Jamaica Kincaid once wrote: Birha
“The space between the idea of something and its reality is always wide and deep and dark. The longer they are kept apart—idea of thing, reality of thing—the wider the width, the deeper the depth, the thicker and darker the darkness.”
Ekta Mittal’s film Birha, through its depiction of Indian migratory workers and their families, operates within this very space as an attempt to reconcile the growing chasm between the expectations that fuel migrant dreams and the realities of life that befall their shared existence. Hoping to capture Mittal’s cinematographic method in mere words might be an exercise in vain, due to the exclusive domain of sounds and images that it belongs to, yet the closest thing that Birha‘s formally-ambitious documentary approach resembles is probably a search: to be precise, a kind of desperate search similar to the literal one depicted in the film where a displaced worker’s family now tries to re-locate him, in a different city, years after he went missing.
To most of the outside world, any acknowledgement of the existence (or non-existence) of these migrant workers and their families occurs primarily in the form of occasional news headlines and statistics. Their lives have nearly no representation in populist mass media, and the urban cinema-goer more often than not takes their presence for granted, stopping to reflect only when migrant workforces have suffered something appalling enough to have made its way to prime-time news. Ekta Mittal’s film attempts to rescue these overlooked yet still significant lives out of their obscurity, out of their reductive existence as mere stats, by zooming in on the mythos that forms their worldview and channeling their stubborn resilience and a protracted mournful demeanour giving way to emotional numbness.
It is this search to give form to the formless, to reconstruct and rescue the worker’s material and psychological existence―within the indifferent metropolitan city―from fading into oblivion, that motivates the film’s designs. But that is not all. Birha also evokes the anguish of separation afflicting all the women that are left behind in the villages, as their men leave in search of an unknown future. Mothers and daughters, lovers and wives, spend day after day anticipating their return, stifling their grief with an impenetrable barrier of silence that Mittal attempts to pierce with the camera and help articulate decades of pent-up sorrow. Weeks become months, and months become years, as any sense of temporal direction gradually disintegrates.
Birha‘s audiovisual imagery sinks deep beneath the skin, with a kind of reverence for the subject people’s fractured perception of time and space that is done a disservice to with adjectives such as “dreamy” and “poetic”, notwithstanding their literary appropriateness. Mittal exhibits a kind of respect and attention towards her subject’s physical and subconscious realities that is universally denied to them, bringing to mind the likes of Pedro Costa and his careful delimitation of filmmaker-subject relationships―that treads the thin line between representation and exploitation of the personal―within his visions of similar migrant worker lives.
It is only fitting that Mittal prefaces her portrayal of absences with local supernatural lore involving phantom spirits and haunted forests. To the outsider, the urban citizen with their fondness for the rational, the tales may sound primitive and even juvenile. And yet, how else can the ones deprived of rational lives express that which eludes their comprehension, such as the prospect of carving out a life worth living without their loved one? Birha attempts to be faithful in its conveyance of this feeling of uncertainty, of a constant sense of spiritual discomfiture and crisis bordering on the existential, focusing on the fragments and trying to piece together a whole, mindfully stopping short of devolving into utopian fantasies of mending back that which has been broken beyond repair.