The Burning City

My grandfather was a BCCL miner in Jharia. My father’s face illuminates when he talks about his childhood days in Jharia. Half of my village lived in this town working for BCCL. I have been a constant visitor since the far back time my memory takes me.

This is where I went to a cinema hall first time ever. It was Deshbandhu Talkies. Film was Umrao Jaan. I was 8 years old.  And my journey as a filmmaker began…mesmerized, overwhelmed and wowed in the dark hall of Deshbandhu!

There are innumerable personal memories I have with Jharia. Times I spent with my uncle who used to live there, my several relatives, cousins, lazy days, dark nights and the smell.

I got caught up with life…education, job, family…you know! It took me 15 years to visit Jharia once again. It was 2015. And my beloved Jharia… was no more!

Ghanudih, where most of my relatives lived had turned into a vast pit of open cast mining. A large part of my childhood was buried in those flaming mines. Fire had spread everywhere. People had no where to go. Almost a million were turned refugee. For a year I tried to trace the people I knew from Jharia. Few I found. Most had disappeared. This is their story –

 

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Indian Hospital Revisited

India, with its 1.2 billion people, is astoundingly diverse in virtually every aspect of social life – ethnic, linguistic, regional, economic, religious, class and caste.

As a filmmaker, I am fascinated by my country’s ability to find harmony in so much diversity.

I wanted to tell the story of an India that belongs to each and every one of those 1.2 billion. And what better place to do that than a hospital that treats people from every section of society? A place where illness is an equaliser.

We chose Narayana Health because it is one of those Indian stories that brings the country’s differences together in one place. It is a microcosm and, for me, the hospital became not only my film set, but also a character in itself.

In 2011, we spent four months at Narayana, shooting 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and ended up producing six films – our original Indian Hospital series. We met a variety of characters from all walks of life, who told us their incredible stories.

In late 2013, we decided to revisit those characters.

But why revisit a story?

After finishing the first series, I had kept in regular touch with our characters. Over two years, many of their stories took the most unexpected turns. I waited until I felt our original series began to feel like a half-told story. And then I had no option but to continue our journey with the people we had met back in 2011.

India spends less than one percent of its GDP on healthcare. Public healthcare is almost non-existent. Indian households shoulder about 80 percent of the country’s total healthcare burden from their own pockets. This is astonishing, because seven out of 10 Indians live on less than $2 per day. For these people, Narayana offers hope.

I was born and raised in one of India’s most remote villages. People in my village have died of completely curable illnesses, because medical help was hard to reach or afford.

My own grandfather and uncle passed away, on their way to the nearest hospital, which was 50km away. These experiences make Indian Hospital an incredible journey for me.

When I saw people with threadbare clothing, who could not afford food or a home, coming to Narayana and not being treated as outcasts, it gave me hope; especially since right beside them, shoulder-to-shoulder, were some of India’s richest.

My Sister Laxmi

poster final very lowest

It was not meant to become a film in the first place. I was only trying to help Marappa track his sister in the beginning knowing almost nothing about his past. Generally people avoid discussing children’s past with them at Bornfree as it might open some traumatic wounds. One day after the ‘Indian Hospital’ shoot I landed at Bornfree with my camera. All the kids were practicing for their upcoming performance. On their request, I shot part of their practice session. And then left with Marappa and Mioi for our Laxmi search. That day we were going to meet some of Marappa’s relatives, whom Marappa did not want to go near to. While talking about them he informed us that his father had taken a debt of three lakhs rupees before his death from his relatives and now they want him to repay it. They will capture and make him slave if he goes near them. I was shooting Marappa while he was talking about his relatives. I decided to ask little more about his parents and the film started from there…

title girl

Set in 2012, the film pivots on a 12-year-old stray, Marappa, who had a brutal childhood. His mother was burnt to death and his father abused him sexually before making him beg for survival. His sister Laxmi who is his constant companion and close confidant has gone missing since his childhood.

girl on rope

Once his father dies, Marappa is left with Rs. 300,000/ debt. Unable to pay this huge amount, Marappa is left with no option but to run away from his home. He wanders homeless for some time before getting picked up by Mioi Nakayama, a social activist. She brings Marappa to a special school called Bornfree, where art is practiced to help children forget their past traumas.

flashback child

Although Art does help Marappa in dealing with his tragic past, he misses his sister. He decides to find her at all costs. Mioi joins him in his daring expedition. They begin their search in Bangalore not knowing how far this journey will take them, and in a country of 1.2 billion it seems almost impossible. On their way, they meet several characters with their own intriguing stories.

marappa with begging boy

Mainly, this film narrates the story of missing children of India. Nearly 11 children go missing in India every hour and at least four of them are never found. Many studies point out that children are often abducted by their own relatives for ransom or child slavery before being made to beg or work as bonded labour. Many get sexually exploited and sometimes they are even used as child soldiers or combatants in armed conflicts. This film epitomizes the story of missing children through Laxmi.

girl with bottle

A year in an Indian Hospital

The idea of doing a series in an Indian Hospital came from Paul Roy. I decided to join him when he selected Narayana Hrudyalaya for this. I always believed in the business model of Dr. Devi Shetty and wanted to do at least one film explaining this model. So here came my opportunity.

Indian Hospital Ep-1

We shot in Bangalore and around it for almost five months not giving single day a miss. Everyday we were following someone. Firstly we focused on Narayana and Devi Shetty. Most of our first month shoot happened in the hospital itself. But then we started following our characters to their homes and villages. Baby Hatesam was the first one we zeroed on.  He was unique not because of the kind of disease he had got. But because his parents were told by their relatives that it is easier to produce another baby than getting Hatesam cured. Although his parents chose to ignore their advice and stood with Hatesam, they were always in a dilemma about how far and how much. And perhaps it was not just them. Millions of Indians live with same sort of dilemma every day, where they have to choose between their survival and whom to survive with.

Indian Hospital Ep-2

After coming back everyday from shoot, we all used to sit in the garden of Ramee hotel at Attibele (this is where the crew stayed) for some drinks and unwind. And at that time usually hospital and its people will automatically become our most favorite topic. Most of our jokes will surround around Laxmi, Dr. Rajgopalan, Dr. Krishna, trainee doctors and nurses. That is when I realized that hospital itself can evolve as a character and people working there can represent it. We decided to follow these characters and today spread through all six episodes they helped tremendously to make this series a huge success.

Indian Hospital Ep-3

As always choosing characters were the most difficult thing. It happened sometime that we followed someone extensively and then dropped him/her because it was not exciting enough. Slowly we developed a method.  We started doing a small screen test (just asking questions about his/her personal life) kind of thing if we decide to follow someone. Then we will watch his/her footage many times back in our hotel and take a final call.

Indian Hospital Ep-4

We mostly shot this entire series in reality show style. We followed our character almost everywhere.  On an average we were shooting almost 3-4 hours a day.  But I will act like butcher every evening while sitting on edit table. I was keeping only what I was very sure to use. Rest were deleted immediately. That helped us immensely in final edit.

Indian Hospital Ep-5

I spent almost a year doing this series. It was one of the most beautiful years I ever had perhaps. I saw life and death almost on a daily basis from very close distance and had chance to shoot them most often. Life has definitely taken a positive turn since then and have started believing in god and his plans little more than ever…thanks to Dr. Shetty…ha!

Indian Hospital Ep-6

How I came to make ‘Daughters Of The Brothel’

India’s handwritten magazines have long fascinated me. But while researching the subject for a blog, I came across one in particular that stood out. Jugnu is a 32-page monthly magazine that has been written and published by the sex workers of the Chaturbhuj-sthan brothel in Bihar, near the border with Nepal, for the past 10 years. Home to about 10,000 women and children, the whole area – named after the Chaturbhuj-sthan temple, which is located inside – is essentially one large brothel. Historians believe it was first established during the Moghul era. Prostitution has become a family tradition there – passed down from generation to generation. Intrigued, I contacted the magazine and as more details emerged about this extraordinary publication and the women behind it, I realised that this story was much bigger than a blog.

The magazine had been set up by a group of sex workers led by one girl – Naseema. Born into Chaturbhuj-sthan, Naseema was abandoned by her mother and raised by a woman she calls her ‘grandmother’. Although not actually related to her, this woman used the money she earned as a prostitute to raise Naseema and send her to school. Naseema became the first girl in the brothel’s 300-or-so-year history to receive an education. In pictures: Daughters of the brothel When she returned to Chaturbhuj-sthan it was not to sell her body. With the help of local banks, Naseema established small industries inside the brothel – making candles, matchsticks, bindis and incense – offering many prostitutes an alternative form of employment. And she set about persuading the sex workers to send their children to school. Now almost every child in Chaturbhuj-sthan is in full-time education. More than 50 former prostitutes now work with Naseema, who taught them how to read and write. As well as running the magazine – which is sold across India and also sent to subscribers elsewhere – Naseema and the other women work to prevent others being trafficked, mainly from neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh, into prostitution. In the last year alone, they have been able to send at least 20 new girls safely back home.

But their work has brought them many enemies; the most feared being Rani Begum. As chief of the brothel, Begum’s finances have suffered a blow as a result of Naseema’s activities. Her thugs have publicly harassed and beaten Naseema and the other women who work with her. Naseema has also had to fight pimps, as well as some police officers and clerics who were unhappy about her work. With a clearly identifiable hero, a suitably sinister villain and plenty of action guaranteed as they face off against one another, I felt I had come across a story worthy of a novel. I was hopeful that we could produce a perfect film, but shooting inside a brothel was never going to be easy. I deliberately chose a very small crew of just three people so that we might remain as invisible as possible. We used a Canon 7d camera. Its small size and light weight meant that we were able to move quickly from one place to the next – something that was to prove useful when Begum’s thugs were sent to threaten us. Before starting the shoot, I met Begum, hoping that this would reduce the likelihood of any problems arising at a later point. About 65 years old, she lives in a huge mansion inside Chaturbhuj-sthan. Polite and courteous, she sought to portray herself as somebody running a kind of welfare institute for destitute girls and referred to her brothel as a ‘social heritage’. A former dancer herself, she stressed that every girl in the brothel is taught classical music and dance. Begum grew less friendly when I started questioning her about Naseema and her work, but nevertheless promised not to trouble us as long as we filmed indoors. One day, however, while eating lunch, some men came to tell me that Rani Begum wanted us to leave. We eventually had to call the local police to enable us to complete our shoot.

For me, the most emotional scene in the film is when we meet Roma. A 19-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Roma thought she was coming to India to marry a friend of her brother-in-law. She was rescued from the brothel by Naseema and taken to live in a government shelter. But her family still refuses to allow her to return home for fear that she will give them a bad name. We were able to watch the heartfelt telephone conversation between Roma and her family as she pleaded with them to take her back.

And then there is the story of Boha Tola – a red light area in the neighbouring Sitamarhi district that was burnt down when local government officials conspired with villagers to eradicate it. Unofficial sources say that at least 100 women, men and children went missing as a result of the fire. As they were never officially registered by the government, no effort was made to find out what had happened to them. Naseema and some of the other women recorded the incident on their mobile phones and gave me the footage to use exclusively in the film. They told horrifying tales of gang-rape, children being thrown onto fires and police brutality. Some of the women from Chaturbhuj-sthan went on hunger strike to show their solidarity with the people of Boha Tola, but the hunger strikers and their supporters were all put in prison. Now 32 years old, Naseema is an amazing character who is proud to call herself “a daughter of the brothel”.