Presence is an artistic re-telling of stories narrated by workers on the Namma Metro project. These are no sob stories, but the film has them talking of the loves in their lives and the ghosts

On a late Sunday evening, the untenanted seventh floor of Cobalt Hotel on Church Street became a make-shift theatre for the screening of a rather unusual film. Based on migrant workers in the city, Presence, is an artistic re-telling of stories narrated by the workers themselves. What made the film different was the kind of tales that the workers recounted. For example, if one of them described how he had seen a ghost once, another replayed a recurring dream about someone attacking him in the jungles back in his village. The film is a 17-minute chronicle of these tales narrated by the workers who came into the city to work on the Namma Metro rail project.

Behind the tin sheets

Presence is the second film jointly made by Ekta from Maraa, a media and arts collective based in the city, and Yashaswini, an independent film maker, as part of the “Behind the tin sheets” project, which began in 2009. The first film showcased under the same project is called In Transience, also based on the Metro rail labourers. The unusual theme portrayed by Presence throws up many questions about the concept and intent of the film.

“We were clear from the beginning that we did not want the film to focus on the worker’s struggle as a migrant since people are used to seeing images of workers as victims or heroes. The worker for us was beyond the yellow helmets and gum boots. He was a story teller, a poet and a thinker. When we set about doing our research and spoke to the workers, our questions would always be about the kind of films he likes, the kind of food he likes, the kind of women he desires, does he believe in ghosts/gods/demons? Is there an afterlife? Does he have different dreams in the villages and are they different from the ones he has in the city etc,” said Ekta and Yashawini.

They added that the presence of a camera did not deter the workers who enthusiastically answered these questions.

“We spent around three months with each worker meeting them after work or during their lunch hours. The approach was to gradually get them to trust us and then in each conversation, there would always be some hook that we could hold onto. For instance, Surrinder (a worker) was on a roll when he told us ghost stories. He remembers them from his childhood and he enjoyed telling us all those stories. Mann (another worker) for instance, loves women and wouldn’t stop telling us about all the women he loved, and all the different ways he tried to find love. After these conversations with them, we would talk to them about the film, and they were open to re-narrating some of it and also share new stories on camera,” they explained.

The manner in which the film was shot reinforced the nature of the narrative.

“The look of the film was very clear in our heads. The landscape of the city was carefully crafted and we used construction sites, and labour colonies to illustrate these strange stories that we were collecting. Hence we would make sure we waited until midnight when nobody would be around to shoot flickering lights, still spaces etc. We were keen on giving the film a science fiction quality to it. So for about two years we pranced around the city, collected stories from the workers and documented the eerie, absurd landscapes,” they explained.

The workers’ narrations seemed to acquire newer meanings under the context of displacement and their status in the city.

In the film, one cannot see the faces of the workers, which added a new dimension to the narrative, forcing the audience to look at migrant workers as people who often go unnoticed in a chaotic city like ours — almost becoming what Ekta calls them — “invisible people”.

The film fights categorisation and as the directors would put it, “Presence would fall somewhere between the categories of the documentary and the art film”.

After being screened at multiple film festivals, the screening in Bangalore was also a fund-raiser to help Ekta and Yashaswini to make a full-length feature film in the near future.

“Instead of approaching a producer, we thought crowd funding allows people to participate on various levels. We believe the audience then has a personal interest in the film and we feel accountable and responsible to produce a complete film for people of the city,” they said.