The Borderlands, an upcoming documentary film by Samarth Mahajan, attempts to tell stories from the areas which line India's frontiers — stories which are left out of the mainstream narrative, or presented largely through the lens of the army, war or nationalism. In this series, Firstpost follows Mahajan and his team as they travel across India, presenting snippets from people's lives.
In Part 1, stories from the North-Western frontier.
“CYCLES, YAAD aundi ae yaar (Mate, I remember the cycles),” says 90-year-old Jattu Ji from Ferozepur. He’s describing his love for cycling to the Hussainiwala border, to watch a toned-down version of the Wagah border retreat ceremony.
In the middle of the conversation he suddenly asks, “Chaliye phir Pakistan?” (Shall we leave for Pakistan?) When asked why he wants to go there, he smiles and says, “Ghar di yaad aaundi ae yaar!” (Because I miss my home.)
Jattu Ji fondly remembers eating Multani mangoes, until Partition forced him to find a new home. Being able to visit the border and look at people on the other side, who remind him of his childhood in Multan, makes him happy.
Stories like these form the soul of an upcoming documentary titled The Borderlands, directed by 27-year-old filmmaker Samarth Mahajan, who is a graduate from IIT Kharagpur. His previous film The Unreserved was conferred with the Best Non-Feature Film Audiography Award at the 65th National Film Awards in 2018.
Mahajan and his team are currently shooting the film across the borders of India. The filming process will be undertaken in four phases: Starting from Gujarat to Punjab; the West Bengal-Bangladesh borders; Kashmir to Bhutan, following the Himalayas; and finally China, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. The Borderlands will tentatively encompass 15 different border stories from India and 15 from the other side of the border, woven together in a documentary film with a run time of roughly 90 minutes.
The idea for this documentary stemmed from Mahajan’s experiences of being born and raised in the borderlands, and how the outside world looks at these regions. “I come from a border town named Dinanagar and I stayed there for the first 17 years of my life, till I was in Class 10. After I shifted from there, and when I used to introduce myself, people used to be very curious and would ask what happened when I lived so close to Pakistan. It made me aware that there is a certain mystery associated with borderlands and adjoining border areas,” he says.
He narrates an incident which took place in 2015 when Dinanagar was attacked by terrorists. There were civilian casualties and police deaths. “Essentially, Dinanagar was national news. Counterintuitively, a lot of people from my town were happy, because their town was in the news; their relatives would call on them from across the country, and suddenly, they felt their presence being acknowledged. While on the TV there were narratives of the terrorists, the army and the police, here I was with people behaving in the most counterintuitive manner.”
“So, in these places [border areas] when the atmosphere is usually marked by the shock of violence and deteriorating cross-border relationships, stories such as these can probably humanise the region and put forth a different perspective of what a border can mean.”
Mahajan says that in terms of conceptualising the premise and scope of the documentary, a lot of the research and reflection took place in 2016, while he was working on his previous film, The Unreserved. He specifically talks about a conversation he had with a Kashmiri man in a train compartment. “What struck me most was how that Kashmiri man supported Pakistan, while his brother was in the Indian army. Both of them would quarrel during Indo-Pak matches. He then opened up about having applied to the army himself, at one point in time. He said that if he got the job and his village got electricity, he’d start supporting India. It really told me something about the fluid nature of life in places like Kashmir, which, as a whole, has become a border area. Here was a man who hadn’t seen Pakistan but since he doesn’t get jobs in India and there is no electricity in his village, he supports Pakistan. And he can say this with ease because in some way, he knows the ‘other’ is so close by,” Mahajan explains.
IN RAJASTHAN, in a Pakistani Hindu refugee colony, live a few Sindhi families who migrated from the other side over the years. While the fear of religious persecution is real, many have shifted simply for better education and employment opportunities.
Many fondly remember their friends in Pakistan and say, “Pakistan humari janmbhoomi hai, aur India matrubhoomi. Ek ma hai, to dooji dadi. (Pakistan is our birthplace, and India is our motherland. While one is a mother, the other is a grandmother.)”
They say that the Rajasthani locals mock them by calling them “Pakistanis”.
This idea of the perception of the ‘other’ and the contradictions in the everyday lives of the people living in the borderlands served as interesting themes for Mahajan. People living in the Indian mainland are accustomed to thinking that all borders are violent. For them, the ‘other’ is sometimes a Pakistani, a Bangladeshi or a Chinese.
But when one lives at a border, one sees this every day, thus developing a rather different understanding of the situation.
“There is a lot of farm land between the international border and the fence that India has built. The farmers have limited access to this land, and within this limited access, whenever one goes to work on the fields, one also sees a farmer on the other side [of the border]. Then the whole image of the ‘other’ as a Pakistani — who is otherwise considered an enemy — suddenly fades away. You see another farmer, like you, struggling and toiling in the sun — that breaks a lot of stereotypes,” says Mahajan. “It makes us witness to our own people, one section of our countrymen who we usually don’t talk about and these stories then break the image of the ‘other’.”
“They become important stories to tell in the current atmosphere; they can make us talk about more peaceful and softer borders.”
In today’s socio-political environment where conversations about patriotism and nationalism are measured in decibels, voices which can create constructive dialogues get muffled. Mahajan is of the opinion that a lot of important issues such as development and education get side-lined because the conversations usually tilt towards our borders and wars. He believes it is then necessary to break the notion of an enemy living on the other side. “I think if individuals engage on a human level, we will see that people, in actuality, don’t have issues with one another. It is politics that divides people. Even if we are patriotic, there is no need to put the other country down. There are enough problems within our own country that need to be dealt with first. This is why the idea [with The Borderlands] is also to challenge the rhetoric of our dignity being associated with our army being at the border. There are many times when there is no army at the border, but people still manage pretty well.”
IN A REMOTE village of Kutch lives an old man whose sister was married into Sindh in an era where it was common for pastoralists like him to simply walk across the frontier. This was the case till the 1965 war. Over time, overnight camel rides to meet his sister have been replaced by prolonged visa and passport processes for train journeys on the Thar Link Express. On his last visit to Pakistan, he got some eggs from his sister and bred a hen. He described how the hen roams around freely in the village and makes him feel as though he is connected to his sister.
Making a film on a subject as sensitive and nuanced as that of The Borderlands demands an insight into the lives of people who live in this regions, as well as the ability to evoke emotion in people who don’t have any connection to the frontiers. While Mahajan’s upbringing played a crucial part in the conceptualisation, the vision to fulfil this mammoth project was formed during his early professional years. Before becoming a filmmaker, Mahajan worked with ITC in Kolkata in a high-profile job. His IIT degree earned him both prestige and privilege. He candidly speaks about how he was the second person from Dinanagar to have ever been selected at the prestigious institute.
“Kolkata, in a sense, is a city that reflects reality. Even when I was working there in a posh office, as soon as I would walk out, it would be starkly different. There was a significant disconnect between these two worlds that I experienced while working/living in the same city. It used to cause a lot of dissonance and I felt very disconnected from myself. There was also this urge within me to go out and understand more. Even if the engineering degree did teach me how to understand the world better, the curiosity within me was so overwhelming that I couldn’t continue in my job,” recalls Mahajan of his nascent years as a filmmaker.
After finding his calling, he shifted base to Mumbai, where he engaged with a lot of ideas and met with people. Eventually, he bumped into like-minded people and formed his team. “I felt that I did come from a place of privilege and had a voice. While working on The Unreserved, a lot of people suggested we should make it as a video of an IITian travelling in the general compartment. If you watch the film, I am the one who is talking, but the film is not about me; it’s about the people we meet. It is a very conscious decision to turn the camera towards them. Otherwise, we cannot break myths; we will not bring together the sections of society which live in silos. We really want to be the bridge between the class which usually watches a documentary, and the class which is the subject of the documentary. The idea is always to create a medium that reduces socio-cultural ignorance.”
Just as his previous film, in this one too Mahajan relies on two important things: being curious and asking the right questions. However, unlike The Unreserved where the geographical histories of people in the train didn’t form the primary layer of storytelling, in The Borderlands, they become an inherent part. Mahajan says, “The constant pursuit is to present these stories as universal stories, not stories that come across as border-specific. These ‘people stories’ are emotion-driven and not agenda-driven. The politics is obviously always there, but it is the second layer. Making politics the focus would mean alienating people, thus making the film devoid of inclusion. That’s what worked for The Unreserved because no matter what political ideology you identify with, in some ways you are able to feel the emotion because it is coming from a human being and from lived experiences. We strongly feel that is the kind of storytelling which can lead to behavioural changes.”
IN DIU, there are families of fishermen who often drift into Pakistan’s waters, and get jailed across the border. The prisoners are allowed to post one letter every three months. So as to not stress out their wives and children, many prisoners refrain from describing their health and food conditions, instead trying to sound hopeful. The letters carry simple requests: They ask their families in India to send medicines and gutkha! The imprisoned fishermen from both sides of the border are often released as barters on occasions of diplomatic importance, like the Independence Day or Republic Day, even if that means extending their terms.
Mahajan and his team — comprising of his producer Ashay (founder of the production house Camera and Shorts which also produced The Unreserved); editor Anadi (who Mahajan considers his ‘film school’); cinematographer Omkar and associate director Nupur — had to extensively research on the borders, plan the filming schedule and work around logistics. The production cost for Borderlands has been levied by a crowdfunding programme (via Wishberry Foundation) of Rs 25 lakh which started on 26 August and ended by 4 October 2018. For a young filmmaking company like theirs, a lot is at stake, even if they had won a National Award for their last film.
“A National Award does bring a lot of credibility. It definitely increases your expectation of yourself, but it doesn’t bring in funds. We have tried to use that credibility to tell these stories which otherwise do not get told, due to a lack of financial resources. So we have used it as a tool to subvert the market, because the market doesn’t care about awards or credibility, but people do. The Unreserved was also a strong reference for these people to see that we have gone through excruciating physical and mental experiences while filming it; it was not an easy film,” says Mahajan. The team has finished shooting the first phase from Gujarat to Punjab and is currently filming at the West Bengal-Bangladesh border. The shoot is scheduled to span two months, through April and May 2019.