Nagaland's head hunters caught
During her childhood, Vikeyeno Zao, 36, had heard from her elders beguiling accounts of the tattooed headhunters of the Konyak tribe in her home state of Nagaland.
Zao fulfilled her dream by making a 15-minute short film entitled ‘Last of the Tattooed Head Hunters’. But the film also brought the filmmaker glory when it was showcased in the short film section at the 63rd Cannes Film Festival in France. In fact, it was the first time that a short film from India’s Northeast had made it to this prestigious festival.
Headhunting, the traditional practice of taking the head after killing a person, was followed since times immemorial in different parts of the world, including in Nagaland. The Nagas are a people of mongoloid stock inhabiting the mountainous region of the state.
They comprise 14 major tribes. Among these tribes are the Konyak and the Angami — Zao belongs to the Angami tribe — along with their sub-clans. Each tribe has its distinct dialects, traditions and customs.
Although headhunting is now a thing of the past for the Konyaks, who have adopted Christianity, Zao was keen to delve into the saga of this customary practice and chronicle the custom that has faded into oblivion. Researching for the film was a grueling task for this talented filmmaker and a mother of two. She spent close to seven years not only reading up extensively on the Konyaks but also visiting the tribes — people, who mostly live in the northern part of Nagaland, bordering Myanmar and Arunachal Pradesh.
While collecting this information she came across many interpretations and theories
regarding headhunting, a practice that is symbolic of ‘masculinity’. According to some anthropological studies, the practice stemmed from the belief that the head contained the soul or life force, which could be harnessed by capturing it. It was believed that taking the head as a trophy would enable the victor to gain some of his slain enemy’s power and spirit.
While her subject fascinated her immensely, it was the production of the film that kept Zao on her toes. Scenes of the film were enacted by tattooed headhunters from a village called Longwa, located on the Indo-Myanmar border. But it was challenging to extract work from them as today’s generation has all but forgotten their fearsome traditions and culture. “It was difficult to convince them to enact scenes from a custom they had long abandoned. I met a couple of youngsters who had heard about this tradition but had never seen it for themselves. But as most of them knew English they helped me by being interpreters for their elders,” Zao says, whose husband is also a producer and cinematographer.
Apart from the tricky task of convincing the Konyaks to shoot scenes for her film, she also had to face logistic problems like bad road conditions and frequent power cuts. “The roads in those parts are so bad that it sometimes took me more than an hour to cover just one kilometre. But it was my dream to make a film on the Konyaks and showcase it to the world,” she says.
Zao’s efforts certainly did not go in vain. Her dream project made it all the way to Cannes. “I feel honoured as well as excited. It’s a matter of pride for me as well as for the people of the Northeast,” she says.
But ‘Last of the Tattooed Head Hunters’ is not Zao’s maiden venture. She has produced and directed several films on the anthropological aspects of the different tribes of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. The most notable among them are ‘Defenders’, a fictional 100-minute period film based on Naga history which was made in 2009, and ‘Sopfunuo’, a fictional film on polygamy practices among the Nagas.
Her work has earned her many fans. Artist Dilip Tamuly, who has seen ‘Last of the Tattooed Head Hunters’, says, “She is a very sensitive director and delves into details. Overall the film has been smoothly executed and brings to light the macabre ritual of a tribe.”
Arum Lochan Das, a film critic, adds, “It is good news for us that a short film has been selected for the competitive section in the Cannes film festival. It is to her credit especially because she is one of the few women directors from the region.”
Zoa’s work is a window to the culture of Northeast India. Talking about the headhunters, she narrates fascinating tales of how a warrior who was able to bring a head home earned the respect in his clan. “He dressed up in the best of clothes and got the best of wives. He even decorated his house with more feathers, ethnic symbols and wood carvings,” she says. Most important was the tattoo on his face that is made by none other than the rani (queen) of the clan.
Zao’s research also revealed that headhunting was practiced for different reasons — sometimes for defence, but at other times it was to assert authority, especially in cases of land dispute. It was a part of survival strategies in a harsh terrain, where people they had to fight for their turf with other equally fearsome warrior clans.
The film tries to re-enact the ritualistic details of headhunting, a practice that continued till the mid-20th century. It shows how soothsayers could predict in which direction the enemy was lying and the time and direction in which the warrior should move. When the warriors brought their prized trophy home, they would place it on a platform made of a banana trunk for three to four months until the head began to rot. Then a ritual was performed and the skull was brought and kept in the Morung, a dormitory where young, unmarried men were taught life skills.
Not only does Zao bring Konyak’s past to life in an interesting manner, she also talks about the present-day political problems of the tribe. In 1972, when the international border between India and Myanmar was demarcated, it ran through the Konyak villages, and, at some places, even through their homes. “No consideration was given to the rights of the Konyaks to live as one people in one country. Today their wish to live as a homogeneous tribe faces an uncertain future,” says Zao.
Headhunting might be a thing of past but Zao’s film is not just a fascinating account of the ritual, but also aims to educate the world about the Konyaks, their homeland, their traditions and ancient customs. But it also highlights the pressures they face in today’s India.