Director: Samarth Mahajan
Cinematographer: Omkar Divekar
Editor: Anadi Athaley
Genre: Documentary

One woman works to prevent human trafficking, another has survived it. A girl wears what she wants in defiance of her family’s patriarchal restrictions, another once quit a job in compliance with hers. A mother weeps as she talks about how her son is too busy to return her texts, while a daughter wistfully describes how she’s no longer the girl her mother remembers. The dualities at the heart of Borderlands, director Samarth Mahajan’s engaging, richly textured documentary, serve to only reveal just how interconnected human experience is – a poetic observation for a film about man-made divisions.

Through six intercut stories that run the gamut from tragic to uplifting, Borderlands depicts the sacrifices and rewards that accompany the decision to move across a national border. As it progresses, patterns emerge. Despite the differences in their nationalities, professions and economic statuses, the subjects have much in common – the coping mechanisms they’ve developed to deal with their losses now appear reflexively, as if the result of years of practiced use. The smile never falters on Bangladeshi migrant Dhauli’s face as she talks about how she’s never met her younger sister, born after she crossed the border. When the cameraperson asks Noor, trafficked from Bangladesh into India, why she self-harms, she giggles as she describes the burn of chilies that she applies to her slit wrists. Wordless stretches reveal how unilaterally, and unfailingly, it falls to the women everywhere to perform domestic chores, from through shots of them doing the laundry to smoothing cowdung over a thatched hut.

The 65-minute-long documentary illustrates the seismic shifts one’s identity undergoes following a cross-border move, using first-person accounts to build a strong sense of culture and location so it can then make a case for how deep their loss cuts. A viewfinder in one vignette becomes a metaphor for shifting perspectives, a barbed-wire fence becomes a symbol of suffocation in another. Despite this, Borderlands is careful not to make its subjects feel one-dimensional, staying with them as they movingly talk of unrelated experiences, such as being in same-sex relationship or learning to live with a disability.

It’s clear that Mahajan and associate director Nupur Agrawal have an affection for their interviewees, infusing the documentary with warmth by refusing to be restricted to their position behind the camera. In an endearingly cheeky sequence, they gamely pose as patients so that nursing student Deepa, a Pakistani migrant in Jodhpur, can demonstrate her routine of asking patients for their medical history. In another more discomfiting stretch, Rekha, a Dinanagar housewife and Mahajan’s mother, blurs his role as a storyteller by making him the story, crying on his shoulder as she describes how her loneliness is deepened by his failure to stay in touch with her.

One of the pitfalls of being too enamored by this style of intimate portraiture, however, is that the documentary fails to capture the landscape. As effective as it is to hear the stories of migrants directly, and in their own words, Borderlands sorely lacks the larger political and historical commentary needed to contextualize life on the margins. Content to observe, instead of inform, and ending on a note that feels a little too cutesy for its subject, it still makes for a tender snapshot of human connection.

The Dharamshala International Film Festival is on from November 4 to 14. You can watch the films being screened here.

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