The shot opens with a wide smile playing on her face. She puts on her slippers, covers her head with a scarf fashioned out of an old towel, wears a shirt over her saree draped in traditional kashta style, and gets on with her job of transporting material that weighs anything between 500 kg and 800 kg in a handcart. She negotiates the city traffic, abuses and fights to reach the shop where she has been asked to deliver the material. Babutai Damodar Labade works as a porter defying her age of 81 years.
Documentary ‘Babai’ chronicling her life, made by city-based couple Kavita Datir and Amit Sonawane, has won the Best Short Documentary Award at the recent International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala. Produced by Saarad Production, the documentary was screened for the first time at Samyak Short Film and Documentary Festival at the National Film Archives of India on May 30, and had won the Best Documentary Award.
The idea had struck the duo over a year ago. “We were going somewhere on a bike and had stopped at one of the signals. We saw a very old man, perhaps a porter, carrying heavy material. The scene got etched in our minds,” says Datir. Initially, the couple wanted to make a fictional film on similar lines but the project did not take off. “Firstly, we didn’t have the funds, secondly, we felt that no actor will be able to make the role believable. So we decided to make a documentary,” she adds.
During their research, someone told them about Labade. “Apart from the fact that she was working at this age, another thing that caught our attention was she was working in a male-dominated profession that demanded immense physical strength.”
How did Labade react when they approached her? Datir says, “She was least bothered that we are making a film on her, but nevertheless gave us permission.” Since the pre-production stage, the film-makers agreed not to disturb or interfere Labade during the shoot. “She did her job, we did ours,” adds Datir.
The film reveals other hardships faced by Labade who lost her husband when she was 21, leaving her with five children. She tried committing suicide thrice but failed. “That’s God’s way of saying you must ‘live’,” she says in the documentary. One of her sons died in an accident when he was in his 20s, another ran away and never came back. “Two things were clear in my mind since the beginning – don’t become a sex worker and don’t become a thief. Abuse and fight; make space for yourself,” says Labade in ‘Babai’. Labade, who earns between Rs 100 to 250 a day, stays in Ganesh Peth with her son and daughter-in-law.
The documentary was ready after three drafts, says Sonawane, a faculty member at the University of Pune. “We didn’t want the audience to view her as a sorry figure because she is a woman of physical and mental strength. We didn’t want to add fictional elements because that would have not only destroyed the purity of the documentary as a medium but would have killed the essence of Babai’s journey,” says Sonawane, adding there are English subtitles to take the work to a wider audience.
Babai was shot at locations covered by Labade for delivering material like Ganesh Peth, Bhavani Peth, Mandai, Pagul Ali and Ravivar Peth. Her first stop is Dhoomdhadaka Agarbatti Shop in Ganesh Peth, from where she takes the handcart for work.