One clue to the stylistic approach of Surabhi Sharma’s new documentary Bidesia in Bambai is embedded within the film itself. During a Bhojpuri music performance in a corner of Mumbai, the sound suddenly dips, as though somebody has thrown a sweater over the speakers. It happens again and again, until you realize that Sharma wants to draw attention to the fact that the concert is being recorded on mobile phones being held aloft by listeners.
Just like the sound of Bhojpuri music is transformed after entering the cellphones, so too does the meaning of what you are watching shift constantly from observation to interpretation, ethnography to philosophy.
Bidesia in Bambai approaches its subject matter—the music of Bhojpuri-speaking migrants in Mumbai—through ellipses rather than directness. If you want facts and figures about migration patterns and their impact on Mumbai’s local-level politics and knowledge about the exact position of the person being interviewed in the constellation of Bhojpuri music, you are better off reading an Economic & Political Weekly article or watching a television documentary. Sharma, who has previously directed such films as Jari Mari: Of Cloth And Other Stories and Aamkar, follows and interviews singers and promoters. But rather than their backstories, she focuses on the experience of their performances, and the relationship of these performances to a city that is constantly being demolished and reconstructed. In a film packed with beautifully shot visuals (the principal cinematography is by Avijit Mukul Kishore), one of the striking images is of a singer recording in a studio, her very being concentrated on the music, the lyrics and the moment.
Sharma’s documentary follows from her 2008 film Jahaji Music, which explored the chutney music scene in the Caribbean. “Since Jahaji Music, I was trying to grapple with what the musical sphere was about, and I got excited about tracking the story of migration and music,” says the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) graduate. “I followed various genres of Bhojpuri music, and found that in every genre, the majority of the songs, whether old or contemporary, are about the man leaving home to work in the city.” Much of the music is aimed at working-class men who are far away from their homes and villages. There are devotional songs propitiating goddesses of fortune as well as dirty ditties about sexual intercourse.
The film tied in with Sharma’s preoccupations with the informalization of labour as well with the mysteries of making music. Along the way, the need to tell a straightforward who-what-where narrative fell by the wayside. “I was trying to mimic an ethnomusicologist but as I encountered the people (the performers), I was encountering the city all over again,” she says. “I went deeper and deeper into the ambiguous and not easily defined space where an audience connects with the performer, where the singer is imagining the audience while performing a record. I wanted to tell the story of a migrant worker in Bombay but stay within the realm of music production and performance.”
The accent in Bidesia is on the often hypnotic and trippy visuals and the sound design (by Mohandas VP). “The detailing of the genres is a different journey and search—I just stayed and tracked who is performing the music and where it is being performed,” Sharma says. By making something as quizzical as Bidesia in Bambai, Sharma says she has turned away from the reason she started making documentaries in the first place—to explore issues through cinema. “I am unable to make that direct film because of what I studied in college and at the FTII,” she says. But I doubt that I would make an abstract film totally dealing with the issue of form. My starting point is what is staring me in the face, but I am constantly being pushed by the material I make.”
Bidesia in Bambai will be screened at 4pm on 20 July at the FD Zone, Films Division, Pedder Road, Mumbai.