As immigrants to the UK, Nathalia Syam and her sister Neetha Syam could empathise with the sense of rootlessness experienced by immigrants. As the sisters grew older, they saw the plight of illegal immigrants, those invisible workers whose names never appeared in records and were often exploited by unscrupulous employers.
They decided that the travails of illegal immigrants had to be made visible and discussed. After months of research, Neetha wrote about Raghu, a migrant from Bihar who grew up in Fort Kochi in Kerala as his father owned a textile shop there. After the death of his first wife, with whom he had a daughter Meera, he is married to a much younger Malayali woman. Raghu and his family move with another family to the UK and then goes under the radar to become one of the faceless illegal immigrants in the UK.
“When Meera goes missing, Raghu goes in search of his daughter. That exposes the underbelly of the thriving grey spaces of illegal immigrants. This ‘invisible man’ has to search for her without coming under the radar of the police. They live in the UK but they leave no footprints, like footprints on water, which is also the title of the film,” says Nathalia.
Footprints on Water, starring Life of Pi- actor Adil Hussain, Nimisha Sajayan, Lena and British actor Antonio Aakeel, is a story of courage and perseverance in the face of adversity. Shot in Birmingham in the UK and Fort Kochi and Kumbalangi in Kerala, the film is an ode to all those forced to uproot themselves from their homes for various reasons.
Nathalia asserts she could not see anyone else other than Adil take the place of Raghu. “To show that migrant within a migrant is not easy. Adil was able to portray that rootlessness, coming from Bihar to Kochi and then to the UK,” believes Nathalia.
As Raghu has been uprooted several times, he has no strong sense of home or identity. The characters in the film speak English, Hindi, a dialect of Hindi common in Bihar and Malayalam. In addition, there are characters like an Afghan refugee, a Polish immigrant and a Srilankan, all in the same boat as Raghu.
“We wanted to explore the idea of what happens when the invisible goes missing. I was intrigued by why somebody would chose an invisible life. The police don’t know about their existence. The footprints they leave behind are of no significance. Neetha and I started looking into why people do that; some have debts, some seek asylum from war and some do it for reasons of health and safety.”
The film depicts Raghu’s life in the UK and how life might have been had he chosen to stay behind. DOP Alagappan has painted a study in contrast; the scenes in UK are dull and while in Kerala, it is open airy and green.
“It is interesting because both of us are immigrants ourselves. We moved to the UK from Kerala when I was 10,” says the debutante director, who happens to be Malayalam actor Mukesh’s niece.
Eighteen years ago, when they settled in the UK, Nathalia recalls seeing this community of ‘invisible people’ who were hidden and exploited. “Then we learnt more about it. It is more than human trafficking and we felt this was a theme that has to be focussed on. The film has a realistic background,” she points out.
Nathalia insists the film is not merely a documentation of the characters’ trauma. “For instance, Raghu and his second wife do not have a chemistry as she was married against her wishes to an older man. Meera is dreaming of a university life once she reaches the UK although reality is very different. Each of them has a fleshed-out backstory that brings them alive, making it easier for viewers to connect with them,” feels the filmmaker.
With Resul Pookutty in charge of sound design, the film was shot in sync sound as they wanted to keep it as raw and organic as possible. So Adil can also be heard speaking snatches of Malayalam! Produced by Mohaan Naadar, the film is in the post production stage and is likely to hit the film festival circuit soon. Says Nathalia, “For me, filmmaking is not just about entertainment or telling a story. A film should linger in your mind even after you finish watching it. Raghu gets caught in a scam, which happens a lot in Kerala, specially in villages. We wanted to bring some awareness about the topic too,” she says.