Updated: March 15, 2021 9:06:47 pm
In 2013, 23 children at a government school in Bihar died eating pesticide-contaminated midday meal. Following investigations, the principal — accused of the oversight — was sentenced to two jail terms of 10 years and seven years. The massacre, resulting from a gross case of negligence, was reported widely. But in what can be assumed as inadvertent aftermath of reportage, the number distilled and diluted the tragedy. When the expense of lives is quantified, their cost is economised. When figures determine the extent of a disaster, the length of digits limits its magnitude. Incidents become instances.
In many ways Karishma Dev Dube’s discomfiting Bittu — which lost out on the official nominations after being shortlisted for the Best Live Action Short Film at the 93rd Academy Awards — is a counter-narrative to the crowded layout of newspapers; the New York-based filmmaker pulls out a thread of story from the stack of statistics, providing faces to facts.
The film opens with two young girls singing and dancing for the pleasure of strangers. They sway their hands and coins drop as a token of appreciation. Wearing similar sweaters, the girls are students encashing their age-aided guilelessness to earn some extra pocket money. Bittu and Chand (Rani and Renu Kumari, both non-actors and haunting in their turns) are friends. They divide the money among themselves and sit next to each other in class. They fight and make-up in the same breath. They reserve the private joys of friendship to hurt and humiliate, to lend company and desert. The story is about a day in their lives when one survives and the other succumbs.
Dube sets the majority of the film in a school. The location is Dehradun, but it is never mentioned. This restraint points to her belief that the malady central to the story is universal. That much like the government school where English alphabets are taught through the sounds they make, the principal’s refusal to pay heed to the complaint of oddly-smelling cooking oil could happen anywhere. And this is because what causes it is not spatial-specific depravity, but pervading negligence perpetuated by an imbalance of power.
Dynamics of class difference feature visibly in Dube’s works. She explored it head along in Devi: Goddess — the 2017 short film centering on a homosexual relationship between a house help and her employer’s daughter — using rebellious desires to challenge the rigidity of class-set boundaries. With Bittu, she depicts its cost. There are no evil people here. The lone teacher is attentive, caring. When a leaking bag of rice arrives at the school, the principal notices and refuses to pay for it. And yet moments later, dulled by the carelessness afforded by her position, she dismisses the cook’s concern about the oil. If with great power comes great responsibilities, it also allows greater leeway to eschew those liabilities.
But through the course of the 17-minute Bittu, Dube refuses to indict one person for the tragedy. Instead, she carefully examines the structure that allows sustaining such indifference, and by re-imagining the incident, upholds and underlines what all is lost in such stories of loss. Lives are lost, friendships are lost, children are lost, and for those who survive, their childhood is lost.
The film ends with an unsettling scene of Bittu moving about in disbelief, her face filled with questions for which she has no answer. She leaves the site of devastation and tries stopping a car. It moves past her. She then throws a stone and forces it to halt. In her school, she was taught good children are those who make no sound. But Bittu knows in an increasingly uncaring world, where lives are numbered, disobedience is the only way to survive.
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