80 min | 2018 | INDIA
Hindi, Punjabi and Chhatisgarhi with English Subtitles
The film maker, Ekta Mittal, will be at the screening
In a faraway village called birha, missing people, mothers and tired lovers yearn to see beyond the mist. They meet each other with impenetrable silences and endless mourning.
birha is the grief, agony and anguish of separation, derived from Punjabi Sufi Poetry. Guided by birha poetry, the film captures the pain, lamentation and yearning caused by separation. Following migrant workers’ to their homes in remote villages, the film searches for missing people, who left their homes to work in faraway cities, and have still have not returned.
Baba Farid, pioneer of Sufi poetry says:
I have not slept with my spouse tonight,
and my limb ache.
Go and ask the deserted ones
How they pass their nights awake?
Somewhere between these lines, birha follows the trails of separation across the landscapes and mindscapes of people who have left and those who await. Following migrant workers’ to their homes in faraway villages, birha seeks to capture the waiting and lamentations caused by the pang of separation, found in the birha poets from the Punjabi Sufi tradition.
Let us speak of separation
Separation is King.
A body that does not feel Separation is, but a corpse.
-Excerpt from Birha Tu Sultaan, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Modern Poet from Punjab
Despite the certainty of separation, the film renders an irrational desire to stay, wait and yearn. Mothers still wait for her sons who have gone missing. Lovers stay awake and follow their impulse and fantasies. The missing person wanders in infinite landscapes towards uncertainty.
The locations are not marked, characters are not named, birha situates itself in a season of waiting, a climate of uncertainty: where only a loud screech can register the distance between loved ones.
Migration is at the heart of this story. Workers from all over, travel afar to build cities. Their arrivals and departures are almost unknown, invisible sometimes, even to themselves. Set on a note of precarity; he leaves, the night after his marriage, he waits in an unknown city for a call from someone. He realizes that his only lover is the road. He reveals his vulnerabilities through rage, fear and sorrow.
She waits, she remembers, she wails and tries to forget him. She embodies an eternal presence, through impenetrable silence and relentless conviction. She feels betrayed and is informed by her nightmares. She wails.
The film uses birha poetry to bring alive the anguish of separation. The film stays with the restlessness of both their insomnias. While his intoxication makes him curse and mumble, she finds him, some nights in a dream, some nights wandering sleeplessly.
birha is a continuation of Behind the Tin Sheets, a collaborative film project conceived in 2009, that focused on the sub-conscious of the migrant worker in the city. With time, my friendships with the workers led me to their families, in faraway villages in India. The film starts where the previous film ended: with rain and a deep sense of longing for home. It is a personal film, that speculates on incomplete conversations between my family and my uncle who went missing.
All the people in the film are related in some way or the other the workers I met in Bangalore while the Metro rail was built. Points of departure from the village or the city, is a progressive shift towards detachment. After one has smelt the life in a city, a different identity is born filled with fantasies and longing. The struggle of everyday life, becomes mundane and repetitive. People back home, wait, react to change and difference, but over time, teach themselves to forget and resist quietly. It is in this silence, perhaps that one ponders about impermanence. I learnt that yearning as an everyday practice, similar to that in birha poetry written by Sufi poets. There is no word for birha, in English, it can only be sensed at a metaphysical, metaphoric level.
In contrast to the rhythm of life often set by digital technologies and hyper visual environments, the film invites the audience to look inwards, and locate oneself against the backdrop of human pathos. The film is rooted in birha poetry and the inner worlds of workers, in relation to the larger material world we inhabit with all its contradictions. It hopes to awaken a sensuous experience premised on unsettling and unknown terrains that we are usually afraid to tread on – that of our nightmares, suppressed feelings and persistent faith. One has to live with its recurring interference. The haunting feeling returns.
Ekta Mittal co-founded Maraa, a media and arts collective in Bangalore (www.maraa.in ) in 2008. She works there as a practitioner, researcher, curator and facilitator around issues of gender, labour & caste in rural and urban contexts. She also works with creative practices in public space, through independent production and collaborations with other artists. She also makes films around labour, migration and cities since 2009.