Filmmaker Chandrashekhar Reddy recalls the first time he stepped inside a coal mining pit. It was in mid-2012, near Lad Rymbai, Meghalaya. It was pitch-black, of course, and he could feel the oxygen levels falling as he descended down a slippery wooden ladder, terrified that he might fall off.
When he got to the bottom, he realised he lacked the flexibility to actually navigate the tunnels, the so-called 'rat holes', which are barely big enough for a fully grown adult to crawl through. "I had to be put in a cart and wheeled around in turns by some of the other men working there," he said, in a conversation with HuffPost India. "Despite the lack of oxygen, I saw some of them smoking in there, which, from my knowledge, is quite dangerous, as every mining activity results in the release of methane, which is flammable."
Reddy had the good fortune of being educated enough to fully understand all the dangers of spending close to eight hours a day working in mines such as these. The subjects of his recently released documentary Fireflies In The Abyss, however, either do not or have no choice.
One of them is an 11-year-old boy named Suraj, whose family hails from Nepal. In the film, we see him, a sprightly young lad with one bad eye but plenty of enthusiasm, crawling easily into the 'rat holes' of the area's labyrinthine mines: part of an illegal operation that was only officially banned by the state in April this year.
Fireflies In The Abyss, which got a limited theatrical release across India last Friday, invites us to look at the lives of Suraj and other such miners, many of whom seem to be illegal immigrants from Nepal and Bangladesh. Produced, directed, and shot (largely on a camcorder) completely by Reddy, over a period of six months in 2012, it is a sobering look at a community that seems to be trapped in an ouroboros of mortal danger coupled with deadly addictions. It premiered to strong acclaim in October 2015, at the prestigious 20th Busan International Film Festival in Busan, South Korea. Earlier this year, it was selected for the 23rd edition of the coveted Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto, Canada.
Men and boys, like Suraj, make up this workforce, putting their lives on the line to take home an average of Rs 8,000 per week. As a character in the film notes, that's better money than what labourers working in Saudi Arabia and Malaysia make. However, in the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, these men find little else to spend their money on aside from booze and gambling.
"The first time I visited Lad Rymbai, which is about four-and-a-half hours away from Shillong [the state capital], it felt to me like a 'boom town'," says Reddy. "The roads are non-existent but there's 24-hour truck traffic. Every second shop is a liquor or meat shop. You can see men gambling on the streets."
This vice-laden lifestyle, coupled with the dangerous work they do in mines without any protective gear, makes them age faster than they seem to realise. In the film, one can see that most of them look older than their ages (a result of working in low-oxygen conditions), have rotting teeth, and are constantly coughing (a tell-tale sign of chronic bronchitis).
To gain their trust, however, Reddy had to lead the exact same lifestyle as them for months. "I did everything — drank the same liquor, ate the same food, smoked beedis — but one thing: drinking water," says the filmmaker, who worked as a media professional in Mumbai for 15 years before moving to the United Kingdom in 2009, working for production houses based in London and Bristol developing India-related films. "It was the only thing I compromised on, because the water there is contaminated by coal or just generally unfit for drinking."
Four years after he shot the film, he has lost track of some of the characters, since they keep moving around. Suraj, who works to support his alcoholic father, attempted to give it all up and go to school more than once, but has returned to the area and continues to crawl into rat-holes for coal. Another character, Nishant, who dreamt of becoming a photographer, has returned to Nepal and is currently doing odd jobs in Kathmandu.
Watch the trailer below.
'Fireflies In The Abyss' is playing in select theatres in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Bengaluru, and Kolkata
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