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Searching For Saraswati raises questions about faith, politics amid the search for a mythical river in India

The American author Robert Fulghum wrote in his book True Love that ‘Myth is more potent than history’. Searching for Saraswati, a documentary short film by filmmakers Shirley Abraham and Amit Madhesiya seems to tread a similar thought. Given that India’s historic past perpetually finds itself in the garage, undergoing manufacture in an attempt to come out sharper and prouder, the idea is perhaps more timely than ever. But what sets this 19-minute film apart from others that explore ideas of faith, is its quest to hear both sides, find within its subjects a capacity for discussion, and therefore the suggestion of meaning, that must be inevitable.

 Photograph by Amit Madhesiya

All photographs by Amit Madhesiya

The film, shot in Mugalwali village in Haryana, has at its centre a well which the local farmer Sahiram Kashyap believes is water from the holy river Saraswati. “When we finished our first film The Cinema Travellers, we were keeping an eye on the developments here. In 2015, the Haryana government officially started a project for the search of a mythical river. It was fascinating. We just wanted to know why, what was the motivation here,” Abraham says. Despite being a documentary, the film has a discernible narrative that begins with mysticism, walks through some baffling scenarios and arrives eventually at a discourse that both the audience and the filmmaker are party to.

Mid-way through the film, a school assembly is shown being told the merits of this beguiling search for the unverified. It is followed by the image of the school’s science lab, firmly locked — a metaphor perhaps for the universality of this malaise. The filmmakers' imprint is not only visible, it drives the film forward. “As filmmakers, we are always on the lookout for metaphors — things that can add meaning or say something indirectly. When we arrived in the village, we were taken by the fog. I knew then that the image of this fog could be used as a metaphor, and it shows in the film that it does,” Madhesiya says. The fog, indeed, flirts with the idea of the unknown in the first half of the film.

SFS_01_Amit Madheshiya

That said, Searching for Saraswati would not have been as dynamic, as vital a study if it was merely comparative, or had it approached its subjects with pre-conceived notions. “We did not want to chase the binary of what is evil or what isn’t but move past it, to some sense of meaning. That is what this is about. I think the keyword here is empathy, the want to understand someone’s perspective. I think all filmmakers approach a subject with pre-determined ideas, but it would be incredibly dangerous for a filmmaker to assume a person, or set of people as the sole object of intellectual scrutiny,” Abraham says, a sentiment that is well worn by the film. “We don’t see people as good people or bad people, we are only interested here in the character, of why people do what they are doing,” Madhesiya adds.

Within its 19-minute running time, the film also has some baffling sequences, from a Hindu priest discussing ways to milk money from the protracted search to another who speaks of investing 50 crores in the process. All stunning facts, even if in modern times they don’t feel like revelations anymore. The irony though remains with the audience, who must contemplate the existence of such a viewpoint, most crucially the extent to which faith drives people. At which point, any film, or document runs the risk of tilting its head one way to suggest that the other is wrong. Something the film manages to avoid, rather admirably.

That said there must be something that the two filmmakers have carried with them from their work on the ground. “I think the thing that stood out for me was that we have this assumption that people from villages act out of blind faith, that is the lack of rationalism. But what I saw, and what we’ve tried to evoke through the film as well is the fact that cycles of faith are conscious decisions, predicated by a kind of political shift or push. The people of Mugalwali were well aware of the moment, and perhaps even the momentum of it all,” Abraham says, referring to the way myths are increasingly becoming the tools to drive the soft culture of politics.

The film, as Abraham points out, evokes the capacity of its subjects to have a conversation, which is also the film’s penultimate image. Scepticism meets resolute faith. We do not need to choose, we need to understand, it seems to say. The chances are good though, that the storytellers pip the scientists in the long run. “It was intriguing to me, the idea of how pilgrimages began, how one myth leads to the birth of others. I repeatedly thought about this question, the potential of this place to become something else in the future. Ten years down the line, Mugalwali could be that pilgrimage we all talk about, who knows,” Madhesiya says.


Updated Date: Jul 20, 2018 16:45 PM

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