The 88-minute long documentary is an India-Finland co-production that has also won accolades at 14 film festivals.
Bilal,an 88-minute-long documentary directed by Sourav Sarangi has won the Swarna Kamal for the Best Non-Fiction film at the 57th National Awards. Sarangi shares the award with The Postman directed by P. Manohar and produced by K. Hariharan. The film has won awards at 14 film festivals in India and abroad. Strangely,Bilal was rejected by the selection panel in the Mumbai International Film Festival of Documentary,Short and Animations films,2010. Bilal is an India-Finland co-production with support from Jan Vrijman Fund,Amsterdam,Official Development Aid from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,Finland and in association with YLE,Finland.
The documentary revolves around three-year-old Bilal who stays with his blind parents,Shamim and Jharna,and infant brother,Hamza. The family lives in an 8×10 feet dark partitioned room at Taltala in a Muslim-dominated neighbourhood in Kolkata. His parents depend on their senses of sound,touch and on Bilal to face the daily struggles of life.
Bilal,the wonder-boy,carves out a life of fun and adventure and naughty pranks within the squalor of his living environment. He is aware of his parents condition but it does not come in the way of his innocence. He is not ready to surrender his naughtiness never mind the older boys trying to bash him up or his mother beating him for teasing and kicking little Hamza. As Sarangi steps into their lives with his crew,Bilals face lights up with brightness because there is some bright light and some variety in his life now.
I met Bilal in a hospital bed through my wife when he was just eight months old. He fell and had a severe brain injury. I stood in silence and looked at the boy struggling for life,the blind mother holding him tight. Bilal looked at me for a long time and then smiled. He touched his mother gently and that is how she knew I was there. I felt the magic of the touch and saw those beautiful eyes of Bilal ushering love and hope in moments when darkness rules. This film is a rough assembly of my moments with Bilal collected between September 2005 and December 2006, says Sarangi who edited the film himself. His crew comprised Somdev Chatterjee,Pankaj Seal,Tapas Ganguly and Ayan Bhattacharya. The ethical issue of capturing two blind people on camera which makes it mandatory for the filmmaker to seek their permission before shooting was solved with some discussion. Sarangi told them to use the sounds the crew made as a sign that the camera was rolling.
Sarangi,a FTII alumnus in editing,earlier made Bhangon (2006),an investigative documentary of 60 minutes on river erosion in Eastern India causing environmental disorder and migration of innocent victims. His debut film Tusu Katha (The Tale of Tusu) (1997),was an ethnographic documentary on traditional Indian rural life of women engaged in a harvesting ritual called Tusu.
Bilal often runs away outside his room when his parents chase him for teasing his kid brother,only to be bashed up by the older kids of the neighbourhood. The director and his team observed the little boy over a year,capturing him in moments full of love,fun,cruelty and hope. In his way,he helps his family face the day-to-day struggles of life. The film ends on a note of hope. The camera tracks the family moving away in the bright light of the streets of Kolkata,their backs to the camera,to try and build a new future with a new make-shift telephone booth on the streets.
Bilal is a critique on the documentary form itself. Sarangi has no axe to grind – political,human rights,child rights,or any other. Sarangi becomes a part of his subject,Bilal,and the family he belongs to. His crew becomes friendly with Bilal while Sarangi also lends a kind ear to Shamim and Jharna who confide in him. This wipes out the hierarchy between a filmmaker and his subject. He makes his camera a character within the film,handing it once to Bilal to toy with and look through and even take pictures,retaining these shots within the film. Ths honest approach and forthrightness with which the story unfolds makes Bilal so special. The sense of alienation that usually exists between the director and his subject is absent in this film.
Small vignettes of visuals and sounds hold up a mirror to a dark side of life we are not even aware of. The filming begins when Bilals third birthday is to be celebrated with a small cake,three candles,and a small crowd of children and adults clapping away as he blows on the candles,looking surprised and happy. An overjoyed Bilal wears a cute cap and a new sherwani in celebration of Id over a pair of red shoes the unit has gifted him with. We hear the sound of temple bells in the distance. The chants of the Holy Azaan float in from the nearby Masjid. Sounds of a bottle breaking,tins being dragged across the floor,are juxtaposed against the bed dotted with the kids vomit or urine or milk from the bottle. An insightful shot of everyone crowding around a Black-and-White TV set when Khalnayak is being telecast is touching. The yellow signboard of Shamims shut-down telephone booth stands silently as a sign of better days. Jharna lies in bed only once during the film because she is back after an abortion. But there is no money for medicines. In a touching moment,she asks Sarangi for a small loan. I had told them that I would contribute to their expenses whenever I would be shooting in their home. I took food and medicines when the kids fell ill. I set aside money received for the film from the Dutch IFDA Jan Vrijman Fund for the family, Sarangi says.
Bilalstands out due to its no-nonsense approach of direct participation by the director and his team in the familys joy and pain. The camera,through Bilal captures a microcosm of the society he lives in – blind parents,little brother,neighbourhood friends and absolute squalor. One cannot always see the crew but the voice-overs are clear. What is wrong with Jharna? Sarangi asks Shamim when Jharna is in depression. There is no patronising,no pontification and no marginalising the subject of the film – Bilal. Nor is there any attempt to politicize Bilals condition to try to evoke the sympathy of the viewer. I did not have any crisis to resolve. The film is about Bilals days and nights, Sarangi sums up.