for such barbarism.

Darai uses a voiceover to make connections between the overlapping case studies as well delve into her personal connections with witchcraft. Darai is from Mayurbhanj, and several years ago, her mother’s family was similarly ostracised on the basis of unfounded allegations of sorcery. “My point of view is quite emotional,” Darai said.

Although Darai is Oriya, she became aware her outsider status as soon as she started conducting her interviews. “We were like aliens in these places, and I saw a very different picture,” she said. Darai was keen on avoiding exoticising the subject, the way they’d been in the television documentaries she watched as part of her research. “From the very beginning, I decided that I would only portray the cases as a humanitarian crisis,” the 32-year-old filmmaker said. “I was also conscious that I would not name any community in particular.”

The prevalence of witchcraft cannot be reduced to the beliefs of a particular tribe or caste, the filmmaker emphasises, but is the result of unchallenged superstition, ignorance, and willful mischief. The case studies make it clear that the locals are looking for external factors on which to blame their problems. It’s very easy – and very effective – to point fingers at inconvenient relatives or vulnerable men and women.

Darai was also keen on avoiding the earnestness and heavyhandedness that mark films on such themes. She achieves a balance between fulfilling the requirements of an investigative documentary and reaching for a humane approach to an easily misunderstood issue. The thoughtful interviews and subtle camerawork are especially strongly in the Chicken Meal and Electric Pole chapters.

However, Darai’s deep investment in Niru’s tragedy does prevent the filmmaker from probing too deep into the young woman’s motives. Although questions about Niru’s psychological state are left out, her case study amply reveals the effects of living in a region that seems to under an unbreakable spell. A belief in witches surely and tragically leads a culture of witch hunting. In this contemporary version of the Dark Ages, Niru has internalised the general moral code. When confronted with witchcraft in her home, she becomes the person she fears and hates the most.