Opening with a series of slow motion shots of a semi-naked labourer working in the punishing heat, the body blackened by the coal is visually conducive of the ways in which the capitalist system comes to possess and devour the labourer. Fragmenting the body of the labourer to the detached sound of a rifle firing imagines the execution of Babulal Bhuiya, a worker who was killed by Industrial Security Guards in Feb 1981. Director Manjira Datta weaves an empathetic narrative that is grounded in the perspectives of oppressed labourers who slave away in the coal washeries to eek out a living. Venturing into the make shift homes of those who knew Babulal, Datta uses direct to camera interviews that catalogues a workers socialist struggle resisting a system in which Babulal’s murder is just one of many labourers who have been slain over the years. As a historical document of the crimes perpetrated by the state, a woman vividly recounts her reaction upon seeing the dead body of Babulal: ‘His face was decomposed. It looked poisoned. It was completely black’. Resistance comes through organized protests and expressly folk music that critiques class, caste and the political status quo in general. What Datta captures so palpably is the deplorable living conditions. Living nearby the coal slurry, workers exist in a primitive state with no drinking water and face relentless intimidation from the bloodthirsty coal company, of which the police is a natural extension. Although Datta’s approach is observational, the sequences used to bridge interviews have a poetic characteristic that comes through the rhythmical editing. Produced by the Media Workshop (New Delhi) and in association with Channel Four, Manjira Datta’s observational documentary is a searing example of political activism that ties in with the urgent Marxist address of works like Jai Bhim Comrade and more recently Court.
In a measured yet painterly wide shot towards the end of what is a hybridised work Maher trains her erudite eye under a bridge, a sort of non-space with a phantasmal ambiance. The familiar concrete structure of the bridge and the calm waters of the river act as a visual memory to a story narrated to us by an ambulance driver. The story is about a woman who tried to commit suicide jumping from a bridge. It is a traumatic memory that forms a composite of recollections by ambulance drivers that are juxtaposed to fictional reconstructions of real life tragedies for television. Closer to an atmospheric and experimental video essay than a documentary, Maher’s choice to fragment recollections into a non-linear narration lets us hear the neglected voices of Karachi as distinctly porous. Re-enactments staged for news media and TV dramas point to the artifice of performativity but this betrayal of reality is seemingly challenged by the ways in which memory also distorts history. But it is the stories narrated by the ambulance drivers that resonate with you long after the film has ended, a reminder of the ways in which an impoverished underclass props up a society with unsung acts of altruism.
You can find out more about Shehrezad Maher’s work here: http://www.shehrezadmaher.com/
The worker as machine is not a new phenomenon. It goes as far back as the industrial revolution. But I have to admit though. I thought this documentary was going to be about the singularity of the physical, industrial and technological symbolism of machines. It still is in some respects. But Rahul Jain trains his eye on translating the processes of manufacture, waste and labour into a hypnotically poetic synthesis of the toils and uncertain rituals of economic liberalisation. And what rises to the surface through a series of revelatory interviews with the factory workers in particular is a voice that speaks not of Marxist revolution but of the want for better (and safer) working conditions, a reasonable work shift, and acknowledgement from the boss that they exist. The interviews with the workers are interspersed with observational footage in the labyrinthine textile factory, relaying a socio-political discourse aligned to a wider social conscience. But this sort of comes undone towards the end. In an instant, the quizzical workers reduce the filmic apparatus to an obsolete ideological entity – deftly overturning the gaze of the documentarian and raising doubts about the ethical validity of the entire project. Machines is a tactile work that has a remarkable tempo that draws you in with its sincere political testimony of the migratory, factory worker. A masterful, accomplished exposition on the perpetual effects of globalisation.
Karan Bali’s affectionate documentary An American in Madras, broadcast on Channel Four in October as part of a series of films about the Indian film industry, is an eye opener in many respects. It is a history that I had no knowledge of and makes one re-consider what we have been told and what has been historicised about Indian Cinema especially regional cinemas is tentative. This certainly ascertains the history of Indian cinema is still being written and that we need to contest historiographies, revising past historicising that relies on pedantic, monolithic, essentialist accounts. The story of American born Ellis R. Dungan who worked in the Tamil film industry for over fifteen years suggests South Indian Cinema was making substantial technical advances that ran parallel with and influenced the Bombay film industry.
Bali’s excavation and recognition of American director Ellis Dungan’s contribution to the technical, thematic and aesthetic development of Tamil Cinema is significant in three respects. Firstly, it points to a cultural exchange between Hollywood and the Indian film industry, a long lasting one, which creates a nonlinear disjuncture of cross pollination; a creative, cultural dialogue. Secondly, Bali rightly reclaims the work of Dungan, positioning him in the Tamil industry and emphasising his centrality in help promoting a new regional identity in the films he made while shaping the star image of popular singer/actress M. S. Subbulakshmi. Thirdly, Bali constructs a historical narrative based on past recollections, interviewing film historians, actors and friends who worked with Dungan, and contemporary Tamil film artists who also recognise Dungan’s considerable achievements.
Technical proficiency and professionalism are two themes that historians argue Dungan brought to the Tamil film industry at a time of growth. Bali’s approach narrates a tale about innovation, an increasingly popular way of looking at film histories. For instance, shooting on location and indoor tracking shots were stylistic innovations that Dungan helped to nurture in the several films he made. Perhaps most fascinating for me is Bali’s access to the Tamil films of the 1930s and 1940s, many of which appear to have been beautifully restored. If I am assuming many of these films have not officially been re-released to the film consumer on home media platforms then they should be as it is a rich cinematic past that should be accessible to all especially in an age of digital reincarnation and resurrection.