In “Char… The No-Man’s Island”, director Sourav Sarangi examines citizenship from the perspective of inhabitants of a shifting piece of land
With the ongoing Kumbh Mela, we are reminded of the place of the river in the Indian psyche. The confluence of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna is a site of worship, where millions take a dip to cleanse themselves of their accumulated sins. But for the people living on the border of India and Bangladesh, the Ganga (or its distributary Padma) is tied to an altogether different experience – of loss of land and the unmooring of lives.
Sourav Sarangi’s documentary “Char... The No-Man’s Island” (“Moddhikhane Char”), one of the few Indian films screened at the recent Berlin film festival, began with images of the gradual erosion of a village, caused by the changing course of the river, on the border of India and Bangladesh in 2002. Haunted by the immediacy of destruction, the director sought to find out what happened to the people who inhabited the village.
He discovered that the river, whose ways had become unpredictable since the construction of the Farakka barrage, had its own plan for these people. “The river creates small islands — shifting, sandy islands which take time to become reliable. All these people go and settle there,” he says. The film derives its name from the generic name in Bengali for these islands — Char.
On this little stretch of slippery land, the director mounts a sensitive commentary on citizenship. Char is manned on the one side by the Border Security Force, and Bangladeshi Rifles on the other. “But both the governments have done nothing. They are tax-paying citizens but they don’t have access to any of the amenities like health and education.”
One of the central characters of the film is a boy named Rubel, a resident of Char. “He wants to come to India and study in a school, but is forced to smuggle rice from India to Bangladesh instead.” The issue of border crossing found resonance in his adolescence, another in-between space, the director says.
A graduate from FTII, Pune, Sarangi’s training was in fiction filmmaking. But he finds the non-fiction form “fascinating”. In fiction, the director generates situations and characters. There is an implicit distance which is dissolved in the documentary format, through what the director calls “the sharing of lives”. His methodology is marked by a conscious rejection of the interview in favour of the conversation. “In interviews you create a line between the director, camera and character. But in conversations you create a zone where the characters can move freely.”
For a documentary filmmaker, and an independent one at that, India is also a kind of no-man’s land, marked by an absence of institutional support throughout a film’s life cycle – from production to exhibition. Sarangi, therefore, had to look elsewhere for support. It came in different ways from different individuals and bodies in Norway, Denmark, Netherlands and Switzerland.
Sarangi is sceptical whether the film will see a theatrical release in India, but its reception in Berlin delights him no end. He is proud of having been chosen for the Forum section of the festival, which looks for “films that challenge the status-quo and create a new language of cinema”.