Movies

Ekta Mittal’s new film looks at myriad moods of migration

In search of home: A scene from the film

In search of home: A scene from the film

Presenting the pain of separation, Ekta Mittal’s Gumnaam Din depicts the journey of migrant workers who get lost in the urban jungles. Produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), the film was screened in the Shorts category at the recent Berlin International Film Festival. Migration is not a new subject for Ekta. She has made Birha, a feature-length documentary on the lives of people who leave their homes in search of a better life.

Ekta Mittal

Ekta Mittal

Gumnaam Din is part of a longer film and multimedia project called Behind the Tinsheets which looks at the inner worlds of migrant workers building cities. This is the fifth film under the project produced by PSBT,” says Ekta.

“After working on three films set in Bangaluru, I felt the urge to go back to the families of workers across different parts of the country,” adds the filmmaker, who works at Maraa, a media and arts collective in Bangaluru. An interesting aspect of the 27-minute film is its form. It is inspired by Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s poem by the same title which translates loosely to “Missing Days”. “The film is a response to the mood and metaphor this poem which touched upon grief and separation. For me, Batalvi’s poems are dreams and visions of the pain and suffering caused by separation and longing. His poems guided me in representing stories of the families and workers I met along the journey of making this film,” explains Ekta.

Editing the film, says Ekta, was a “great exercise of moving away from structured ways of working on a narrative and arriving at our own logic of creating a landscape of waiting and uncertainty.” “I work closely with my crew to arrive at the visual treatment but I also rely on my dreams for clues for sound and visual,” she notes.

Edited excerpts:

Tell us about the poetic form of the film. Usually, such subjects are dealt with journalistic tools.

I deliberately chose to stay away from the journalistic tone because I wanted to indulge the viewer in the days of the missing person. I tried to show the silence, the lamentation, the waiting and the ethos around the missing person. Besides I wanted to address undocumented, unaccounted and unregistered disappearances that comprise the mysterious trajectories of migration in the country.

How did Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s birha poetry comes into your life? How did you connect it with the cinematic form in Gumnaam Din — a Punjabi poet giving voice to the separation felt by the migrant workers from Bihar.

I stumbled upon him by chance when I was trying to think of the form of my film which I knew was not a film filled with facts and figures. I wanted to be attentive to the pain and grief that people endure when they lose or they are unsure if someone they love would ever return; the strength of survival is derived from shared experiences of everyday life. For this, I turned to poetry and found some of his early poems online and his interview that moved me. While I was familiar with birha poetry, his poetry particularly guided me further in my production. I found his poems to be metaphorical and visually rich. His poems are like visual essays in themselves. And the film is a response to his poem, not literally but keeping in mind the essence and mood of it but in the context of migration.

Both Batalvi and the film talk about the loss of identity, which has a contemporary ring to it. How do you see it?

The loss of identity that comes with migration in India speaks to obscurity – of not being counted, going missing from the official registers. In Batalvi’s poetry, it seems to me, there is a voluntary acceptance of gloom and alienation caused by unknown reasons. The poem resonates with the states of mind of several people who are about to leave, who are on the road and who have left for good and perhaps those who are deemed to be missing. The poem and the film meet on a suspension of time, location and identity.

Tell us about the reflection of a woman dressing up? Some could see it as a stereotype of a woman waiting for her partner…

She could be someone waiting for someone else, not necessarily her husband. She could be remembering the act of dressing. Without a word, she gets ready for something we can only imagine. It is an everyday act. She is beautiful. Fearless. Aware. Here I wish to move away from the classical representation of the woman waiting for her man, in fact, her presence is open for speculation in the film. Her expression can be interpreted in more ways than one. Once, during my research, a woman told me that the greatest ability of a woman is to forget.

One of the most moving scenes is the wails of women filling the atmosphere...How did it come about?

This comes from a personal experience. I witnessed in Bihar and mistook it for an animal. The women led me to a room where I saw a mother and daughter in a deep embrace wailing loudly. They told me every time a daughter visits her mother and when it is time for her to leave back to her husband's house, she embraces her mother and wails – to share that which cannot be articulated in words. This is the only time she is free to express what she feels.

What is the purpose of using the missing person’s voice to describe him? In a sense, it takes away the mystery and in another, it adds to it…

This was my voice, hoping desperately that the missing person I was looking for wishes to be found. It is also open for speculation and interpretation. Would a missing person want to be found? How would he or she reach out?

How was the response at the Berlinale?

It was overwhelming and humbling at the same time. A great opportunity for me to see the film on beautiful large screens. To see a packed house every day was rewarding. I was also delighted to be part of a programme that delved upon similar themes from different approaches and in different contexts.


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Printable version | May 21, 2022 3:00:09 am | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/ekta-mittals-new-film-looks-at-myriad-moods-of-migration/article31048355.ece