Sometimes, life can imitate life a bit too closely in documentary film-making. Sourav Sarangi couldn’t escape some of the hardships endured by the residents of Char, a set of islands on the Ganga between India and Bangladesh that he was filming.
Sarangi’s 97-minute Char... The No-Man’s Island became the kind of epic production that generates enough anecdotes to entertain social gatherings for years. Cameras were transported mostly by bullock cart. Char doesn’t have a hotel or basic comforts like toilet blocks and restaurants, so shoots couldn’t last for more than a few days at a stretch. Power shortages forced regular cross-border hops. “We had a mobile unit whose only job was to take the camera batteries across the border, charge them and come back,” Sarangi says.
Like in art about life, so in life: Struggle is in the very air of Char, which has about 10,000 people from both countries spread over a 150 sq. km stretch, according to the documentary. Shot over two years, Char explores the complications of living in geopolitical limbo.
Through the character of 14-year-old Rubel, Sarangi reveals Char’s dependence on pushing across rice, cows and Phensedyl to the other side (the cough syrup is banned in Bangladesh). Char’s strategic location isn’t lost on the authorities. Nobody is allowed on to or off the islands after dark, and there’s no power at night. This restriction led to some of the documentary’s most striking sequences. The team of cinematographers set their cameras to night-vision mode after sunset, which caused the residents to look like glassy-eyed phantasmal beings. The night-time sequences provide a ready visual metaphor for Char’s desolateness. “Initially, we made special lights to shoot at night, but the night-vision mode conveys the place beautifully,” Sarangi says. “It’s not the best cinematography but who cares when you have the feeling.”
The film includes footage from Sarangi’s initial quest, to make a documentary about soil erosion caused by the Farakka Barrage, as well as recent images of chunks of land melting into the water. Nature is an adversary but also a nurturing parent, he points out, which is one reason the islanders refuse to leave for drier ground. “For the river people, the river is like a mother,” he says. “They don’t blame the river, but their fate. They try to coexist in a way that we don’t understand. If they go to the city, they will become beggars or labourers.”
The idea of erosion extends from the land to the people who cling to it, he adds. “It’s our system that makes Char inaccessible and unliveable. Why is a boy who should be in school smuggling rice?”
Although Sarangi first travelled to the area in 2003, the documentary took its time to emerge—the time it takes for an island to be formed by the ebb and flow of a river. After the Kolkata-based director had filmed the erosion, he began wondering about the fate of the people whose villages are regularly consumed by the Ganga. He learnt that people from one of the submerged villages had moved to an island that was being formed.
While waiting for the island to get completed, Sarangi directed another documentary. Bilal, about a three-year-old boy and his blind parents who live in a slum in Kolkata, was made in 2005 and 2006, during which time Sarangi lined up funding and permissions for Char from the Border Security Force. “While I was doing other things, the river was doing its own thing, working in its own way and creating the island,” he says. The film was completed last year with the help of international financing—it cost a little over Rs.1 crore. “I wanted to raise the right kind of budget to make the film possible,” Sarangi says. “I wanted to shoot in the rains, for instance. I told my funders that without rain, the film won’t be complete. They agreed and waited for a year.” Char was premiered at the Busan International Film Festival in October, and will be screened at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.
It can be programmed in a showcase of Indian non-fiction cinema, but it also qualifies as an exercise in ethnographic film-making. As in Bilal, Sarangi spent many months recording. But he is no fly-on-the-wall observer. Relationships crumble before our eyes; family members squabble and complain to the film-maker, an elderly woman faints dramatically during a conversation. “I don’t like making people talking heads,” Sarangi says. I want to go inside their minds to bring out whatever is there emotionally and spiritually. I have conversations, I influence the dialogue.”
He doesn’t pretend that Char is a dispassionate document of a deprived corner of India, and puts his own stamp on the proceedings. Worldly-wise Rubel was “cast” because of the teenager’s ability to represent the other islanders. “I am following the rules of drama and storytelling,” Sarangi says. “It is definitely a manufactured thing, it is not reportage. It is a representation of reality as it appears to me.”