The success of the documentary Presence was that it presented the very real and sorry state of migrant construction workers in Bangalore without any pathos or routine blaming of the establishment.
“Bangalore is home to many footloose migrant workers who are employed as labour force on several large-scale infrastructural projects. Our film project is set at the brink of the city’s transformation to tell the story of these migrants,” explains Ekta Mittal, co-director of the film. Presence is the second in the series of documentaries that Ekta and her co-director, Yashaswini Ragunandan, are shooting as part of their project called ‘Behind The Tin Sheets’, which attempts to capture the life of the migrant worker in a rapidly transforming city. In keeping with the theme of the project, Presence and the first film In Transience were screened at Cobalt, a building under construction in Church Street in the space that used to be the popular Premiere Book Store.
Transcending the practical
Presence does not bother with details such as the names of the workers it portrays; it doesn’t go into the details of where they come from, why they came to Bangalore, how old they are, and what they do for their basic necessities of water, food, sanitation, etc. It takes the condition of migrant workers in cities as a universal truth, and attempts to transcend the mundane by delving into the thoughts of the workers as they go about their jobs.
While this makes the film a work of art rather than a traditional documentary, it also creates a void that the audience tries hard to grapple with, but still loses its connection to the film. However, this can be overlooked simply because the film escapes the stereotypical sob story that documentaries on social issues often become.
“In-line with the film’s title, the workers’ presence in the city is a ghostly matter as he enters and leaves the city invisibly. His work, however, is visible and spatially transforms the city,” says Ekta. She refers to the obsession with ghosts that the film seems to harbour. Each of the workers, residing in his desolate makeshift quarters, talks about his brush with the ghostly in the city and back in his native village. Having come to the city in search of better fortunes, they seem to be haunted by their memories of home. They also seem to say indirectly that the city does scare them.
As the film never set out to document the practical problems of the workers, it does not try to provide any solution or conclusion either. Its open ending also means that one is left wondering what to make of the migrant workers, who laid bare their thoughts and personal experiences, including memories of their wives and their brushes with other women. One’s initial reaction was to think there was nothing much to take from the film, but it isn’t until much later that it dawns that the directors have conveyed a lot by not saying much.
In holding on to the idea of ghosts and women, perhaps, the film stereotypes the worker as carnal and superstitious. An unintended consequence. Even the camera does not bother to show much in terms of detail. Often held still, locations and some shots are even repetitive. They were perhaps supposed to leave an imprint of some powerful metaphors such as the scene where workers are framed inside a tunnel of the metro railway, with a bright light shining far away. It could be light at the end of the tunnel or a ghost approaching.