Pandemics, they say, change the course of history. By the time this COVID 19 outbreak starts receding, and by the time we hopefully move on from the language of wars and battles against the virus, and finally start speaking of healing and recuperating - the world would’ve changed drastically. As it should. For those who are paying attention, the coronavirus outbreak and its consequences are no less than admonitions against our ways of living - from nature, from ghosts of capitalism, or other overarching powers like god and time.
The contradictions that this pandemic has thrown up are hard to ignore. While the upper and middle class Indians are locked up in their homes - with halls, bedrooms, and kitchens, for safe social distancing - a large section of the working class, especially the migrant labour force which builds the big-city infrastructure and homes for others, is out on roads. They are out on roads because for them, there is no secure “home” in the city. Their homes are several hundred or thousands of kilometres away in villages, where soon, it will be a season of harvest. In the cities that they are desperate to leave, they have only a makeshift spot in the labour colony - built out of tin sheets, easily destroyable - where hundreds of bodies are cooped up together, and where phrases like “social distancing” start to sound either absurd or fantastical.
As I was scrolling and flipping through the images of large groups of working class migrants thronging the bus and train stations, setting off on foot to their homes, and sometimes even rioting in rage against the apathy of state and society - I decided to go back to a series of short documentaries that two filmmakers from Bangalore, Yashaswini and Ekta made between 2009-13 under their project Behind the Tin Sheets. These poetic films take an expressionist approach to engage with the inner lives of workers, eschewing the conventions of news media and documentary films (their styles often interchangeable).
The three films in the series - In Transience, Presence, and Distance - refuse to fixate on the tragedy of a migrant worker, and instead engage with their vibrant thoughts, flair for storytelling, and their inventive ways of looking at the city and the world around them. They seem to ask questions that are usually not asked of the working class subjects and the audience in documentary films. What do the migrant workers dream of? Do they believe in ghosts? Have they been in love? What is their idea of romance? The responses from the men and women in the film take the form of wildly imaginative ghost stories, sexual fantasies, and musings on life and death. The workers here are not defined only by their labour and its difficulties - because like any other person, they are not just workers but also lovers, dreamers, travellers, storytellers and sensuous beings with thoughts, feelings and desires.
Films rarely delve into these inner lives of working class characters in much detail. Perhaps because the pressures of external structures like law, policy, infrastructure, and conditions of living and working seem more important and urgent to focus on. While the latter is certainly of importance, it has resulted in a flat, unidimensional cliche of the worker figure - poor, helpless, oppressed, and devoid of agency. As Chimmamanda Adichie says, “the problem with stereotypes, is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” This choice to portray the lives of the workers not through the framework of labour alone but through the shifting frames of romance, fantasy, and dreams, then becomes a political choice. In a country like India, where caste defined by occupation, seems to devour all the other dimensions of psycho-social life, it is indeed limiting to frame a character only as a ‘worker’.
In Transience opens with an enthusiastic young man telling the camera his love story which is interrupted by a phone call asking him to come to work. His love story remains incomplete for the viewers, but before he leaves he gives us a succinct comment about the many paradoxes of life by quoting songs of Altaf Raja and Mohammed Rafi. Here is a worker who is also a philosopher at heart, only that there is never enough time or interest for his musings. This film then, makes that time and tunes into these subterranean thoughts.
It is not that these films are devoid of ethnographic details about the lives of workers. There are very few talking heads interviews here and instead we are taken deep into the metro-construction sites, and get to hover around the shacks of labour colonies - noticing their work, rhythms of daily life, and their travels to and from their site of work. But when these images of mundanity and labour are overlaid with voices that speak not of the gritty realities of existence but of fantasies and memories, our gaze on these imposing structures and hard labour transforms. The most touching moments in all the three films are the brief images of workers lost in thought, in the middle of work - suspended in time, their bodies relaxed, for a moment they have travelled away from their work, and into their imagination. How rarely do we see a worker contemplating - silently looking at the moon, or at the city’s skyline - while others work around him? Why is it that in a rush to make arguments about their rights and exposing their oppressions, filmmakers have often rendered their working class characters thoughtless?
The second film in the series, Presence carries the look and feel of a supernatural film. Here we never see any of the characters head on. They are seen only in silhouettes, hidden in shadows or their backs turned to the camera. What comes to the surface however are the voices that narrate vivid stories about ghosts, witches, and nightmares. One of the characters says that ghosts are like gods, they are everywhere but they become real and visible only for the believers. Another character shrugs off the idea of ghosts - “I don’t believe in ghosts... because we are all ghosts.”
These voices bounce off against the eerie images on screen where the external facade of spaces like under construction pillars, dimly lit shacks, railway tracks etc. transform into motifs and metaphors thanks to cinematographer Paromita Dhar’s expressive camerawork. Instead of using the dry and distant gaze of conventional documentary, Dhar uses dramatic composition, dynamic lensing, and tricks of focus. She has a way of using different sources of light - the moon, the floodlights, the headlights of vehicles in traffic - to create dramatic patterns of colour and contrast which speak to the stories being narrated. Without any reconstruction, Presence manages to bring the spoken words of a story to life in its images. I will go so far as to suggest that after watching this film, if you visit a metro station, you might just start feeling haunted by the stories that the workers, who built this structure, have left behind in its concrete bones.
Distance is the most tender of all the three films. Here we meet the figure of a worker as a romantic lover. The characters in this film narrate their love stories which are often underscored by melancholy and heartbreak. Some other stories play out like fantasies continuing the ghostly nature of tales in Presence. Soon it is clear that like any good storyteller, these characters are mixing fact and fiction, reality and fantasy liberally borrowing from folk songs and Bollywood. We also get a scene where one of the characters tries to re-enact a scene from Jeet - a movie which seems to be massively popular among the characters in this film. He starts speaking the lines where the character of Sunny Deol is threatening the woman who is leaving him for another man. But midway through the enactment he bursts out laughing with embarrassment, undercutting the macho masculine fantasy. A sprightly woman describes in great detail the things she likes about her lover - his body, his gait, his mannerisms - and takes great pleasure in doing so.
Distance being a film about romance is layered with old and new love songs from Bollywood. The sound design by Chris Burchell deftly weaves these songs and the background music into the ambient noises of work and movement - creating a soundscape which is evocative but also fragmented, like many of the stories. The editing by Abhro Banerjee is elliptical, mixing a variety of images - still, moving, and archival into a rhythm which flits between quick bursts of jumps and lapses, and stretches of slow and long contemplation. This temporal tension that the film brings to surface is expressive of the rhythms of love, life, and work for these characters who have to simultaneously deal with the urgent pressures of time bound work and timeless memories of lovers left behind.
For many of them, the pressures of work and migration have interrupted their romantic lives and familiar mode of living amidst tales of ghosts in fields and forests of their villages. Towards the end of In Transience, a character starts narrating his story but he has to stop because a train is arriving on the platform and its noise overpowers his voice. This image, metaphorically brings together the thematic tensions shared by the three films. The train, a symbol of migration cuts into the inner lives of these characters filled with romance, imagination, thoughts, and memories - and momentarily derails the balance. And yet, these films are not tragedies. They are bitter-sweet poems that take us beyond the distant top angle view of a working class crowd, and also beyond the fetishistic images of social humiliation faced by the workers. Instead these films journey into their minds and sensorial experiences which are complex, imaginative and alive with ideas.
The filmmakers have decided to make the three films public starting with In Transience from Sunday 19 April onwards at: tinsheets.in. Also read a fact finding report on the experiences of migrant workers during lockdown in Bangalore, compiled and published by maraa: a media and arts collective here.