Interview with ‘Borderlands’ Filmmaker Samarth Mahajan

Borderlands Documentary Interview - 2021 Samarth Mahajan Film

Samarth Mahajan’s 2021 documentary Borderlands explores the lives of individuals across different areas of India and examines how citizenship and nationalism help define personal identities. The narratives of these people indicate how geographical locations help develop the foundations of social life. I recently spoke with Mahajan about the choices he made while shaping Borderlands.

Dipankar Sarkar: How did the idea for Borderlands originate?

Samarth Mahajan: There are multiple inspirations [for] how the final idea took its shape. I think I first reflected on the impact of how a life may be affected by the idea of a border after my conversation with a Kashmiri man during The Unreserved (2017). Within the first couple minutes of talking, he opened up about supporting Pakistan, and as we kept talking, he told how his elder brother was in the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force]. Before I could start imagining the kind of dinner table conversations they might be having, he quipped how he had also applied for a government job, and if he got the job, and his remote village received electricity, he’d start supporting India. This was quite counter-intuitive to me, as the mainstream media would have us believe that people exist only as binaries — hardcore nationalists or stone-pelters. To me, Mohammed Amin Mir seemed like an emotionally and rationally complex person like how humans are probably supposed to be.

Over time, the mainstream conversations around borders started becoming more and more violent and binary. Our politicians would have us believe that our neighbors are perhaps our biggest enemies, with all-consuming propaganda around our borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh. Globally too, [Donald] Trump was talking about a wall, the UK was in the process of Brexit. This, to me, is a diversion tactic — so that people lose track of more real issues like inflation, employment, education and freedom of speech. Overall, it was quite suffocating — to see people sitting in Delhi or far away from the borders, creating and politicizing this myopic view of borders and border areas. This image, filled with military and terrorists, lacked space for common people and their concerns. So, the idea became to document stories of people whose lives are directly impacted by borders.

Another important event in the run-up to the actual shoot was a conversation with my mother. She comes from a family which migrated from Pakistan during the partition, and I thought it would be nice to talk to her during my research phase. While talking, she started reflecting on the 2015 terrorist attack on my hometown, Dinanagar, and how she was somewhat happy that day. This was again very counter-intuitive to me. She shared how Dinanagar made national news for the first time that day, and all our relatives remembered her and called her to ask about her well-being. She felt noticed and acknowledged that day. In some ways, the film became a tool to bring acknowledgement to a lot of such everyday lives which remain unnoticed in the midst of all the political noise around us. 

DS: Navigating through the lives of the six characters, we come across the collective spirit of human endeavor. What sort of research were you involved with before beginning the shooting of Borderlands? 

SM: We shot in phases — first along the Pakistan border, then Bangladesh, then Nepal and then the Northeast. Our pre-production process usually started with doing extensive internet research about stories along that particular border, which included reading news articles, academic journals and talking to the journalists and academics involved. We were looking for stories of how borders impact people’s everyday lives, and stories that were not out there in the mainstream. We wanted to bring out different aspects of borderland life — separation, movement, trafficking, conflict, fluid identities. 

For example, we found out about the shelter home for rescued girls in Kolkata through a web article. What fascinated us was how the prolonged repatriation process and the ensuing confinement, after rescue from trafficking, affected the young Bangladeshi girls. It allowed us a possibility to understand their present efforts and hopes of rebuilding their lives — often ignored in survivors’ narratives — and how the presence of a border affected them. So, we approached the founders of the NGO, which runs the shelter home, and after we explained our idea and intention, they introduced us to the girls. That’s where we met Noor.

For other stories, where no NGO was involved, for example, when we were looking for families separated by the India-Bangladesh border, we’d meet the local journalists who would introduce us to the sarpanch or a community head, who’d then introduce us to locals who could be potential characters. That’s how we ended up meeting Dhauli.

We’d usually shoot with four to five characters in every location and on the editing table chose the character who best brought out the theme emotionally and had a clear personal journey. While working on the final cut, we also realized that having more than six protagonists was becoming difficult to follow in the structure we chose because each story and character came with their own context. So, we decided to cap it at that number and allow our characters room to breathe. 

Alongside having a geo-political dimension of borders in the stories, we wanted to bring out borders of a more personal nature — say identity or an axis of marginalization. So, through the stories, we also explore sexuality, disability, gender, class and conflict. Thematically, the unifying factor between characters became that all of them are trying to find meaning in face of the immense personal and political constraints they experience.

DS: Unlike your previous documentary, Unreserved, Borderlands picks up stories of individuals residing across India and presents their trials and tribulations as well as the cathartic journey through the prism of nationality. Are you particularly inclined to such thematic concerns?

SM: As someone who was brought up in Punjab, studied in Bengal and worked across different cities in India — including Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore — I am deeply impressed by the diverse nature of our country. Yet my childhood and teenage years were very sheltered, restricted to my immediate circles. So, for me, The Unreserved was an opportunity to learn about the country and its people. I wasn’t thinking so much about what the final film will say as much as about wanting to just listen to a variety of perspectives about how people’s lives are. It turns out, people’s lives are shaped a lot by the sociopolitical milieu around them, so the interviews and the film ended up yielding insights into the nature of Indian realities.  

After The Unreserved, I took a year off to study liberal arts. That’s when I had the chance to learn more about modern India, specifically about the period around the partition and its after-effects. A reason for intrigue is that I come from the district Gurdaspur which, going by the historical records from that time, could very easily have been part of Pakistan. It amazes me how a bureaucratic or political decision continues to change and shape so many lives. It astonishes me that the last 75 years have created a firm image that we’re different and sometimes enemy countries in the subcontinent.

Borderlands provided me with an opportunity to learn about the diverse cultures in the subcontinent and yet look for things that bind us on a human level. To me, it was very important to preserve linguistic and national diversity. That’s why in both the films we have characters speaking five different languages and hailing from four different nationalities. 

I like to focus on people’s personal lives, as I find it a more authentic approach to depicting reality than documenting someone who talks about external things like politics and ideology, unless they have lived the reality. So, you will usually not find subject matter experts in my films, though they might have a lot to say about the subject at hand. We try to create those meanings on the edit table, and I feel the audiences can too, in their minds, while watching the film.  

Borderlands Documentary Interview - 2021 Samarth Mahajan Film

DS: As a director, you have remained completely objective in your approach to the interview. So, how did you plan those interviews in Borderlands and what were the hurdles, especially to get someone like the young girl Noor, who had been a victim of sex trafficking, to speak about her experiences?

SM: Gaining access to potential interviewees is a perennial challenge and we have learned to accept a “no” as an answer without getting demotivated. We did figure out a process which helped us gain access to most of the locations. We ensured we met our potential characters without any equipment and laid out the norms before starting to shoot and ensured that we were not from a news channel, that we were not going to live-stream our conversations and that we were not interested in sensationalizing their stories. We’d also sometimes show them bits of our past work to convey our empathetic approach. 

In Noor’s case, since the shelter home was managed by an NGO, we first met the founders of the NGO, who then introduced us to Noor. This removed the first hurdle of explaining our intentions from the scratch. Joyona Medhi, who was the direction associate on our shoot along the Bangladesh border, then spent time with her. Once we thought Noor was comfortable, that’s when we decided to start shooting. With the interview, we were sensitive and conscious about not wanting her to relive traumatic events from her life before arriving at the shelter home because everyone’s implicitly aware of how horrific that might be. We had a broad outline of what parts we were interested in — her confined life in the shelter home, and her hopes for life outside it. 

The guiding light to our interviews remained that we did not want opinions on external matters like international relations, history, political events or things that may not be connected to their lives. The focus is on a person’s internal life, and sometimes the process is as simple as asking them chronological questions about it informally. It’s important to dig deeper on parts they talk passionately about, and not cut them mid-sentence, in fact — allow for ample pauses before posing questions so that they can carry on with their train of thought. That way, the conversation usually steers into a more intimate yet comfortable space for the interviewee. 

DS: Rekha Mahajan, your mother, who appears in Borderlands, at one tender moment breaks down into a sob. You try to console her by hugging her endearingly. In such a scenario, as a filmmaker, how do you try to maintain the distance from your subject who happens to be so close to you?

SM: I usually do not see my film’s characters as distant subjects. My approach as an interviewee or a presence in the film is quite participatory and you can see me crossing that distance many times. Even with Deepa, Nupur [associate director] and I re-enacted a scene from her time in Pakistan as a nurse. The distinction between the filmmaker and the characters usually gets created because there are more creative decisions to be made. 

For example, the most important thing is to realize whose story it is, and that reflects in the cinematographic choices too. Since the story was my mother’s, even though I am emotionally overwhelmed and responding to her emotions, the camera stays on her. That creates some distance between the audience and me. Also, during the edit, in some scenarios, we remove portions where it may seem like the story is becoming too much about me. In that sense, I feel it is important for me to have collaborators like Omkar [the cinematographer] and Anadi [the editor] who bring in a more objective lens. 

DS: One of the Borderlands characters, Surjakanta, who had experienced difficulty in the past with the state machinery regarding the content of his films, does not comment at all on the present burning political issues in Manipur. I believe that would have added a political subjectivity into the Borderlands narrative. What are your thoughts?

SM: Surjakanta describes Manipur’s relationship to the Union of India, and for me, that’s the most relevant political context one needs to start understanding his film work. His comment on “Manipuris being able to tell their own stories” is deeply political — since subaltern voices [sub-national/separatist] often get subsumed by mainstream narratives. I usually do not like individuals to explain events and issues beyond their lived experiences, as it starts bordering on conjecture. So, the political subjectivity in the narrative emanates from the personal context. 

DS: Share your collaboration with Anadi Athaley, the editor. How did he contribute to shaping the structure of Borderlands?

SM: I respect Anadi’s humane gaze towards people and their stories. He has the patience to surf through a lot of what I believe is really disorganized footage and a knack for finding genuine intimate moments in it. He likes to bring his own storytelling quirks to the narrative. In that way, the edit becomes a collaborative process where we try to reach a story we both want to tell. 

With Borderlands, when we came back from our first schedule along the Pakistan border, Anadi and I together surfed through all the footage. That is when it started becoming clear to us that we should stick to focusing on one character at a particular location. We had attempted a few stories with multiple characters, but we figured approaching stories like that can dilute the emotion and also make the overall film complex to follow.

When we started editing, Anadi had this idea that we should try and break the stories into two parts — one for context and introduction of the characters, and a second to illustrate the impact of borders on their lives. This way, we could engage with the characters first as simple human beings, without any agenda, and then understand their sociopolitical situations. This allowed for multiple meanings to emerge through crisscrossing between the stories based on emotions and contexts, and also gave each of the characters their own space irrespective of how grave or normal their situations were. 

DS: How was your journey with the other crew members who helped you make Borderlands?

SM: Ashay Gangwar [the co-producer], who first backed the idea… I’d probably not be making non-fiction films if not for Ashay’s vision for Camera and Shorts. He produced The Unreserved and kept nudging me into making this film too. Devaiah Bopanna and Sunil Doshi [the co-producers], and the team at All Things Small,  who I bumped into while they were looking to begin their foray into non-fiction storytelling — one of the core concerns for a storyteller is control over the narrative, and luckily I found co-producers who resonated with the stories the film wanted to tell and enabled it in every way possible. 

Omkar [the cinematographer], who has visually imagined and produced both my feature documentaries. Omkar and I have an informal way of approaching shoots, where a number of things remain hazy while we search for genuine emotions and details. Nupur [the associate director], who was like a soulmate on the project. If not for her diligent research and flexible relationships across locations, we wouldn’t even find many of our characters and stories. It was a process for a control freak like me to start trusting someone with crucial decisions, in the pre-production and on the shoot. She gave it 100 percent. Joyona Medhi, Ritu Konsam, Ankita Agarwal [direction associates on the Bengal, Manipur and Nepal shoots, respectively], who joined the project in phases and brought emotional and linguistic authenticity to the narratives. 

It was great to find crew members who maintained a deep focus on why we were traveling in the first place: to tell an authentic story by listening to what our characters had to say.

Borderlands Documentary Interview - 2021 Samarth Mahajan Film

DS: Borderlands had a successful crowdfunding campaign with Wishberry. Can you share your strategy?

SM: The most important things about the crowdfunding process were to ensure we used our previous national award from The Unreserved to bring legitimacy to the campaign. The next approach was to build a good pitch video, and it took us four iterations to realize we should do it in Hindi instead of English, as that brought out my emotions the best and got a perfect confident smile at the end. We keep our closest friends and family ready to contribute right at the launch, and that involves overcoming the initial anxiety around having conversations of financial nature. A good launch helps the campaign gain subsequent backers. We also organized screenings of our past works during the campaign and built consistent hype — both offline and online. And finally, the most important thing is to “follow up.”

It was a lot of hustle, and we were lucky that many people beyond our networks resonated with the idea too. We were amazed and touched by the response, which reaffirmed our faith in the project. Apart from being partly crowdfunded by 557 contributors, Borderlands is a co-production between two companies, All Things Small and Camera and Shorts.

DS: How important are all these film festivals for you?

SM: Film festivals are important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because they allow an independent film like ours to be introduced to audiences across the globe. As a storyteller, it is heartening to know that someone sitting on a different continent is able to connect with people from a very different cultural background. It’s an affirmation of how the human experience is universal in some ways. Secondly, they also allow an indie film to have a genuine chance at distribution. The way the markets work, unless you have got a celebrity onboard or the film is about something sensational, there’s a minute chance that any buyer will take it seriously. So, festivals are one way to bring some legitimacy to the film. We received a television distribution deal in South Korea after a festival screening, which is fascinating to me as we continue to find a release in India.

Apart from that, festivals are great to travel and network with fellow filmmakers [and also to] get to know some brilliant people while watching great films. Unfortunately, we only had online premieres due to the pandemic, so that element is missing from my experience with Borderlands, but this is surely a highlight for anyone who makes independent films and screens at film festivals.

DS: Lastly, how do you perceive the current scenario of documentary filmmaking in India?

SM: The documentary industry in India is still in its infancy. Most consider making documentaries a niche choice, and many documentary filmmakers themselves shift to making fiction films. One of the major reasons for this situation is that the knowledge about how to fundraise and exhibit documentary films remains fairly opaque, aggravated by the fact that such opportunities are even more limited if one wants to focus on a domestic audience. The word “documentary” is often confused with “boring” and “didactic” in the Indian context. 

This is changing for the better through the persistent efforts of organizations like DRI [Documentary Resource Initiative], who run two great programs especially suited for young filmmakers — Let’s Doc Fellowship and Docedge Kolkata — and financial patronization by PSBT [Public Service Broadcasting Trust[ and IFA [Indian Foundation for the Arts]. An OTT platform like Netflix is now exhibiting non-fiction content about Indians, produced by Indians. Though some of their shows are better categorized as reality shows, they have also aired an independent non-fiction series like Alma Matters — Inside the IIT Dream, which to me is a commercial breakthrough for Indian non-fiction. 

Another noteworthy development is the sprouting of production studios that focus on creating non-fiction content that aims to entertain while informing. They are very important to this milieu, as we need to balance the business and creative visions behind a non-fiction project. Filmmakers often lose track of who their audience is. Such production houses can bring focus to finding the right audiences and enable non-fiction ventures to become self-sustainable.

Lastly, the success of this year’s documentary films like Writing with Fire, which won two awards at Sundance and continues a golden run across the globe, and A Night of Knowing Nothing, which won the top recognition for documentaries at Cannes, is a testament to how the Indian documentary tradition can contribute to the global canon of worthy storytelling.

Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.