Mumbai-based filmmaker Samarth Mahajan talks about his documentary feature Borderlands, which follows six individuals whose lives have been impacted by borders

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In his sophomore documentary feature, Borderlands, Mumbai-based filmmaker Samarth Mahajan intimately explores how everyday lives intertwine with borders in the Indian subcontinent. It spotlights stories left out of the mainstream narrative, which presents border towns largely through the lens of conflict or nationalism. Mahajan follows six individuals whose lives have been impacted by borders — not just physical but emotional as well. Through conversations and observations, these characters reveal their efforts to find meaning in a world beyond their control. Separated families reunite, queer love blossoms, and traffickers get caught in this slice-of-life documentary.

A mechanical engineer from IIT Kharagpur, Mahajan left his well-paying job at ITC Limited, Kolkata, in 2015, to become a filmmaker. He claims, “The desire to bridge India’s growing socio-economic divide and amplify the stories of the under-represented and marginalised led me to my calling.” His debut feature-length documentary, The Unreserved (2017), documented the lives and struggles of passengers travelling in general compartments of the railways. It was conferred with a National Award for Best Non-Feature Film Audiography in 2018.

Across the lines of conflict

The idea for Borderlands stemmed from Mahajan’s experience of being raised in the border town of Dinanagar, Punjab, where he lived for the first 17 years of his life. Mahajan built his team, comprising producer Ashay Gangwar, editor Anadi Athaley, cinematographer Omkar Divekar, and associate director Nupur Agrawal. The pre-production process involved extensive internet research on stories along the borders of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar. “We also communicated with several journalists and academicians and wanted to bring out different aspects of borderland life,” notes Mahajan.

Co-produced by Rainshine Entertainment and Camera and Shorts, the production cost was partly generated by a crowdfunding programme (via the Wishberry Foundation), which received contributions from 557 participants. The documentary had its world premiere at DOC.fest Munchen in 2021 and has thus far been screened at more than 25 prestigious film festivals across the globe. It was recently released on YouTube on November 8.

Borderlands, a documentary currently streaming on YouTube, spotlights stories left out of the mainstream narrative, which presents border towns largely through the lens of conflict or nationalism.

Mahajan opts for an unconventional approach to presenting the six stories. Instead of exploring one story in its entirety and moving on to another, the filmmaker briefly introduces each individual residing in different regions. After we’ve had a glimpse into their lives, the vignettes are revisited and explored in detail to provide a holistic perspective of these people and their conflict-ridden existence. This approach to storytelling proves effective as it evokes curiosity in the viewer to know more about the characters. Also, the frequent interspersion of background music on the dotara injects zest into the screenplay. The lone song, ‘Aami Tomake, befits an uplifting finale.

Portraits of nightmares, and dreams

Working around six diverse portraits, Mahajan exposes the malice of human trafficking through snippets of two girls on opposite ends of the spectrum. Kavita, residing in Birgunj, Nepal, is employed to prevent human trafficking at the Nepal-India border checkpoint. Whereas Noor, hailing from Bangladesh, is a victim of trafficking who was sold by her maternal aunt in Kolkata. She was later rescued by the police and sent to a shelter home for girls. It was here that she fell in love with a female inmate. Noor hopes to marry her and return to her hometown in Bangladesh one day. The longing to connect with family runs deep in another Bangladeshi lady named Dhauli, who was married off to a Bengali man in the Indian border town of Nargaon. Once every year at the Milan Mela, she gets to see her siblings across the other side of the fence and experiences moments of joy in exchanging gifts with them through the barbed wires.

In comparison, Deepa, a vivacious teenager from Pakistan, appears luckier. She migrated with her family to Jodhpur and feels India is safer for women than her native country. But starting life afresh in a new land has been challenging. During the transit period of waiting for her school certificates to reach India from Pakistan, she was constantly worried that her parents might get her married. Adjusting to education in Hindi from Urdu and Sindhi has been tough for her. She dreams of becoming a nurse in the future, and until then, happiness seems like a far-fetched dream to her.

Ironically, it is Deepa who adds a dash of humour to the documentary with her enactment of a mock treatment. This endearingly funny scene brings the makers in front of the camera as Mahajan role-plays as the husband, and associate director Nupur Agrawal essays the role of his pregnant wife in labour pain. Mahajan justifies the inclusion of non-borderland stories of Deepa and Noor: “We were clear the film was about how borders impact everyday lives in the Indian subcontinent. So even if some of our characters weren’t living at the borders, their lives were inherently intertwined with them.”

The Manipur story

Though all the characters appear very comfortable and secure opening up about their lives on screen, it wasn’t always easy for Mahajan and his crew. Gaining the trust of the local communities was a challenge, and they had to get used to accepting “no” for an answer without getting demotivated. Mahajan reveals, “We were even asked to leave by a few villages — once, simply because a major news channel had brought disrepute to the community by tagging it as a den of smugglers on prime-time news. We ensured we met our potential characters without any equipment and laid out the norms before shooting: that we were not from a news channel, we were not going to live-stream our conversations, and that we were not interested in sensationalising their stories. We’d also sometimes show them bits of our past work to convey our empathetic approach.”

The remaining two individuals in Borderlands have origins on our side of the border. One is Surjakanta, a filmmaker from Imphal, whose films showcase the freedom movement of revolutionaries fighting for an independent state. He has trained many young filmmakers in Manipur and hopes that after his death, stories of the Manipuri people will continue to be told. Surprisingly, the documentary doesn’t feature a single story from Kashmir.

Mahajan explains this conspicuous absence: “We were doing a recce in Kashmir when Article 370 got abrogated. Along with other outsiders, we were almost forced to leave the valley then. While the valley remained in lockdown, we ended up shooting in Manipur, which became a symbol of conflict in the narrative. Whenever we talk about conflict in the Indian media, we often forget that many states in the North East have had a complicated relationship with the Union of India.”

The continuum of life, the inseparability of human agency

The other story is deeply personal for Mahajan, as it entails his mother Rekha in Dinanagar. “During one of my conversations with my mother, before we even started shooting the film, she talked about how Dinanagar made news for the first time only because it got attacked by terrorists. The film, in a way, became a vehicle to bring acknowledgement to so many lives that often get lost in the noise of cross-border conflict. For me, it was also a way of getting to know her better, as spending more than a decade away from home had distanced me from her.”

In a heartbreaking moment, Rekha breaks down while revealing to her son that she feels lonely and hurt when he doesn’t respond to her calls or messages. By venting out her feelings and expressing her thoughts to Mahajan, Rekha succeeds in dissolving the emotional frontier between them. In a lighter vein, Mahajan jokes, “Fortunately, she enjoyed being filmed and keeps telling me how I’ve fulfilled her secret dream of becoming a heroine.”

Since the time Borderlands was made, the lives of its protagonists have undergone some change. Deepa has realised her dream and is now a practicing nurse at a hospital in Jodhpur. Noor has been repatriated to Bangladesh. A sense of joy and relief at once is unmissable in Mahajan’s voice when he shares these updates. He adds that his bond with his mother has only strengthened further since the documentary. For the filmmaker in him, the documentary might have reached completion long ago, but the human in him continues to be bound by the ties developed with these lives. Mahajan sums it up, profoundly: “We all experience the same emotions. That’s what connects humanity. When hearts unite, all barriers dissolve.”

For a documentary of this nature, it is only fitting that no editing transitions have been deployed to demarcate the stories. The six lives have been woven together seamlessly to symbolise the continuum of life and the inseparability of human agency. Not surprising, Borderlands won the Best Editing Award at the 68th National Film Awards. As for the physical frontiers between nations, Dhauli’s words of wisdom encapsulate the sanguine message of the documentary: ‘Fences can divide lands but cannot divide hearts.’

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