In an atmosphere charged with debates on citizenship, fuelled by the NRC exercise in Assam and questions of ‘patriotism’ over the India-Pakistan match, Borderlands is a documentary that is powerful in its lack of jingoism and the need to hinge on melodrama.
Borderlands, directed by Samarth Mahajan, was featured at the 2020 Cannes Film Market and world-premiered at the Internationales Dokumentarfilmfestival München (Munich International Documentary Film Festival). One of the stories of the documentary, which is now premiering online in India at the ongoing Dharamshala International Film Festival, opens with the protagonist, Deepa, holding an old, all-in-one notebook, scribblings of a farewell party and bones in a human body. The notebook is a microcosm of what the documentary presents — a mosaic of six stories that delves into themes of separation, remembrance, longing, displacement and hope. The film’s 30-year-old director lets the subjects speak, without forcing them to fit into our fantasy of what borderland conflict and existence looks like in 21st century India.
The 67-minute documentary, produced by All Things Small and Camera and Shorts, features five languages, and six locations — Imphal, Nargaon, Kolkata, Birgunj, Dinanagar and Jodhpur. The film is deeply personal too. Mahajan was born and spent the first 17 years of his life in Dinanagar — a town in Punjab bordering Pakistan. That is perhaps why the story is less about borders and more about the people who inhabit those spaces.
Violence of borders
For a generation that watched Border (1999) and regular news of ceasefire, popular media has become our reference point for understanding lives around borders. But people who carry with the experiences of living in bordering areas negotiate with the violence of political contention between countries every day.
In places far away from borders, it is an international issue. It is an “us vs them” dichotomy. But people who live in close proximity to the borders have lived a reality that is far more complex. It’s not black and white.
“People like my grandmother, who have no home but in memory, learn to be very skilled in the art of recollection,” writes Amitav Ghosh in The Shadow Lines. This idea seems to echo throughout Borderlands — how does one keep the memory of spaces that were ‘once home’, alive? Dhauli, one of the people featured, says, “I understood I had to be with my husband.” Marriage is what led her to cross the border from Bangladesh. It is not the separation of lovers, but ‘duty’ of a wife that compelled Dhauli to join her husband in Nargaon, West Bengal. But it comes with the cost of not being able to meet her family, who, despite living just a few metres away, geographically fall in another country.
Mahajan says he wanted to look beyond the singular understanding of violence and focus on the structural aspect, one of which is Dhauli’s story of not being able to meet her family. There are stories of more visceral violence too, be it the terror attack by Lashkar-e-Toiba that killed, among others, the person who was the go-to ‘chole bhaturey’ person for Mahajan’s own family in Dinanagar in 2015. Violence is inescapable, but there are layers to that, and Borderlands is inquisitive about those layers.
Over the last few years, women’s voices in political events have gained momentum. The ‘personal’ is slowly inching towards being recognised as the ‘political’ and women’s stories are creating their own space. The stories of Kavita, Noor, Deepa, Dhauli and Rekha in Borderlands act as anchors of this message. Each narrative is fraught with violence, some of which may not even seem like it unless you are a woman — as if having to follow one’s father or husband’s wishes is what life is all about. Others, like Noor’s trafficking and assault and wait for repatriation as she lives in a shelter house in Kolkata, shows what is gender-related violence.
Borderlands ensures the subjects of its musings bring nuance to the table. While Kavita struggles with a leg disability, which also ensures everyone from her school remembers her; Rekha’s life is about monotony in a border town. Kavita’s story symbolises vigilance at the India-Nepal border, which is a “friendly border” as opposed to the India-Pakistan border or India-Bangladesh border. Yet, the so-called “friendly border” is also a site for massive human trafficking.
Borderlands allows its subjects to speak in whatever language they are comfortable in. And that allows for deeper, tender conversations about love and loss — whether it’s Noor’s love for another woman, or Deepa, who lives at a Pakistani migrant settlement outside Jodhpur, enacting how she would look after patients if she could practice nursing in India.
Art beyond borders and politics
In the popular imagination, or even in terms of overt political violence, Kashmir often becomes the space where duality is expressed, in terms of which country you support.
In Borderlands, Surjakanta’s fictional story fills in for a narrative from Kashmir. A sequence in Surjakanta’s story between two brothers — one, an “insurgent”, and the other a Manipuri — is a reminder of a similar conversation from Mahajan’s own documentary The Unreserved (2017), where a Kashmiri man speaks of fights with his Army brother. The 2017 film, which documented the lives of passengers in the Unreserved Compartment of trains, went on to win the award for Best Audiography at the 65th National Film Awards held on 3 May 2018.
Manipur has its own history of assimilation and resonates an ‘us-vs-them’ mentality through Inner Line Permits. It also shares an international border with Myanmar and has its own history of the Anglo-Manipur War. Art, however, allows for stories to emerge that do not always find spaces in mainland news. Art allows subjects to speak, without hegemony, and both Borderlands and Surjakanta’s own stories are a medium for these unique voices to speak to us.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)