Border narratives often tend to hinge on melodrama – jingoism and a separated lovers’ story. In cinema, as in life, the ordinary lives along these dividers are invisibilised and rendered inconsequential. Samarth Mahajan, however, in his latest documentary, Borderlands, presents a mosaic of six stories couched in layers of separation, displacement, remembrance, longing, and hopes of repatriation/homecoming, making the border subjects heard. There’s neither any anger nor lament. There are smiles, even if they camouflage pain. He places himself close to the subject but at no point does the film get polemical, it just listens in.
This time, last year, at Cannes Film Festival’s Marche du Film, Mahajan was pitching his then work-in-progress film, Borderlands, which would have had its India premiere at MAMI last year. But the pandemic postponed MAMI to this October. After a world premiere recently at Munich’s DOK.fest München and screening at the New York Indian Film Festival, it will compete at Germany’s Indian Film Festival Stuttgart in July.
Produced by All Things Small and Camera and Shorts, the 65-minute documentary, featuring five languages, has been culled out of 120 hours of footage. There is no pretension to intellectualise the film with sociologists, historians or anthropologists – there are people whose lives have been upended by the border, literally and metaphorically.
Deepa, a Pakistani Hindu refugee, whose identity is used often to make the case against Pakistan, shows that migrations are for economic reasons, too. Though she, studying to become a doctor, feels freer in India (Jodhpur) but says ‘kuchh bhi change nahin hua (not much has changed)’, except that women can move about by themselves here. She says she had to “unlearn Sindhi/Urdu, the Arab script, and learn Hindi”. The patriarchy that Deepa battles, Rekha couldn’t.
Rekha, the director’s mother, and a housewife in Dinanagar in Punjab, 10 miles from the Pakistan border, had to quell her teaching aspirations to be a housewife and a mother. She’d lived through a terrorist attack in 2015; is excited to visit the Wagah border, will dance there, but her patriotism isn’t “right-wing or left-wing”, it’s pragmatic – she finds no reason for a daily spectacle of the Beating Retreat. Her border is personal, of not having a life outside of her home, her family. Noor is patriotic, too. There’s no country prettier than hers (Bangladesh), she says in the film.
Dhauli, like the film, has no bitterness. Her marriage made her cross the border. Her story exists in the in-between, and in its in-betweenness, it attempts to find its identity. Her constant, lively smile betrays a sense of resignation, an acceptance of her reality. Yet, her eagerness is childlike. She waits a whole year to see her Bangladeshi family at the annual Milan Mela bazaar on poila boishakh (the Bengali New Year), and exchange gifts and life updates from this side of the fence – in between is the no man’s land, “permeable and accommodating”, a paradoxical space that denies the possibility of a border with such continuities.
Kavita, an interceptor, in Birgunj, stops Nepali girls – based on “suspicion” – from crossing over and being trafficked. The girls are aware of the dangers ahead, which complicates Kavita’s work. Noor, trafficked from Bangladesh into India, has been confined for three years at a shelter house. After being rescued she’s survived the border/ordeal before the film and waits to go home.
Border violence isn’t just military combat where the “masculine image of a border” is challenged, there exist other kinds of violence and inner conflicts. “In talks of political violence, we ignore the violence unleashed by borders on individual lives. We wanted to focus on that and see how the characters cope and find hope. To show how human resilience can overcome any tyranny,” he says. Perhaps, that’s why the film’s gender imbalance. Surjakanta, in Imphal, is the only male protagonist.
Manipur fills in for Kashmir. The brothers’ sequence – one, an “insurgent”, and the other a Manipuri – in Surjakanta’s film, which he projects in his living room, harks back to a similar conversation from Mahajan’s documentary The Unreserved (2017), where a Kashmiri man speaks of fights with his Army brother. Borders compel brothers to choose between regionalism and nationalism. “It’d have been much easier to put Kashmir in the mythical idea of the Indian union. We keep talking about Kashmir and Pakistan as a diversion tactic, but we wanted to go beyond that, and breakdown the binaries and the notion of the ‘other’,” he says, “Surjakanta, the filmmaker, is trying to not forget Manipur’s ‘complicated’ history (forced to become a part of India) and relationship (sandwiched between an internal/state border with the Indian union and international border with Myanmar), and yet, he’s purely coming from the place of an artist. To show why art/artists are important.” Surjakanta, like Mahajan, is preserving stories.
The border is also a demarcation between the legally acknowledged citizen and the officially non-existent subject. “The characters and the film is an intergenerational story. And, yet, people like Dhauli, living at a BSF camp village in Nargaon, bordering Islampur, stand to be the first ones to be thrown out if the NRC-CAA comes into effect,” says Mahajan. While these realities, though inform the film, exist outside its universe, it is the characters’ personal borders – “an axis of marginalisation or identity (disability, sexuality, gender, nationality, class)” – which bring in empathy, nuance and texture. “Kavita has a leg disability, Rekha brings in the gender perspective, Surjakanta combats censorship. It was easy to give up but they didn’t,” he adds.
At once observational and participatory, The Borderlands tells a living story of our time, in an indelibly soulful manner. Bookended by earthy melancholic notes of the dotara (a track by Bangladeshi musician Kamruzzaman Rabbi) and a peppy Bengali song Ami Tomake Bhalobashi by Survivor Girl Ukulele Band – an unlikely band of young survivors of trafficking – Mahajan’s stories are laced with location-specific sounds, one that won him the National Award for The Unreserved. Borderlands, too, segues from thinking to feeling, shows what separates also connects us, if only we care to listen.