Biweekly Binge: Lives split down the middle
The writer discusses Samarth Mahajan’s documentary feature Borderlands, which is now showing at DOK.fest München
Samarth Mahajan’s documentary feature Borderlands trains its lens on the lives of people in the edges of the country, their lives divided into two halves – one that is defined by their physical location and another by their existential ambiguity within the Indian subcontinent. The opening credits draws the lines for us. Imphal, Manipur. Nargaon, bordering Bangladesh. Kolkata. Birgunj in Nepal, bordering Bihar. Jodhpur in Rajasthan and Dinanagar, Punjab. Borderlands focuses on individuals and through their stories gives us a glimpse of what it means to belong or not belong, how porous borders can be figuratively, but also how vapid the idea of a country or patriotism itself can be.
Deepa, in a Pakistan migrant settlement in Jodhpur, had to wait for her marksheets and transfer certificates to come through to get into a school here. Perspicacious in her demeanour, Deepa was afraid she’d be married off in that gap she was forced to take. An ex-staff nurse, she enthusiastically names all the bones in the upper body and even enacts a mock treatment for the interviewers. Mahajan’s style is once again investigative, something that follows from his previous film The Unreserved. Like that film on unreserved compartments of the Indian railways, the stress here too is on historic, decades-long stories of civilization compressed into observations of daily minutiae. But where The Unreserved finds conflict in commotion, Borderlands finds similar conflicts quietly navigated on a day-to-day basis.
Borderlands contrasts its set of characters: a life in the Nepal border is complemented by a life in Kolkata. We have Rekha in Dinanagar, socially and economically upward, opening about her loneliness, her monotonous routine as a housewife and the compromise she had to make before her wedding decades ago – to quit her teaching job, forever. She talks about her home and family, and about terrorist attacks and patriotism. On the other end, there is Dhauli in Nargaon, living near the heavy fence separating India and Bangladesh, her heart split across the two with families on either side. We follow daily routines that make their life seem mundane and then we see her exchanging food across the fence when families on both the sides throng to mingle – stretching as far as the eye can see – a life anything but ordinary.
The other contrast comes from two assertive women – one in Kolkata, a survivor of human trafficking across the border and another in Birgunj, a border officer checking on those very violations. Borderlands gives us people and perspectives that we would not find in the mainland. Like Noor, the survivor tired of hearing about the beautiful land of India. Or Manipuri filmmaker Surjakanta talking about how India forced Manipur into signing the accord that made the state part of the Indian union. He delivers a fascinating anecdote of his charade to get a censor certificate for his film. Imagine a version of Jafar Panahi living in India all along, making films on revolutionaries from Manpur. Borderlands brings these people to the foreground and establishes in no uncertain terms that India is more of a land mass held together by force and less of a union.
Borderlands premiered at the ongoing DOK.fest München
Disclosure: The writer has earlier written for a publication of All Things Small, one of the producers of Borderlands.