Student at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts
A coal miner enters the death pit, the camera standing on his cart. We enter the death pit. The darkness increasing as the cart crawls deeper into the horrifically narrow confines of the rat hole. The only source of natural light, the opening above grows smaller. Soon, it is no longer visible. The awkward bulb resting on the miner’s head is of little help to the suffocation permeating within the spacious movie theater. The miner owes a large sum of money to his dear friends who have warmly fed him and helped him. They will be moving to Nepal soon. He has begged before everyone he knows and yet, is still short of funds. The only choice he is left with is to dig continuously for a few days. Yet, he must do this in the monsoon, a season notoriously known to claim several lives.
Chandrashekar Reddy’s “Fireflies in the Abyss” explores such choices and more. Unfolding within the tattered yet beautiful terrains of Meghalaya, the documentary offers a rare perspective into the rare lives of the men who make a living in the abyss.
Eleven year old Suraj is perhaps the only miner who can call this place home among the sea of migrant workers from Assam and Nepal. Suraj is fully aware of the precariousness of his job. He witnessed his friend’s father pass away in a mine after a gigantic boulder fell on him. Yet, fear can have no business in the lives of coal miners. Born into this life, Suraj dreams of going to school one day. He dreams of escaping the abyss. However, his unsupportive father wishes most of their earnings away on alcohol and gambling. As a saying in the mines goes: people here don’t gamble to win, they gamble to be able to gamble the next day. And so, the family always finds itself in debt. Unable to make conversation with his father even in the best of times, Suraj prefers living with his sister and her family. He builds an unlikely, animated world for himself beyond the dark confines of the rat hole that he no longer fears but dreadfully hopes to escape. Yet, his fragile world faces harsh winds when his sister and best friend Shaila decide to move away.
One of the workers, Nishanth came to the mines with the hope of earning enough money to fund his college education. He believed it to be an opportunity to earn “truckloads” of money. In an early sequence in the film, the camera trails behind him as he speaks of how he wants to experience all kinds of emotions from unhappiness to happiness. Nishant has a strange fascination with the camera. He wishes to be a filmmaker one day and to marry the woman of his dreams.
Another miner previously worked as a manager in a coal mine but was forced into this life when his wife stole all his money and ran away with one of his laborers. He visits the hilltop when his heart is pained to look at the beauty of his surroundings. In a poignant sequence, he proclaims that if were to meet his wife again someday, he would either kill her for destroying his life or kill himself before her eyes.
There is an instance in the film where Suraj narrates the legend of Dedh-foot to the camera.: “Do you know what’s Dedhfoot? He’s the Lord of the Pit. He’s as black as coal. And he’s just a foot and half tall. If you meet him in the mine, he’ll kill you. You have to fight him- to stay alive. Else you’re dead.” Suraj’s naive tale of Dedh-foot takes the form of a symbol that voices the struggle that every miner faces with the abyss.
Perhaps what makes the film so fragile is the lyrical manner in which the images are pieced together. We don’t see a mechanical plotline thrusting towards a particular direction. We see drops of color on a canvas splattered together to paint a devastating image. Chandrasekhar Reddy’s running commentary gives the film the feel of an intimate video diary. The background score breathes life into the harrowing darkness that is definitive of the abyss. The interspersed narratives flow against each other to speak of precarious gambles and the inescapable will to dream and imagine the beyond even in the darkest of times. The film does not perversely seek to titillate the viewer. For the titillated viewer can only be a passive receiver of images. Instead, it offers the viewer a strange intimacy with the miner and his abyss.
The images are humane and are constructed through an empathetic gaze. The film evokes a gentle silence. Yet, within this silence lies a shattering disquiet. The viewer cannot help but think about the violent nature of the miner’s dreams. For as we gradually come to understand, most cannot escape the abyss.