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On the film ‘Bidesiya in Bambai’: Mumbai as the doorstep to Poorvanchal


By Ratnakar Tripathy

Surabhi Sharma

Surabhi Sharma

Just the day before watching this 80-minute film by Surabhi Sharma, I spent a whole afternoon in the company of two European researchers working on the theme of out migrants in Bihar. I was taken aback when the French researcher among them used the word ‘palayan’ [literally running away] for migration. She said she confronted a migrant in Jahanabad, Bihar with the question – ‘why did you do palayan’ in Hindi. My head swirled at the implied accusation but when she asked me for the right word, I discovered I could only offer a very officious and staid solution – pravasi – one of those synthetic words from Hindi of the Dr Raghuveer type that a common villager in Bihar may not even understand. So what do you call an out migrant from Bihar? Bidesiya? But that would mean a foreigner, going by its common Hindi usage, won’t it?

True, but Bidesiya is perhaps far more appropriate a word for the Bihari migrant as it truly reflects how the rural society in Bihar understands the whole business of migration. Those who leave, those who come back again, and again and again, right till they come back for good, if at all, are all ‘bidesiya’. Once you leave the village, once you loosen out of the tight embrace, you become a Bidesiya. You lose your sedentary virginity once for all. You are of course a ‘pardesi’ if you happen to be a visitor from an alien planet or the district next door.  Pardesi means literally ‘from another country’, Bidesiya or videshi mean ‘rid’ of country, conveying the sense of split and separateness. Over time, the word Bidesiya has acquired lyrical overtones, largely due to the great Bhojpuri playmaker, theatre manager, actor and singer, Bhikhari Thakur and his emulators down the ages. Bidesiya is now known as a theatre form from the very region that called its migrants Bidesiya. Naming a form after an exemplar is not unknown and the common Marathi word for the novel is ‘Kadambari’, in reality a 7th century work by Banabhatta. The ‘ya’ suffix to bidesh is so very typical of a land and language where a boy called Vijay would often be addressed as either Vijaywa or Vijaiya, indicating familiarity.

Mumbai Bhojpuri: enchanted audience

Mumbai Bhojpuri: enchanted audience

To come back to Surabhi Sharma’s film – it is all about the part of the migrant’s life that the educated Biharis rarely, if ever, get to see and hear. As Biharis, we often see and know only half of the migrant’s tale, the part that gets enacted on the soil of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, often labelled together as Poorvanchal. Indeed, every time I run into a migrant labour back from destinations like Surat or Kochin in my own village, I imagine a strange aura around him. He is special. He has something of Kochin about him or something of Bangalore layered into his brain and his heart. I have found these men markedly reticent. Even the most outspoken ones hurriedly sum up their jobs and steer the conversation elsewhere. They probably find such talk unreal to the extent that standing in front of their homes in the village, attempting any elaborate account of life in Jalandhar feels like drawing images over the water. Or they probably feel no one in the village will make sense of how things go on at the completely alien destinations in distant Gujarat or Punjab. They end up discussing with me the daily affairs of the village and the business of farming in the manner of someone who never stepped out of the district. I always felt fascinated by the invisibleness of the migrant’s life in Surat and Jalandhar. I have come to believe that my imagined aura is made entirely of the mysterious and unseen part of their lives in Bangalore, Surat or some other distant land.  These are not ordinary three-dimensional men. They point towards a fourth aural dimension of dramatic movement, struggle and restiveness.

The characters in Sharma’s ‘Bidesiya’ however are hardly the quiet men I mention here. They talk freely of their lives in Mumbai, and the film shows them in all vividness. The film in brief makes the invisible turn visible, inaudible turn audible, a near impossible task.  So how does the filmmaker achieve that?

She catches the tale by its tail, if you don’t mind the homophony. Instead of relying on straightforward and prosaic narratives, she goes for the impassioned and the intense business of music and songs. This is culture, speech and expression in their utter thickness. The special thing about songs and music is they take you to the very margins of what can be said at all. If you want to find out the migrant’s salary, you ask a plain question and get a prompt answer. If you wish for a close look at his hardships you find him sweating away at work or packed into rooms with little stretching space or privacy.  In the process, all you discover is the depths of the gloom and very little of the vital force that keeps a man alive in his heart and head. So what do you do when you want to take a peek into his soul?

Surabhi Sharma is not from Poorvanchal and travelled there via Mumbai. She may not have but she did due to a series of serendipitous coincidences. As a woman who grew up in Mumbai, Sharma began by trying to make sense of a part of her own city that is largely invisible even to the Mumbaiwallahs. Mumbai’s soundscape is a tangle of too many human and mechanical sounds and voices, impinging on the ears with various degrees of kindness and cruelty. In this ongoing stampede of conversations, music and languages, you barely have the time to register the individuality and character of the decibel producers. The amazing thing is if you begin to pursue a bunch of melodies in the mazeways of the labyrinthine city, you  see patterns. Sharma’s pursuit took her to the great adda [hub] of Bhojpuri music Nala Sopara and Adarsh Nagar in Mumbai. The visuals in the film patiently show you how there is a city woven within the larger city. One of the prominent faces in the film, a middle rung singer narrates the amusing tale of the illegal constructions where the numerous recording studios of Bhojpuri industry are housed. The structures get razed by the municipal authorities only to be reborn like the phoenix in a matter of hours. This is of course the other Mumbai. But the story of Ambani’s Antilla, the shapeless and asymmetric anthill of the Mumbai billionaire will seem incomplete without an account of Adarshnagar. The unyielding permanence of Bombay may be firmly solid but its history has in no way frozen – its history crawls along through the byways of Katherine Boo’s Annawadi’s and Sharma’s Adarshnagars. The provisionality of a migrant’s life fits well with the urban vision of the Indian city – there is no enduring vision but endless tradeoffs. This is no Chandigarh! This is really slum unlimited. The city is a flood perpetually overflowing its rims. And yet lives have to be lived in the meantime.

Sharma’s film is thus an essay on Mumbai that melds into one on Bihar. It melds easily because migration lies at the very heart of Poorvanchal, whether you talk economy, politics or culture. So much so that even if you start at destinations like Mumbai or Kolkata, you already stand close to the heart of Bihar. The reason? Well, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Ludhiana increasingly stand at the doorsteps of Bihar.  Walking through a typical village in Bihar you can feel the throb of the innumerable absences. Just today a 27 year old friend called up and passingly mentioned that none of his cohorts live in his village anymore. They are mostly in Delhi.

‘Bidesiya’ the film

‘Bidesiya’ the film

But Surabhi Sharma’s film is not a portrait of migration alone. It is also a story of the instinctive human effort to lend some modest worth to one’s life, to add some quality to the endless struggle, to add joy to lives under siege. All this happens in the unlikeliest possible manner and through the strangest of pathways. The film has long sequences where the Bhojpuri singer Kalpana Patowary from Assam struggles in a sound studio to define and redefine phonetic and melodic authenticity for a Bihari and herself. Inspired by Bhupen Hazarika, the stalwart of Assamese music, Kalpana ends up delivering what can only be called ‘high Bhojpuri culture’. Yes, it takes a singer from Assam living in Mumbai to rise above the mediocrity that typifies Bhojpuri culture today. This mediocrity is made as much of commercial crassness as the homeliness of performing for one’s own family and neighbours as an amateur. Whether Bhojpuri or Malayalam, whether music or painting, art cannot after all be left at the mercy of hobbyists and part time careerists.

Lastly, the film has no commentary. You hear multiple voices and glimpse multiple perspectives. This saves Sharma from a very convoluted kind of artistic assignment – that of making a film and then explaining within the film why she made the film and also of course, what the film really intends to convey, as different from how you may receive it. Convoluted indeed! Not to mention facing questions from the audience after the screening of the film. The best way to leave a strong auteurial signature strangely is to perhaps walk out of your own film.


One Response

  1. raji sharma says:

    Lovely review of a lovely film

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