Friday, August 20, 2010

From the Burning Ghats to the Frozen Lake!


How would you be able to connect children with a burning pyre? Wouldn’t it be akin to trying to juxtapose life with death? This is exactly what Rajesh S. Jala, film maker par excellence and winner of myriad awards does through his thought-provoking and heart-wrenching documentary ‘Children of the Pyre’. In stark contrast was his other documentary titled ‘Floating Lamp of the Shadow Valley’, a film as picturesque as its name, as Arif, a nine year old Kashmiri boy traces his life, its hardships and his work as a boat boy on the Dal Lake.
The two documentaries were screened in the Savera Hotel under the auspices of the Bill Roth Hospitals and the Dr. Jeganathan Foundation. Dr. Rajesh Jeganathan, Managing Director and Dr. Manoj Beno, Medical Director of Bill Roth Hospitals, both spoke about how several public outreach programmes were being offered by them, like free medical treatment and research and development. However, an important initiative was to create awareness about cancer through CANSWER, the brainchild of Dr Rajesh. They stressed that the key to cancer cure was early education, and a sustained one year programme was going on to educate people on how to combat stress and make the right lifestyle changes to stay healthy. Mr. Mithran Devanesen was the moving force behind the whole event, having brought these documentaries to the notice of the public, as well as being the Chief Advisor of the CANSWER Campaign.
A top priority was child welfare as children are the pillars of the nation. It was in this regard that the two documentaries which had children as their protagonists were screened.
Floating Lamp of the Shadow Valley:
The strains of Allahu Akbar and the flicker of a lantern reveal the paradoxes of Kashmir, a land of wondrous scenic beauty and the starkness of militancy. Across a frozen Dal lake, Arif, a nine year old boy labours to break the ice to ferry his passenger across, a metaphor that stands for his struggle for survival in real life. At the tender age of seven, he took up the oar to feed his family – an ailing mother and four siblings even as his abusive alcoholic father neglected them. With dreams of buying land, building a house, educating his siblings and marrying off his sister, Rosy in the future, he works diligently, making enough money for his family to celebrate festivals like ID, all the while taking care to repair his boat to keep it in mint condition.
The documentary also talks about the political scenario in the backdrop – the Hazratbal firing and the meteoric rise of terrorism, the detonation of nuclear devices by India and Pakistan, the Srinagar-Muzaffarnagar Bus initiative that was meant to be the perfect solution to the Kashmir problem, and the Kargil incursions. Arif hates his father who was once a terrorist and remarks candidly, “I will never be a militant. One bullet can kill you. Besides they kill people and killing is bad!” Simple but profound philosophy from this young lad with a mature head on his shoulders!
The cinematography is breathtaking, as the camera travels through beautiful vignettes of the frozen lake and sombre skies, the rich hues of autumn, the riotous burst of spring and raindrops of a green lily pad, ending with a joyous glimpse of the brothers gambolling around like playful puppies with the snowy downy flakes of a plant burst engulfing them, as hope reigns supreme!
Children of the Pyre:
Vivid images of fires burning fiercely are associated with Manikarnika, India’s most ancient, sacred and popular cremation ground. This documentary records the poignant tale of seven children who work through the day and night in the burning ghats of Varanasi, where burning bodies is a serious business. Each of these boys has been baptised by fire, having spent years in these grim surroundings, watching gruesome scenes of melting torsos, arms, legs and faces, but their main occupation is snatching the shrouds from the bodies, a harrowing task indeed. In turn, they face abuse and beatings, and when they do succeed they haggle to sell these pieces of cloth. At the onset, they went through stages of dread, unease, disgust and abhorrence, dreaming of ghosts and corpses. Today they do not flinch, inured to the stench, as they have to earn money to fill their bellies. They honour fire which is the mainstay of their existence, and this has even turned them into philosophers. As one boy puts it, “Happiness and sorrow make life. If there is only happiness, you’ll never thank God!”
The film documents all the horrors at the ghats with intermittent wisps of graveyard humour. For instance, one boy wonders what the corpse has eaten before it dies as it burns so brightly. Leaders come wrapped in the Tricolour, which too can be sold. But the boys know enough to salute the Flag, even if they are outspoken about leaders who fleece the poor and line their own pockets. Unclaimed bodies are given a mock cremation by the lads, as they mimic the actual rites, intoning the prayers in a macabre pantomime. The boys are aware they are the untouchables, as they handle the dead, but that does not prevent them from living life, day by day, and more so on occasions when dancing girls provide entertainment, even as bodies burn on an adjacent site. The boys dream of a comfortable future when they will own houses and cars, even be doctors, as the documentary ends in a haunting melody where Pt. Kumar Gandharva sings of the messengers of Death.
What was gratifying indeed was the Dr. V. Jeganathan Foundation handing over a cheque of Rs. 1 lakh to the PLAN – NGO to rehabilitate these seven boys who worked in the ghats. In a spontaneous gesture, the Foundation also announced that it would pay for Arif’s educational expenses for the coming year.
In order to catch the eye of the youth, the Foundation had also held two competitions for college students in and around Chennai – one on short films and the other on photography, both of which evinced an astounding response. An expert jury would evaluate these entries, around 200 in all, and attempt to use some of them in future campaigns. An enlightening interaction followed after the screening, in which such renowned names such as Balu Mahendra, Madhu Ambat, Sivasankari and Hariharan spoke their minds on film making and invited questions from the audience, which consisted of many young film makers and film buffs. However, the impact of the two movies still lingered in the minds of all, enveloped with a feeling of true happiness that something concrete had been done for these unfortunate children who had touched them briefly, but deeply!

Published in Eve's Times - May 2010