Over phone, Delhi-based filmmaker Vinod Kapri sounds tired. It is the only sign of the journey of more than 1,232 km that he has made during the pandemic. Kapri accompanied a group of seven construction labourers from Delhi to Bihar to understand, first hand, what happens when a migrant decides to travel hundreds of kilometres by road. The journey with the labourers lasted eight days and Kapri spent another day travelling back to Delhi by car with his crew. His footage of 12 hours is likely to be one of the rare documentation of the migration as a film.
Kapri’s journey had started with a phone call. “Hum jaa rahein hai,” one of labourers, from a group that the filmmaker had been helping with food and money since the lockdown began, told him. “They had become tired asking for food from people. They told me, ‘We are not beggars. The landlords are harassing us for rent. We have no money. We are hearing that the lockdown will extend for two months more. If we are have to die, it would be better to die on the road or in our village’,” says Kapri. “I told them the journey from Ghaziabad, where they were, and Saharsa, where they wanted to go, was risky but they were determined to leave,” adds Kapri.
“I am coming with you,” he said, and “they were surprised”. “We see five-minute news reports, Twitter feeds and photos but I wanted to discuss what migrants really suffer,” says Kapri. A former television journalist, he makes films about people who inhabit the social fringes of the country. In 2015, he won the National Award for Best Film on Social Issues for Can’t Take This Shit Anymore, about six women who return to their parents’ homes because there are no toilets in their sasural. The film highlights the shame and indignity of women who have to defecate in the open.
With a driver and an assistant-cum-cameraperson, Kapri set off by car on the morning of April 28, and caught up with the labourers in a forest near Moradabad. “They told me that the police had beaten them up the night before near Hapur and threatened to throw them in the Ganga. As a result, the labourers had decided to keep off the National Highway and travel through the inner roads of villages and forests only. I had no choice but follow their direction. We used to follow them by car as far as we could and then take the next location from them and meet them there. This is how they travelled for three days — through Garhmukteshwar, Chandausi, Badayun, Hardoi and, a wrong turn that led to Sitapur — until they reached Lucknow,” says Kapri. Along the way, they met people, such as puncture walas, who wouldn’t take money from them after finding out that this group was travelling from Ghaziabad to Saharsa.
On the other hand, the labourers — who had fashioned handkerchiefs into masks — were turned away by dhabas “because the police had warned the dhaba workers about travellers who could be carrying the dreaded disease”. In Chandausi, a man selling tea on the roadside were so moved by the migrants’ plight that he rustled up samosa that they ate with bread. For the rest of the time, food was whatever was being sold from thela and the provisions — biscuits, bread and bananas – that Kapri has brought in his car. They slept in dark corners of empty marketplaces where their cycles wouldn’t be stolen and police couldn’t spot them. “We parked the car near them and slept in it,” says Kapri.
It was in Sitapur that UP Police finally stopped the group. “We thought they were going to arrest them but the police actually handed out food packets – six puris, sabji, pulao, biscuits and water bottles,” says Kapri. Cycling endlessly, with only sandals or slippers on their feet, they met the owner of a hostel in Lucknow who opened up rooms for them for them to rest. It was in Lucknow that the labourers finally began to feel confident to take the National Highway again. Cycling 140-160 km per day, they went through Ayodhya, Basti and Gorakhpur, where volunteers had set up a tent to offer migrants dinner. Next, the route went through Kushinagar and, finally, to Gopalganj, the border of UP and Bihar.
Kapri’s footage would tell a story of aching legs, thirst and hunger as well as of Bhojpuri songs and in-jokes. The other side of the film is the background of the migrants — men in their twenties who had come to work in construction sites of Noida and Gurgaon. They were sons of farmers, with lands too small to sustain families, and took up jobs as masons, tile cutters and brick layers.
“The irony is that these guys were dying to reach Bihar, their home state, but when they reached Gipalgang, Bihar administration took charge. They told the excited labourers, “Now, we are your guardians and will take care of you. We will take you to the isolation centre,” says Kapri. He adds that the migrants were packed into a bus, with two policemen as escorts, and taken to Saharsa. “They were not given as food for 16 hours. But, on the way to Saharsa, they pointed out the places they played as children, their local mandir, the kiln from where they got bricks to build our houses, the pond where they catch fish. They were so happy that some of them could barely show it,” says Kapri. In Saharsa, the police confined them in a dingy and dirty place and put a heavy lock on the door. The labourers were shouting that they were hungry but nobody gave them anything. At noon, 24 hours after they boarded the bus, the migrants were handed some rice and dal,” says Kapri.
“This is not a journey about courage, willpower or grit; it is about good people and bad people in our society. The migrants I filmed were getting unexpected help from strangers while authorities, who one would expect cooperation from, were harassing them,” says the filmmaker, who was travelling with masks, soaps and sanitisers.
There is another set of footage on Kapri’s table — an unfinished story about the migration. This one goes back to the morning after the Prime Minister announced the lockdown. On the road, trying to capture the human impact of the pandemic, Kapri met a young mother with three daughters, aged between three and six, who were travelling an impossible 475 km from Delhi to their home in Kanpur. “It is nearby, we can walk,” she told him. Kapri realised he was seeing human resilience pushed to its extreme. “She was not telling me that Kanpur was a short walk from Delhi, she was telling herself and her children,” he says. Kapri followed the family from Delhi to Ghaziabad to Bulandshahar and to Aligarh, where the woman and the children decided to rest for the night. “They planned to set off again at 5.45 am. I went to talk to police officials and other authorities. When I went back, I saw the woman and the children were not there. Their images still haunt me. Did they reach Kanpur?” he says. Kapri plans to trace the family and complete the film.
Today, he and the labourers are in touch over phone. “Everyday they call me and I am getting their videos from the isolation camp,” says Kapri.
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