In the documentary Borderlands, snapshots from life along the faultlines
Samarth Mahajan is fascinated by the shadow lines, between places, people, communities. In his debut feature, the National Award-winning The Unreserved, these lines crisscrossed every scene as he offered snatches from the lives of passengers in the general compartments of India’s long-distance trains.
His second feature, Borderlands, sweeps through towns on India’s edges with Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar, to shine a spotlight on how these lines affect those living along them. But that’s just one lens. Alongside the external conflict of political borders, there is the internal conflict between communities, genders and within the individual.
The film brings this together through six people: Kavita from Birgunj, Nepal, who works to prevent human trafficking; Noor from Bangladesh, a survivor of trafficking now living in a Kolkata shelter; Dhauli from Bangladesh, married to a Bengali in the Indian border town of Nargaon; Deepa from Pakistan, who has migrated with her family to Jodhpur; Surjakanta, a filmmaker from Imphal who makes movies about the revolutionaries who fought for an independent state of Manipur; and Mahajan’s mother Rekha Mahajan, a homemaker from Dinanagar, Punjab.
The idea for Borderlands, says Mahajan, 30, stemmed from his own childhood in Dinanagar, on the border with Pakistan. His film was partly crowdfunded, co-produced by All Things Small and Camera and Shorts. It was screened at the New York Indian Film Festival in June, with a world premiere at DOK.fest in Munich in May. Excerpts from an interview:
How did you go about identifying the individuals and border towns in the documentary?
We conducted research and communicated with journalists and academicians. We wanted to bring out different aspects of borderland life — separation, movement, trafficking, conflict, fluid identities. With Noor, the prolonged repatriation process and ensuing confinement after being rescued from trafficking allowed us a possibility to understand their efforts and hopes of rebuilding these lives, and how the presence of a border affected those hopes. For stories about families separated by the India-Bangladesh border, we’d meet local journalists through whom we were introduced to locals. That’s how we met Dhauli. Once every year, at the Milan Mela (Meeting Fair), she gets to see her family and siblings across the fence in Bangladesh. They exchange gifts by placing them on wooden rods passed through the barbed wire.
Alongside having a geopolitical dimension to the borders in the stories, we were also looking to bring out borders of a more personal nature, say identity or an axis of marginalisation. So, through the stories, we also explore sexuality, disability, gender, class and conflict. Thematically the unifying factor between characters became that all of them are trying to find meaning in face of the immense personal and political constraints they experience.
Was it a conscious decision to not include stories of Kashmir?
We were actually on a recce in Kashmir when Article 370 was abrogated. We had to leave the Valley, which remained in lockdown, and ended up shooting in Manipur, which became a symbol of conflict within the narrative.
What made you want to include the story of your mother Rekha?
With my mother, I was interested in exploring how a homemaker experiences conflict and how she looks at cross-border relationships. Despite being born, raised and married in border districts, she’d never seen a border. And that can be attributed to how many married women are expected to lead a sheltered life in our country, gender being the personal border here. For me, it was also a way of getting to know her better, challenging the emotional border between us.
Watching the film alone and then with her were cathartic experiences as they allowed me to look at her world objectively and understand where she seeks her happiness and hopes, in her children. Shooting with her has brought us closer.