‘On the banks of the sacred river Ganga, stands Manikarnika the largest crematorium in India, and the place where these ‘untouchable’ boys spend their lives. Sharp cuts of the engulfing flames, the unmoving feet of the corpses grab the viewer, propelling him into this nightmarish world, the reality these children live in.
‘The innocence of the children, despite their having grown up before their time, drives the narrative. “Because I have sinned, I will neither go to heaven nor to hell,” says a ragged little boy, blisters and heat boils on every inch of his skin.
The camera work is clever, zooming into the faces of the children when they speak, searching for the fear of death that should lurk in the eyes and reflect in the faces of children so young, but all it finds is pretended indifference. This indifferent facade seems to manifest the children’s ideology towards other harrowing factors of life as well. Their tobacco-stained teeth and their proud claims of eating 20-25 packets of gutka a day, might shock the cultured viewer. However, the sentences that follow really make one go numb. In rough English it would mean something like, ‘Everybody is going to die, so live fully!’ and ‘I’m so small, I’m earning, so why can’t I smoke?’ Relying on the voices of the children rather than on any commentary, the film manages to honestly explore the subconscious scarring as much as the physical scars of the holy fire. The children hold up their blistered hands in front of the camera, talking about the hazards of their profession but somehow having gotten over the mental gore of the situation.
There’s another indifference that seems to surface. The children seem to feel separated from society, being shunned by the community whose dead they cremate. The shots of the children are limited to their activities near the pyres except for a few shots of festival celebrations. But this leaves the viewer’s mind full of questions. The children talk about sending the money they earn home, but where is home? The director seems to forget to explore the cause of their hardship, perhaps too caught up in portraying their life on the burning ghats.
The filmmaker delicately peels back the layers and exposes the fear and suppressed desires of the children. They talk, wary of being asked and being shown concern, about love and future careers, the filmi lifestyle that they long for, that they wish they were born into -- they are like other children, grappling with the drama of being teenagers. For a split-second, you smile, sharing their joy and anticipation at having encountered an emotion which is quite unlike that of death. But just as soon as a glimmer of hope appears, the rude voice of customers jolts them back to reality.
The picture gets bloody and nastier, almost till the point where you can feel the raw taste of bile and vomit in your mouth, churning besides screams that die on your lips. You can’t escape the horror and the darkness that seems to grab you and drag you towards theirs. Education that is every child’s fundamental right, is a myth for these children. ‘Sirji, Prime Minister ka naam to nahi pata hai’ As a privileged educated viewer, the film pinches you twice, making you twist uncomfortably. But the camera pursues relentlessly, asking further and further, the children acknowledging their illiteracy but also making cynical jibes about how useless education is.
Snippets of childhood burst through the narrative, but they appear in a twisted way. The children play games…but games of performing fake rites for the abandoned bodies. And just when you want to pull the plug, the movie finishes. The one and half year experience of shooting on the pyre made the film maker start an NGO called ‘Bhaghirathi’ for the children. The NGO hopes to provide 300 children of the Banaras Ghats education, including the eight boys in the movie. So, the viewer breathes a sigh of relief. Yet, the aftertaste might result in at least a few of them questioning the problem and hopefully working to address it. Children of the pyre, directed by Rajesh Jala, 74 minutes. -- Esha Vaish is a student at SIMC-UG and an intern at Open Space.