The Ekta Mittal Interview: Missing Migrant Workers, Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s Poetry, And The Many Textures Of Separation

The director speaks about her 28-minute film ‘Gumnaam Din’ (Missing Days), which is being screened in the Berlinale Shorts section.
The Ekta Mittal Interview: Missing Migrant Workers, Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s Poetry, And The Many Textures Of Separation

People look at a photo being thrust into their face. A question follows: "Have you seen this man?" They shake their heads. The person in the photo is a migrant worker, now gone missing. "I wonder where he is" is the refrain at home. Somewhere far away, a man — maybe this man — says he has no motivation to work. "You keep running after ghar and paisa and get neither." Does he want to be found? Does he want to return? All he says is: "I have no identity." Ekta Mittal's short film, produced by Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT), grew from the relationships she formed with migrant workers while making Behind the Tin Sheets, which observed the lives of these men building the metro in Bengaluru.  The film is PSBT's second selection at the Berlinale in a row.

 I watched your excellent feature documentary Birha at the Dharamshala International Film Festival. That, too, is a meditation — if you will — on separation and loss. What keeps drawing you back to this subject?

 I feel it is necessary to register the memory of that which is missing, the inevitability of death and coming to terms with impermanence. Missing Days is a continuation of Birha, meditating on the idea of the missing person — the son, the lover, or the husband who leaves for a city to work — and the landscapes that embody the missing. 

 At the end of Gumnaam Din, you mention that you have borrowed "the essence and metaphors of Shiv Kumar Batalvi's poems". When did you first encounter this poetry and why does it speak to you so?

 While I was making Birha, I stumbled upon Shiv Kumar Batalvi's poems, which spoke closely to the ideas I was exploring under the canvas of migration, separation and disappearance. Each of his poems was like a visual essay, filled with rich metaphors and fragile emotions. I wanted to cinematically respond to one of his poems titled "Gumnaam Din." (The translated poem is reproduced at the end of this piece.) I tried to capture the essence of this journey of silence on accepting alienation and separation from the world at large. It is not a literal expression but a poetic take on workers and their families across the country dreaming, leaving, disappearing, wailing, waiting. 

You are credited with not just the script but also "research". Can you talk about what kind of research goes into a film like this? It's about a missing man. Isn't it possible to simply "imagine" a narrative?

Research in my view is spending deep time where there is no set deadline, or a set agenda with which one encounters people. Gumnaam Din is a continuation of Behind the Tin Sheets, my film project around the migrant workers building the Bengaluru metro. After making three films, I set out to meet some of the workers who had become close friends and told me I could go meet their families. I travelled for over two years — to Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Punjab, Hyderabad and Jharkhand — meeting workers and their families before I arrived at the idea of such a film. 

One thing led to another, but there were so many variables involved. For instance, in Bihar, I could not meet/stay with any of the workers, so just as I was about to give up, a woman showed up and invited me home and told me: "Where do you think you are? This is Bihar." And a whole new story opened up through her. I was able to meet one of the workers' wives there, because of her support. 

Gumnaam Din is not a journalistic account of the missing man. It is about the missing days. It is about the ethos around the missing, to bring the viewer closer to the experience of loss. How does one account for missing? And how does it affect people over a period of time? Does one ever accept the fact that someone has gone missing or do they just wait for them, subconsciously?

When a man leaves to find work in the city, he never returns as the same man, said a woman I met in Bihar. That's why we wail. Some things cannot be put in words. That is birha. A migrant worker leaves no footprints. People are here today, gone tomorrow. I wondered if missing people hide in the mist, do they all gravitate to a remote poplar forest? Do they stay inside trees? These ponderings are reflected in the imagery in my film. I imagined several visual sequences as responses to a person who will never return. 

The woman in the mirror (the wife of the missing man) is always seen as a reflection — never as her "real" self. Do you want to talk about this image, which is seen quite a bit?

When you see the woman dressing up before the mirror, it does not reveal who she is getting ready for. This is left open for speculation. She is a woman who is waiting. She does not say a word. She gets dressed. She does not express what she is feeling. She is ever present. She is not just the wife of the missing man. She is a woman who lives on her own terms. She is beautiful. 

About sound, there's a spectacular bit where the wails of women transform into something eerie and non-corporeal, as you shift to images of the sky and trees. 

This was clear to me when I heard women wailing in Bihar as part of a ritual whenever a daughter leaves her mother, before she has to go back to her husband's house. This is not just after marriage. It carries on throughout her life. As one woman said, "It sets us free for a moment when we wail together in an embrace." 

When I first heard them, they sounded like two birds fighting, or some animal in danger or trouble. When I asked someone what that sound was, they led me to a door, where the sound got clearer and clearer, and I saw a mother and daughter in tight embrace, wailing away non-stop till they felt relieved of some of the pain they were holding on to. When we were designing the sound, I wanted to recreate that experience, except that I wanted to inscribe their wails into their surroundings, in order to create a haunting presence of them within the silence of the winter landscape.

Did you toy with the idea of not showing the man's face, keeping him throughout as one of the millions of anonymous migrants?

Yes, so that his presence is always sensed, like that of a ghost. His absence must disturb us. His disappearance must unsettle us.

The most directly emotional part of the film is when we hear such a man read out his own missing-person ad. This seems to me an interesting fictional device. How did you decide on this somewhat "concrete" end to a somewhat abstract film, which uses sound rather than lines of dialogue?

The film is attentive to the poem Gumnaam Din

I have seen this in the journey of silence

that silence sings

silence cries, silence wails

and  silence speaks

a beautiful language.

I did not want to use any lines from the poem in the film. Instead, I wanted to stay true to my conversations and experiences of meeting and searching for the workers. The impossibility of not finding some of them made me want to surrender to the fictional. This desperate need to find him is probably my voice. I am not sure it is his. So I let our quests meet — of him wanting to be missing endlessly and me wanting to find him. This impossibility comes out clearly when he reaches out to the world. To me, it is more mysterious than concrete, and it puts the onus on the viewer to look for him. 

Gumnaam Din/Missing Days

My days of gloom have come again

The days of notoriety are here

It was not for people to be with me

Even my shadows have left me.

 Yes, even my blood is sorrowful now.

Yes, even my flesh is sorrowful now.

Every direction was filled with gloomy thoughts

or the humiliating laughter of  friends.

There was a journey…

there was sand, there was silence

there was humiliation, there was dread, there was disgrace

there was emptiness, there was horizon, there was the sun

or there was nothing but

the trail of my footprints.

Seeing all of this,

a mind can only grow cold.

A life

that traversed the hot desert of age

carrying the burden of sorrow

and yearned for a sip of shade.

But in my sight,

there was not even an trace of a tree

I cry a lot

on my murder

I wander around

with a cursed silence

and I cover my face

under the gloomy sheets of moonlight

in the sands of imaginations

I sleep deep.

I have seen this in the journey of silence

that silence sings

silence cries, silence wails

and  silence speaks

a beautiful language.

From the silence of desert sand,

I am learning the language

To the lost moonlight,

I write letters in sand.

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