Cast: Nishat Rai, Raj Rai, Suraj Subba
Director: Chandrasekhar Reddy
Fireflies in the Abyss is a documentary about desperately wretched lives. In illegal mines in Northeast India, men and boys drop into sliver-sized openings in mountains to dig out coal. They have a head torch and a pickaxe. There is no safety equipment or medical services. When a rat bites, they smile. When someone dies, they shrug. Many of them are Nepali immigrants. At least a few have been here so long that families have been forgotten. Their home is a hell that is bleak and literally black. At one point, a character laughs and says that when he first came he couldn’t recognize people from his own village because their faces were covered in coal dust.
This is a world that few of us know. Director Chandrasekhar Reddy deep dives into it – once again literally. At one point, the camera travels into a mine. The space is so suffocating that it’s impossible to imagine that human beings spend entire days there. And in this heart of darkness, there lives a smiling 11-year-old boy named Suraj who only wants an education and a few friends. But he is saddled with an alcoholic father and a kindly sister who is too impoverished to nurture his dreams. In one scene, Suraj tells us: A for all, B for ball, C for coal.
If you are looking for a cheerful or uplifting movie experience, this isn’t it. But Chandrasekhar’s camera humanizes what otherwise would have been a banal headline. We get to know these people. We start to care about them – especially Suraj. What works against the film is the length – at 88 minutes, it feels unnecessarily stretched. And the voice over, which explains the characters, their relationships and movements, is clunky.
But hours after the film, I found myself thinking about Suraj. Which is a victory.