Karishma Dev Dube was in her second year of graduation in New York University in 2013 when a barrage of footage of a midday-meal poisoning news in a primary school in Bihar’s Gandaman village in Saran district, which killed 23 children, caught her attention. The blank expressions, anger and pain of the community, the lack of accountability, it all stayed with her. She wanted to make a film on it but not a straight-out documentary. She started writing from “a place of anger” but it was becoming “didactic, without a point”. As Bihar goes out to vote in the first phase, such criminal negligence at schools isn’t even a poll issue.
A 17-minute film, however, got made, and has emerged as one of the 18 winners at the 47th Student Academy Award. Last week, Oscar-winning American director Spike Lee – a 1983 recipient of the award – popped up on a Zoom meet to announce to Dev Dube that her thesis film Bittu won the Silver medal in the ‘Narrative (Domestic Film Schools)’ category. Dev Dube’s fourth film is now eligible for the Oscars, next year, to compete for the Best Live Action Short Film award. After the BFI London Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival, and more, Bittu is coming to India at the online 9th Dharamshala International Film Festival (October 29-November 4).
In big frames and close-ups, the camera cuts straight to the little, feisty protagonist Bittu and her best friend Chand entertaining a pack of jobless men by the roadside. Her vivacity contrasts the barren mountains in the backdrop – deserted, bleak and lifeless. While the setting of the short film is Uttarakhand, Bihar is always in the frame. The girls, grooving to the tawdry but popular Bhojpuri song Lagavelu Jab Lipistik for a few coins, belong to the small migrant Bihari community that comes to these parts for work.
Neglect and tragedy can occur anywhere. By decontextualising, taking the narrative away from Bihar, Dev Dube, adds layers, making it a human story. The people of her film are poor and forgotten but lead a full life. Nine-year-old Rani Kumari, who essays Bittu’s role, comes from a family of migrant labourers in Tilwari village in Dehradun district. Dev Dube, 30, now based in New York, had studied at the Welham Girls’, a residential school in Dehradun, and was already familiar with the town. She just needed two girls who had a relationship with each other and with the land (mountains). As the self-assertive, wide-eyed Rani walked out of her settlement towards Dev Dube, she knew she had found her Bittu, to whom she just needed to whisper “bring down the expression by 20%”.
Colourist Mahak Gupta (Gamak Ghar, A Suitable Boy) reduces the saturation, and brings out the red. Red signals life as much as peril. And, then, there’s blue – ink that foreshadows death by poisoning. Deftly training the lens is Dev Dube’s elder sister Shreya Dev Dube (Cat Sticks, A Suitable Boy). “I had my own shot list, she had her own, we would just sit on the location and marry the two,” says the younger sibling, whose sweeping transitional takes is traditional American. For visual aesthetics, she references photographs, more than films. One such image is from Gauri Gill’s photo series Jannat (1999-2007), that foregrounds the bond between two girls, perched on a tree, the place becomes a blur.
Dev Dube, who grew up in Delhi, amid a battery of women, borrows from her milieu. She pours a bit of herself, her relationship with authority, in writing her characters, while inquiring into dysfunctionality in human or institutional relationships, and class-power dynamics through marginalised female characters. From the house help (Priyanka Bose) in her Tanvi Azmi-starrer film Devi: Goddess (2017), who’s conscious of her boundaries, to Bittu, who refuses to be submissive in school or be any lesser in her interpersonal relationships. “I was scared of punishment, and the black-and-white school morality, with no room for a logical conversation,” says the director, “I’m interested in examining the different facets of resilience of non-white women.” Her women showcase individuality in a traditional world and the cost that comes with it.
Bittu’s punishment – of not getting her share of the midday meal – for not speaking in English and not yielding to her teacher (Saurabh Saraswat) and principal, ultimately saves her life. But she loses her best friend, whose silence she can’t bear, as she admits a few moments ago, in a very Dharmendra-on-top-of-water-tank-in-Sholay kind of way, shouting into the hills. Bittu is a fictional creation. The film started working for Dev Dube only when she made it about the girls’ friendship, more than the event.
“India’s midday meal is, perhaps, the largest school-feeding programme in the world, and it has done pretty well for the most part,” says Dev Dube, who was interested in the human story behind the incident. “I don’t think anyone in that situation was trying to kill these kids.” Class-power dynamics keeps shifting in a good and bad way, between the mother (principal) and son who are responsible, between the cook and the principal, and between the teacher and Bittu. Dev Dube was “fascinated” by the principal who “didn’t want to get into an argument with someone subordinate”, and the cook, who points out that the mustard oil for cooking smells foul (it was stored in a pesticides jar) but still had to “follow orders, ignoring her instincts”. “I didn’t really want to indict or villainise anyone, I didn’t want to spare them either. I think the mistakes were very human and stemmed from ego, power and insubordination,” she says.
The film ends with a sense of unfolding. It leaves the viewer asking how the community would rally around the sole survivor-cum-witness, and how she would emerge, if at all, from the resultant emotional trauma.
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