Abysmal an adjective is derived from the word “abyss” or “abysm”. An abyss is a “seemingly bottomless chasm”. Very few people can say “my future is abysmal” and literally mean it. But many in the ‘rat-hole’ mines in the Jaintia Hills in the north-east India have this unfortunate honour as they descend everyday into this abyss of darkness only to ironically render many homes lit. The 2015 documentary film “Fireflies in the Abyss”, made by Chandrasekhar Reddy, narrates the stories of these individuals as it explores their lives horizontally and quite literally- vertically as well.
The ‘rat-hole’ mines are a repository of coal in the north eastern region. Many natives of the region and immigrants from surrounding areas such as Nepal, Bangladesh etc. who can ill afford passing an opportunity to make a living, take up the task of scratching out these coal reserves for whatever little they can etch out and bring up to the surface. The dark, hazardous, narrow mines with hardly any space to navigate through them are traversed through by young and old by contorting their bodies and scoping out the deep interiors with nothing more than a torch light and an axle.
The narrative of the film is built around Suraj, a small 11 year old kid who wants to make something of his life. Suraj, which means sun, has also bore witness to this life of mining as he too has many a times descended into the abyss of the coal mines. Belonging to a family of Nepali immigrants, Suraj is yet disappointed at prospects of having to leave his home in these hills when his family decides to go back to their home in Nepal. He runs away from home and ends up in a makeshift camp of miners elsewhere. There his elder cohabitants help him get enrolled in school who as they admit wish to witness the world of knowledge through Suraj’s eyes; a world that eluded them always.
The film follows his trials and tribulations along this journey of his audacious hope to escape the fate that has befallen upon many of his elders. His story is interwoven with those of many others’, those of longing for the home that has been left behind, near and dear ones who remain estranged, broken families, years that have been lost in the depths and lives that haven’t been lived on the surface.
One of the achievements of the narrative is that it manages to stave off the ethnographic distance from the subjects of the film and avoids reducing the subjects into objects, a pitfall many documentaries fall into. The people of this world, that the film seeks to represent, tell their own stories, ambitions, dreams, hopes and aspirations. The insertion of still photographs of the locals in between shots, taken by one of the residents- Nishant, underlines this attempt to give some degree of control of the narrative to the subjects of the film.
Yet the film doesn’t romanticise the tough lives led by the people here. It does not shy away from conveying the full darkness of the ‘abysmal’ workplace of the miners as in one of the shots the camera is mounted upon the very cart that the miner takes with him into the deposits. As the miner whose body is doubled up to navigate through the mines, drags the cart through the pitch black darkness, with a small torch as the only source of light, the camera is also dragged through this darkness with only the face of the miner visible, with all the grimaces amidst all the darkness. The sense of suffocation that such darkness can instil in one, is somewhat transferred onto the viewers as well, who for their own sake and for the sake of the miner gasp for hope to see some opening for some light to breach the darkness.
The haunting camera shots that look down into the mine showing the precarious steps that lead into the depths are contrasted by the beautiful roving shots of the scenic hills, perhaps depicting the fate of all the resource rich scenic landscapes that most people wish to witness without witnessing the dark truths in hidden in their bellies.
On a macro-social level the documentary addresses an important ecological issue for India. 62% of Indian power generation comprises of coal-based thermal power and accounts for 75% of coal used. This huge dependence on coal for a power hungry country that seeks to expand and scale up its economy is a matter of concern not only from the environmental point of view but also from the vantage point of the impact it has upon people’s lives, both of whom form part of ecological landscape especially in coal rich areas, as in the case of the location of this documentary.
The hills as the movie informs is witnessing huge levels of illegal coal mining. Tribal farmers have turned into coal miners and hold “an uneasy peace” with the immigrant populations. The hazardous mining conditions which as the newspaper clippings featured in the film show have taken toll on people’s lives but remain in the blind spot of the governments.
As documentaries witness resurgence in India, a positive emergent trend is that more people-centric authentic accounts are reaching the audiences. Furthermore the subjects of these films are those who are usually rendered invisible in the mainstream discourse. Yet the distribution suffers. It’s a catch 22 situation where films don’t reach audiences because the reception is lukewarm and the reception does not improve because the reach of these films is largely limited to film festivals and public screenings in select cities.
In such a scenario, the screening of certain handpicked movies from past few years from the Mumbai Film Festival on Tata Sky on an especially dedicated channel has been a welcome step. Many Indian and international movies from different genres and movie formats are currently on display, one of which is this documentary. Such initiatives can give a much needed impetus to documentary filmmakers whose works can reach out to larger audiences and documentary format can plant its feet more solidly in the Indian cinema scene.