‘Borderlands’: Migration and cross-border kinship lie at the core of this film

National Award-winning filmmaker Samarth Mahajan on the making of ‘Borderlands’ that explores the everyday lives of people along India’s geographical margins

In Nargaon, a town in West Bengal that borders Bangladesh, a stick plays Santa Claus. Like the legendary herald of good cheer, the stick delivers gifts from families and friends, travelling across the barbed wire fence that separates the countries. At the ‘milan’ bazaar held here often, barely 10 metres from the boundary, an impromptu shandy springs up with people selling wares, clothes and toys. They are bought, wrapped in black plastic bags, strung on sturdy, long sticks and then extended over the fence, past no-man’s land into the eager hands of families on either side.

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This is how Dhauli, a Rajbanshi living in Nargaon for 15 years since she crossed over for her wedding, greets her family in Bangladesh. An uncle from across waves at her children, her sisters and she exchange notes, even as the crowds surge and vigilant border police on both sides keep an eagle eye on the proceedings.

Director Samarth Mahajan grew up in the border town of Dina Nagar in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

 

Dhauli is one of the six protagonists in Borderlands, a documentary on life along the borders of the Indian subcontinent, directed by 30-year-old Samarth Mahajan. The 67-minute feature, produced by All Things Small and Camera and Shorts, had its Indian premiere at the Dharamshala International Film Festival after its showcase around the world at events such as DOK.fest (Germany) and New York Indian Film Festival (USA).

“We were tipped off on the ‘milan’ bazaar by a Border Security Force officer while seeking permission to shoot,” says Samarth, adding “it was surreal to watch this exchange; a boundary that divides not just lands but also families and hearts.”

The Thar Express at the Zero Point Station on the India-Pakistan border | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

 

It is stories such as these, of those caught in the cultural fault-lines that the documentary focusses on.

“We wanted to consciously move away from the historical and military symbolism of international boundaries and explore how everyday people deal with the consequences of borders. We were trying to find the political in the personal,” says Samarth, over phone from Dinanagar in Punjab’s Gurdaspur district, 15 kilometres from the India-Pakistan border, where he was raised.

Deepa at the Pakistani Migrant Settlement outsie Jodhpur | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

 

The film that opens with a shot of the Thar Express that runs between Karachi and Jodhpur at the Zero Point Border Station, travels through scrub and scree country to the Pakistani migrant settlement near Jodhpur. Here lives Deepa, a migrant from Pakistan and an aspiring nurse, struggling to speak Hindi while being fluent in Sindhi and Urdu.

Among those who share their stories, without being conscious of the camera, are Imphal’s Surajkanta, a filmmaker who looks at both the militant struggle and Manipur’s place in India; Noor, who was trafficked into sex work, rescued, learnt to play the ukulele, found love and now lives in a shelter home in Kolkata; Kavita, a Nepali girl in Birgunj who works with an NGO that aims to stop the trafficking of women into India; and Rekha, Samarth’s mother who gave up work to raise her family in Dinanagar, lived through cross-border terrorism and yet had never been to the border until she accompanied Samarth to shoot a segment at Wagah.

Rekha, Samarth’s mother on her first visit to the Attari-Wagah border | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

 

Work on the documentary began in October 2018 and finished in March 2021 with a core crew comprising Samarth, associate director Nupur Agrawal and cinematographer Omkar Divekar. “We had local associate directors to help us converse in Bengali, Nepali and Manipuri,” says Samarth, “the project was partly crowd-funded with one of the largest campaigns for an Indian film.”

Borderlands is Samarth’s second feature documentary, his first, The Unreserved, on passengers travelling in the general compartment of the Indian Railways, won him a National Award. Samarth’s journey to filmmaking was as arduous, through the portals of IIT-Kharagpur, a corporate job and a post-graduate degree in the liberal arts. “I had made an ad film when in college and ended up getting addicted to filmmaking. I like to step away from the mainstream and tell non-fiction, invisible stories.”

The crew of ‘Borderlands’ | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

 

Which is why the protagonists were chosen from a ragged jumble of tin and thatch houses, from a world littered with contested and shifting borders — “We focussed on hyper-local, unusual stories rather than the macho images of the border, identities, or the nostalgia of shared history. We focussed on hope.”

The film can be watched on https://online.diff.co.in/film/ borderlands/ through a festival pass.

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