IN THE MIDDLE OF A DAY’S MARCH, a band of guerrillas rests in a clearing in the forests of Chattisgarh. They sit in a circle, without speaking. A young woman with short hair and bright eyes, cradling her weapon, breaks their silence. “I saw what the police did in my village, to the women … and that is why I joined the PLGA”—the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, the military wing of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). “At first, whenever we went on an ambush, I used to be scared, but then I would remember…” It takes little to fill in her ellipsis.
Later, we see her among a knot of dancers, in the middle of a Bhumkal celebration, which is held to commemorate an early-20th-century tribal uprising, seen by the Maoists as a precursor to their insurgency. Soldiers, militia recruits, members of PLGA’s Cultural Squad, and hundreds of ordinary, unarmed forest-dwellers participate in the carnivalesque vigil, which brings the gun, the drum, the flute and the dream of rebellion together to remember common humiliations and a few uncommon victories. This is what the red ants dream.
Red Ant Dream (2013), the latest documentary from 55-year-old director Sanjay Kak, takes us into the world of India’s Maoists, especially the members of the PLGA, who are considered by the Indian state to be its “most significant security challenge”. Here, in the Dandakaranya forests in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh, Kak shows the rebels as human beings, not just as faceless insurgents. In doing so, he compels us to confront the conditions that produce the guerrilla who dances, as much as he asks us to think about the dancer who chooses to bear an automatic rifle.