Three documentaries offer moving and intimate portraits of the rural poor.
In the documentary My Name is Salt (directed by Farida Pacha), set in the saline desert of Little Rann of Kutch in India, a sequence shows the middle-aged protagonist fretting over the quality of salt crystals forming in his fields. “Leave it to the sun”, advises a fellow farmer stoically. This quality of chance and the never ending toil that accompanies the life of the rural poor formed the canvas for three documentaries that were screened at Film Southasia’ 2015.
The opening film at the festival, Drawing the Tiger, does not focus directly on the question of rural poverty in Nepal. Rather, it follows the rhythms of life of a family that subsists on less than “a dollar a day”, as the film’s website describes it. Directed by Amy Benson and Scott Squire, a Seattle based couple, the film credits Nepal-based journalist Ramyata Limbu as a co-director. Shot over seven years, the film documents the journey of a young girl, Shanta, who leaves her village for Kathmandu with a scholarship. She promises to return to care for her parents, and help them break out of the trap of poverty. But tragically, she fails to return. The magnificent mountains surrounding the village of Bahunchurra in Central Nepal frame the long days of Shanta’s parents, who are deep in debt and under threat of losing their land unless they manage to repay some of their loans.
What stands out is the constant and difficult labour that define Sushila’s, Shanta’s mother’s, days and nights, from planting the maize to chasing runaway goats, to cooking treats for her grandchildren when she visits them in the city. The years of hard work take a toll on her health, and towards the end of the film a doctor advises her not to work. “Then how will we eat”, she asks simply. Drawing the Tiger tells the story of how the promise of a better future lies away from the village, through migration to cities and to other countries, and then complicates that promise. It is also a snapshot of the kind of uneven penetration of technology that has marked the rural terrain for much of Southasia. In several sequences, children amuse themselves by watching films on mobile phones, and a neighbour sends word of absconding livestock by calling from across the mountain. All this appears, to Shanta’s grandmother, like progress. In a moving sequence, she describes all the ways in which the current condition of her family seems like paradise. In her youth, she recalls, she had to walk to the river to fetch water, and had to work hard for a cup of rice. Now, she said, there was water at the doorstep, and you could buy rice by the bagful. The irony of her dirt poor family described in such terms makes the film a rich insight into the paradoxes of Nepal’s development narrative.
Farida Pacha’s My Name is Salt in contrast, moves almost wordlessly, creating vivid tableaus from the life of a family of migrant workers, labouring for eight months in the Little Rann of Kutch. Their harvest is salt, and the film begins with the arrival of a pump that will supply the brackish water which will yield the salt crystals. The film moves from long shots of the baking desert, the heat rising in vapours, to intimate mid shot of Sanabhai and his family as they tend to their salt fields. In a beautifully choreographed sequence, the family moves in a bizarre dance, treading the salt with their bare feet, crossing the camera one after the other. It is a joyless dance, one of difficult postures and no ease in movements. Yet the very next sequence shows Sanabhai’s young daughter dancing with carefree abandon to music as she plays on the salt field.
Pacha imbues the bareness of the terrain with the incessant industry of the family. The emptiness of nights where nothing happens is punctuated by days with no rest. Humans work as hard and with greater efficiency than machines, as the pump requires constant tending and repairs. Again, as in Drawing the Tiger, women form an active part of this landscape of labour. Sanabhai’s older daughter wrestles with the mud to form the bunds for their fields, and sets the pump running with her mother Devuben when needed. The thud-thudding of this machine forms the soundtrack for much of the film. Mobile phones provide entertainment for children here too, but they communicate with winking mirrors across the desert. Pacha’s protagonists are not joyless – the family goes to the market and enjoys the rides and the shops. But they return to the unforgiving glare of the salt fields, and once their harvest of crystals is gathered, they pack up their possessions in sacks and move on. The fragility of their existence and the ecosystems that support them is beautifully and heartbreakingly brought home in Pacha’s closing sequence, when the desert is show to be transformed into a sea during the monsoons. The salt pans are washed away, the boats lying on the parched earth sail through the waters. Yet the next year, the film tells us, Sanabhai and his family will join 40,000 other families who will return to till their fields of salt.
Finally, from India’s northeastern state of Meghalaya, Tarun Bharatiya’s Brief Life of Insects offers a whimsical and charming look at the link between farm routines and songs. His narrative follows Bas Hos Shadap and his friends in a Khasi village called Umpohwin as they “thresh the paddy and sing”. Away from the fields too, they perform for the camera with their instruments, struggling briefly to remember the the tunes that come so naturally to them during the rhythm of the task. Despite its air of whimsicality, the film is not naïve or overly roseate in its view of village life. The farmers talk about the troubles that come to their homes during the pre-harvest season. The film’s visuals too are a testimony to the sheer manual effort that goes into the threshing. There is no machine in sight, and the work is done entirely by the farmers. But their voices add a certain cheer to the work, and lighten their cares, as one of the protagonists’ notes. The links between creativity and its environment, between culture and its ties to the seasons, come through in the 22-minute film, which simply makes one smile.
Together, the three films from the swathe that makes Southasia are a potent reminder of the beauty and intense loneliness of manual labour, Pacha’s film in particular frames the hands and feet of Sanabhai and his family like sculptures, caked with stubborn mud, muscles taut and tense against the elements. They also act as antidotes against romanticising rural life, by demonstrating how families live on the edge, always hungry, never entirely secure, subject to vagaries of nature and markets alike. With Southasia rapidly urbanising, the films are a reminder of the brutality and fragility that defines the lives of the rural poor, from the Himalayan villages of Nepal to the salt fields of India.
~Taran N Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist who writes on cinema, Islam and gender. She has been traveling to Kabul since 2006 where she worked closely with Afghan media producers and filmmakers. Her work can be seen at www.porterfolio.net/taran.
~This article is part of a series of column on cinema by Taran N Khan for Himal. Read her earlier column on what is it about funny women that scares Bollywood?