Utpal Borpujari

March 11, 2009

Of Ashen Childhoods: Children of the Pyre

At Varanasi’s Manikarnika cremation ghat, pyers are said to have been burning without a break since centuries, as Hindus believe that last rites there would ensure a passage to heaven for the departed soul. Thousands of bodies come here to be burnt every year, and life goes among the dead bodies without a break. It is in this setting that one would see a few young boys busy as bees. For them, it is the source of livelihood, though they are at an age when they should have been going to school. They steal shrouds from dead bodies, often sleep at the cremation ground, some of them even doing drugs and marijuana to escape nightmares of grotesque-shaped human limbs burning on the pyres. Very few children anywhere else would be living in more macabre a setting as they do. Though they live in Varanasi, the eternal city and hot tourist destination that has been fodder for many a media and film stories, their story has never been told before.


But now, a documentary that has brought out their story before the world is earning global accolades, bringing alive through an unflinching and courageous narrative,  their thankless lives before audiences that have been left spellbound – and shocked. Children of the Pyre, by Rajesh S Jala, is indeed a visual journey not for the weak-hearted. And though its protagonists are children, no film certification board in the world would probably allow children to watch it, thanks to the gory visuals of bodies burning on the pyres that the director says he has used to emphasise and re-emphasise the thankless setting these children live in.


Already a winner of the Best Documentary Awards at the Montreal World Film Festival and the Sao Paulo Film Festival (Best documentary), and having attracted encomium as part of the competition section of Pusan and Leipzig International Film Festivals, the film is literally going places. It has also been shown in the International Film Festival of India in Goa as part of the Indian Panorama section and in the Eastern Stories section of the just-concluded Amsterdam Film Festival, and is soon going to screened at leadng festivals like those in Thessaloniki in Greece, Tampere in Finland, Munich International Documentary Film Festival and the IFFLA in Los Angeles.


The film goes into the lives of some of the about 30 kids who are into the “business” of making a livelihood out of activities in Manikarnika, believed by Hindus to be the most-sacred and ancient cremation ground – and therefore, probably getting the maximum number of bodies to burn every day, so much so that more than one body is said to be burning at any given point of time anytime of the year, year after year.


If Ravi, now 15, has been living amidst these burning bodies since he was just five years old, Yogi, Manish, Sunil, Ashish, Kapil are among those who are much younger but already veterans of the trade that primarily comprises stealing of the shrouds covering dead bodies, selling them as cheap as Rs two a piece to local shopkeepers who clean and re-sell them in the market for Rs 25-30. And to ply their trade, they have to be at the place where all the action it – the cremation ground on the banks of the Ganga.


Interspersed with frequent close up shots of body parts burning on various pyres – “I have used many of these shots to drive home the point in what kind of brutal surroundings these kids live,” says Jala in response to criticisms from some quarters on this – the kids, tell in the film their life stories in a matter of fact manner, often their innocence seeping through the harshness that the surroundings have bestowed upon them.


Belonging to the ‘Dom’ community that traditionally is involved in cremation ground work and are considered “untouchables” by the society, these children have families that live in the Dom quarters of the city, but by choice prefer to live almost like orphans, often even sleeping over at the cremation ground after long hours of work.


“It is question of our survival. If we don’t work here, how will we earn our livelihood,” philosophically offers Gagan, the one who is hated by all his “workmates” for his free use of invectives. And that is the story of every kid working there. Not surprisingly, Ravi is quite nonchalant when he says that they have to smoke pot, “even though we know it is a bad habit”, to take their minds away from the sights of burning bodies. But it is not always business – very often, they do a service to humanity too, by burning unclaimed bodies on their own, even though they do it with mock rituals aimed at ‘entertaining’ themselves.


Jala, who spent around Rs 40 lakh – raised through his friends and well wishers – to make the film, and hopes to get the investment back by selling it to various TV networks abroad. “I am in negotiation with around five firms for selling international distribution rights. Also I am trying to find some sponsor or collaborator or a production house to get my film released commercially in New York and Los Angeles so that it can be pitched for the Academy Awards,” says Jala.


The film, which intersperses some poetically-composed images to soften the often­­-hard hitting imagery, virtually never leaves the Manikarnika Ghat, giving only a glimpse of the families of the kids. Jala says he did it deliberately. “We had a lot of footage of the kids with the families, but at the end of the day I realised that if I went out of Manikarnika, the film would lose focus as then I have to show the families of all the seven kids featured,” says the self-taught filmmaker whose earlier film “Shadow Valley” had studied the violence in Kashmir through the eyes of a nine-year-old boat boy on the Dal lake in Srinagar.


The kids, initially suspicious of his intentions, opened up enough to Jala over the 18-month period he shot the film to confide in him that they want to escape of the drudgery of their lives and get educated, some dreaming of becoming a pilot or of owning a big house someday. Unlike many other documentary filmmakers, Jala has kept in regular touch with the kids, as he wants to take the whole thing much beyond his film. “I want to rehabilitate these kids, and am starting a trust for the purpose. At least 3-4 of the kids are highly interested in going to school,” he says.


For a filmmaker who always wanted to make a film on some aspect of Varanasi but only accidentally discovered this untouched subject, Jala has made a highly-evocative film that reaches a philosophical high with Kumar Gandharv’s rendering of a Kabir couplet on life and afterlife.


“I hope to generate awareness through this film, awareness at a global level to bring back the lost childhood of not only these seven kids but millions of miserable children who never get an opportunity to go to school,” Jala, a strong believer of the dictum that even though films cannot bring revolution, they have the power to change or influence perception.


(published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 08-03-2009)




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