Sunday, 23 August 2009
Bilal: The real Indian Slumdog Millionaire
Sourav Sarangi recently won eight international awards for his documentary film Bilal, which tells the story of a five-year-old boy who looks after his blind parents in a cramped hut in a poor district of Kolkata. The film-maker describes the journey he and the family have taken with the documentary
I first met Bilal when he was only eight months old. His head was wrapped in bandages after an accident and he was lying on a cot next to my wife. His mother, who was blind, was clinging on to him. After attending to my wife, who had been hospitalised, I looked at the baby. He seemed to smile at me and seemed to nudge his mother as if, in a silent communion in a dark world, he was trying to tell her to talk to me. I was convinced about that. At that point in time, Bilal the film was born.
My friendship with the family grew. As I saw him grow up, what struck me about Bilal was his common sense. Even when he was three years old, the time when we launched the film, he was wise and that is the word I would like to use when describing this remarkable boy.
His Muslim father, Shamim, also blind, had married Jharna, a Hindu who changed her name to Humera Begum after the wedding. That in itself is quite unusual among the poorer communities in India – a Hindu woman marrying a Muslim man and then changing her religion.
Shamim himself is quite a man. He runs a portable phone call centre and, before this film was made, he used to carry a telephone to one of the busiest traffic intersections in Kolkata and sit on the pavement with a table. He has a photographic memory. Even now, he can rattle off 10-digit telephone numbers I told him six months back simply from memory. I am still amazed by this man.
Now in his mid-thirties, Shamim was overcome with joy when I told him two years ago that I would like to make a film about his son. At first, he seemed to think that I had offered him a role in a television soap but when I told him that it was Bilal's journey through life that I wanted to film, he was slightly disappointed. Nevertheless, he gave his permission.
All I have ever paid the family of four were lunch packets during shooting (Bilal has a younger brother, three-year-old Hameja). Shamim and Humera, who act out bit parts in Kolkata's Blind Opera, a drama institution for the visually impaired, have a great son in Bilal. I have seen how this kid has taken charge of the family and I have found it to be a great inspiration. My entire film has been shot in the family's 4x10ft shanty hut within their crowded and bustling neighbourhood, one of the poorest in Kolkata.
But unlike some other films about slums, I don't believe this film glamourises poverty. In India, poverty hurts and it hurts badly. Bilal's story is one of a five-year-old fighting against this poverty. It's a sort of missionary approach – I cannot help them directly in any way, but I can help their story to reach a wider audience around the world. That has been my mission.
Bilal is a clever and intelligent boy and has a street-smart knack about him. I have seen him help his mother cross the road and I have also watched how clear he is about his sense of purpose and direction. His parents follow his instructions on which shop to go to buy a certain item. Bilal is their guardian, he is the man of the family. This is what inspired my film. After all, at the age of five, you are expected to play but when you have a family to support, then childhood goes out of the window. Even so, Bilal has not lost the twinkle in his eye, his innocent charm is intact. I love him for that and for his courage.
His sharpness and intelligence are mind-boggling, and he likes to play with his blind mother. One day she was looking for him and he would remain out of reach. She somehow managed to corner him but quick-witted as he is, he immediately picked up a stick and threw it beside his mother. His mother, momentarily thinking it was Bilal, grabbed at the stick while the boy scampered away.
I have always been worried about Bilal's future. But while making the film, the professional actress, Anasuya Mazumdar met Bilal and wanted to do something for him. On her own she took the responsibility of getting the two children enrolled in a private school.
My film has not been released in India yet. In my homeland, all the distributors want Bollywood-type song and dance. Real stories of suffering and fortitude do not have many takers. In the West, they view poverty in India in a different way; I would say there is a demand for tales of Indian poverty there. That is why I have got easy buyers in the West.
A London-based documentary distributor took on the world rights for Bilal and we have travelled the world with the film, winning eight awards including a Silver Ace at the Las Vegas International Film Festival, the Silver Palm in Mexican Film Festival and a top award at the Munich DOK Fest. Significantly, in June it was shown to a very receptive audience at the Museum of Modern Arts in New York, a rare honour.
But I still do not have a buyer in India. The German Deputy Consulate in Kolkata has been most helpful in trying to get a screening organised in the city, but let's see how successful that is.
I hadn't seen Slumdog Millionaire until after it won the Oscar. I think it is a very well made film but our viewpoints are different. I have seen poverty through a different lens.
When shooting began, the Shamim family was subsisting on a meagre income of £30 a month that came from the couple's bit-part stage roles for Blind Opera and Shamim's phone call centre. The four family members were barely managing to hold on.
I had started filming with my own money but I soon realised that private financing would not help the film see the light of day. It was then that I sent applications to the Dutch IDFA Jan Vrijman Fund which happily accepted it. This film would not have been possible without them. The film has subtitles in English, Spanish and Finnish and the original is in our native Bengali tongue.
The family has now received funding worth £4,200 from the IDFA which, as per the requirement, are in my custody to ensure the Bilal family's upkeep. I am trying to ensure better education for the two kids and organise a small office set-up for Shamim where he can run his telephone pay booth.