By Smita Sarkar
From The London Indian Film Festival
Fireflies in the Abyss – the documentary got its title when the Director Chandrasekhar Reddy suffocated and became unconscious while shooting the documentary inside a dark, unventilated ‘rat-hole’ coal pit in India’s northeastern state of Meghalaya.
It is here – the narrow, dark and muggy pits where Nepali migrant labourers spend hours everyday, scraping coal to make a meagre living of less than 10 pounds a day.
The documentary provides answers to the damaging effects of unregulated mining in the country. Heart- wrenching excerpts from Nepali teenage and young labourers is both shocking and sad.
“You need to leave the fear of dying when you come to work here. If you die, it is a dog’s death with no or very little compensation,” Nepali teenage boys say on camera.
The Indian government has the 1952 Mines Act in place that legally prohibits hiring labour less than 18 years of age for working in the coal pits.
However, Meghalaya has been traditionally exempted from national regulations because of its significant tribal population that depend on mining for their livelihood.
Apart from coal, Meghalaya is rich in mineral reserves like limestone, nickel, copper and chromite. The condition gets hazardous and pathetic, simply because the national benchmark for safety measures does not apply to Meghalaya.
“I was in Meghalaya to research on a completely different topic for the National Geographic. I stumbled upon the workers in the mines and was simply fascinated by the cash economy, the lives of the extremely poor immigrants who come seeking a living and the coal mafia,” said Chandrasekhar.
A young boy talks about the mafia in the documentary: “Do you know what’s Daidfoot? Lord of the Pit. He is black as a coal, shot and stout. If you meet him, he will kill you. And if you can save yourself fighting, you live or else you die.”
“I had to go incognito and could not get a crew to shoot. I use to live with the miners, did the sound, camera, research and scripting myself. I had a few run-ins with the mafia. I had no idea how long I would have access to shoot the film,” said Chandrasekhar.
Chandra was positive that his work of documenting the iniquities of mining would provide invaluable references for the Indian government to regularise the industry.
“There was very little coverage among the press about the condition of the mining industry in Meghalaya,” he said.
But the situation in the mines changed since Chandra shot the major chunk of the documentary in July 2012.
The National Green Tribunal, established by the Government of India to protect the environment, imposed a ban on the mining in these hazardous death pits in 2014.
The most touching story in the documentary was about an eleven-year-old boy Suraj who wants to go to school but is forced to work in the mines by his alcoholic father.
“Many things have happened after the film was showcased in film festivals. Suraj got sponsored for his education but he refused to take charity. He wanted to keep working while paying for his studies. I have tried finding him work, but that is tricky and a huge responsibility,” he said.
The bigger responsibility was to be able to showcase the different shades of the mining industry. Chandrasekhar does that soulfully; and we hope the film gets a digital release/ reach so its not limited to film festivals and exclusive screenings.
The London Indian Film Festival, described as Europe’s largest Asian film event, is branching out to Birmingham this year. Cinemas and venues across the city will be hosting film premieres alongside screenings of specially-selected work from a number of acclaimed directors and producers from South Asia.
The Midlands Arts Centre and Cineworld Broad Street will host screenings as part of the growing film festival. Organisers say they included Birmingham in their line-up because of the city’s cultural vibrance. The festival will run here from the 14th to the 24th July, 2016.
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