First came Roots of Love, a film on the significance of hair and turbans in Punjabi culture. Two years later, in 2013, Mardistan took the study into the psyche of the Punjabi male deeper by getting four men to answer a loaded question — “What is masculinity?” Harjant Gill, a filmmaker and Assistant Professor of anthropology at Towson University, Maryland, USA, returns with a new film, titled Sent Away Boys, which explores the effects of migration of men, a practice that is so rooted in Punjab that it has inspired an entire genre of folk songs. Gill gets five people to face the camera and speak about their experiences of migration and its aftereffects. Produced by Delhi-based Public Service Broadcasting Trust, Sent Away Boys will be screened at the Open Frame film festival in Delhi.
How severe is the issue of migration in Punjab?
We constantly hear about villages across Punjab devoid of young men, most of whom are working abroad, but it is only recently that researchers are beginning to study the issue in detail. Recent surveys by CRRID (Center for Research in Rural and Industrial Development), Chandigarh, especially the work of Aswini Kumar, are perhaps the most comprehensive data available on the number of migrant households in Punjab.
When did the enormity of the issue strike you personally?
A few years ago, during a visit to my maternal village, I decided to draw a kinship chart of my mother’s side of the family. I realised that, in the past 15 years, more than 75 per cent of my mother’s extended family had settled overseas. This brought a sense of urgency into exploring this issue, which I had been interested in due to my own family biography and my parents’ decision to emigrate in the ’90s.
Why haven’t you interviewed any of the ‘sent-away boys’ in the film?
When I started researching for the film, I realised that most of us are familiar with the migrants’ journeys and stories through the news and films. Not much attention has been paid to the family members and households who are left behind. I became fascinated with the question, ‘what happens to masculinity in the absence of men?’ I decided to use the 45-minute film to chronicle the lives of family members who are left behind and show how they are transformed by transnational migration.
How did you select the characters to interview?
Every individual has similar aspirations for happiness and personal and financial success, yet conveys a different relationship with India and the process of migration. Gurkirpal Grewal, because of his English-language skills and family wealth, is able to access transnational migration fairly easily. Ishwarjot Rana, despite belonging to a middle-class Jat family, doesn’t possess the educational and language skills to be able to qualify for a study or work visa and conveys a sense of frustration about not being able to emigrate. Sukhvir Kaur and her mother represent an important voice that we rarely hear in Punjabi films and media, of Punjabis who do not wish to leave India.
How acutely has the issue of migration affected folk culture?
During my research, I discovered that the trope of the pardesee has always been a prominent feature of Punjabi folk songs — women often sang boliyan (couplets) about the men in their families returning home. This is perhaps because Punjabi men have been leaving their homes — to work in the city, to join the army or to go abroad as labour. Towards the end, the film features a traditional folk song Madhaniyan, which is sung during Punjabi weddings — when parents are getting ready to send their daughter to her husband’s village. I saw an interesting parallel between this traditional custom of Doli Charhana (sending-off brides) and the more recent practice
of Munde Chardhana (seeing off sons), which takes place on any given evening outside Terminal 3 of the Delhi International Airport.