Sourav Sarangi is one of the most committed filmmakers I have met in my track record of forty years as a film journalist. Char – The No Man’s Land is a sterling example. He often makes longitudinal documentaries which means that he persistently shoots a single film over a long span of time to catch the characters in their evolution over time to find out what happens to them within the circumstances they live in.
Char-The No Man’s Island has finally got a theatrical release in Kolkata. The film first premiered at the Busan International Film Festival, 2012 followed by screening at the Indian Panorama section in IFFI, Goa. It bagged the “Golden Kapok Award” at GZ Doc 2012 in China, was screened at the CHOP SHOTS in Indonesia and Dubai International Film Festival 2012. The film also had a Special screening at ISIFF, Dhaka, Bangladesh and won a Special Mention in the Muhr AsiaAfrica Documentary-Awards. It was selected for the Berlin International Film Festival and was screened at the International Forum of New Cinema section in Berlin. Back home it won the National Award for the Best Anthropological/Ethnographic Film at the 60th National Awards. Notably, it was the only Indian film selected for screening at Tiburon international film festival.
The film begins with images of the gradual erosion of a village, on the border of India and Bangladesh caused by the changing course of the river. The images are from 2002. Haunted by the immediacy of destruction, Sarangi sought to find out what happened to the people who inhabited the village.
Way back in 2002-2003, filmmaker Sourav Sarangi witnessed a whole village close to the India-Bangladesh border disappear into the river Ganges due to erosion. The houses, trees, roads, the structures, everything the locals created over the years was going down into the river. That image struck him deeply. He witnessed hundreds and thousands of people become homeless overnight.
“You need conflict to make a film,” says Sarangi elaborating on his motivation to make this very challenging documentary. “The river became the official border with the Partition in 1947. Now, the border is fixed but the river keeps moving here, so I saw a great dichotomy. I saw the conflict between modern technology and the traditional views about the river. To control the water of river Ganga, the Government of India built a huge barrage-like dam that changed the entire landscape further threatening the lives of the people. I saw the conflict between human existence and the harshness of nature, the power within nature that can destroy as smoothly as it can create,” he adds.
One of the central characters of the film is a boy named Rubel, a resident of Char. “He wants to come to India and study in a school, but is forced to smuggle rice from India to Bangladesh instead.” The issue of border crossing found resonance in his adolescence, another in-between space, the director says.
Char – The No Man’s Island tracks the journey of 14-year-old Rubel who lives in Char and has dreams of making it big in some other city because he knows that the fate of Char is determined and decided by nature. Rubel is the single earning member of a family living on the dredges of poverty not knowing where the next meal will come from and if it does, whether they will still be around to eat it. Rubel crosses the Ganges which divides this section of India from Bangladesh. He smuggles rice from India to Bangladesh where the point of crossing acts as the international border. They are basically from India but the river eroded the residents of these people from mainland India when Rubel was only four years old. He wanted to study but there is no school nearby and his parents are not interested in his education because that will place their lives at stake.
“When I met Rubel I was fascinated. He was a very charming and bright boy who was forced to smuggle rice from India to Bangladesh. His ambition was to come to India and study in a school, which he could not. Here, again I saw a conflict. These were the motivating forces. It took time for me to conceive the film in this manner,” says Sourav.
He discovered that the river, whose ways had become unpredictable since the construction of the Farakka Barrage, had its own plan for these people. “The river creates small islands — shifting, sandy islands which take time to become stable. All these people go and settle there,” he says. The film derives its name from the generic Bengali word that denotes such unstable silt islands— Char.
On this little stretch of slippery land, the director mounts a sensitive commentary on citizenship. Char is manned on the one side by the Border Security Force and Bangladeshi Rifles on the other. “But both the governments have done nothing. They are tax-paying citizens. But they don’t have access to any of the basic amenities like health and education.”
A graduate from FTII, Pune, Sarangi’s training was in fiction filmmaking. But he finds the non-fiction form “fascinating”. In fiction, the director generates situations and characters. There is an implicit distance which is dissolved in the documentary format, through what the director calls “the sharing of lives”. His methodology is marked by a conscious rejection of the interview in favour of conversation. “In interviews you create a line between the director, camera and character. But in conversations you create a zone where the characters can move freely. There is no power-relationship involved.”
The camera that is also an invisible ‘character’ in the film and a ‘voice’ speaking silently about Rubel and his fellow beings, follows the lives of these people, sometimes with candid forthrightness and often, clandestinely in the middle of the night with an infra-red camera that invests the scenario with a strange, mysterious, green aura, revealing the people in the tragic reality of their lives dictated by the border patrol, which is merciless in its dealings with them. Sarangi has painstakingly followed the cycle of seasons across the panoramic landscape whose picturesque beauty stands in sharp contrast to its real brutality that leaves lives teetering between life and death. There is no school, no medical facilities and no NGO to take recourse to when a young married girl is not accepted by her husband and in-laws because her parents cannot shell out Rs.50,000 in dowry!
Today, around 10,000 people from India and Bangladesh, Hindu and Muslim inhabit this island that spans roughly 150 kms that could increase or decrease depending on the weather, and the course of the river’s flow. The film follows around a year’s time, capturing the seasons of the year beginning with Durga Puja. The white kash flowers that bloom in autumn once created memorable poetic aesthetics in Ray’s Pather Panchali. But here, these are seen to be swallowed mercilessly by the hungry river.
The sound design and the cinematography are complemented by the real voice-over of the filmmaker and his interactions with the locals. The camera is used cleverly to underscore the contrast between the beauty of nature and the havoc it can create in the lives of people. And it proves that the documentary format can also become an aesthetic statement. The camera closes on a small pyramid that has Bangladesh inscribed on one side and India on the other, rising in the middle of the river fixing the border.
At one point, the Ganges becomes a voice that says, “I take away but I also give back.” But does it really give back? Without being sentimental or melodramatic at any point throughout the film, Sarangi succeeds in driving home the point – that for the poor, the marginalized and the ignorant, even Nature is an enemy. He shows and tells us the story of Char and Rubel and leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
Images courtesy: Son Et Lumière (India)