The art of meaningful filmmaking often hinges on the absence of pretenses, and the innate, honest desire to amplify stories buried, overlooked, pushed to the sidelines. Samarth Mahajan’s latest documentary, Borderlands, accomplishes this with great care and nuance, unraveling the differing, yet entangled tales of six individuals haunted by the caverns of displacement and memory, now tinged with a sliver of hope. Capturing the essence of what it truly means to be human amid imperialist conquest and socio-political turmoil, Borderlands explores the gray area between the personal and the political, underlining the subconscious ache that runs through border narratives.
Borderlands opens with an overview of the borders shared by India – a direct entry point into the ambit of the narrative, which introduces Deepa, a Pakistani Hindu refugee who battles the turgid waters of displacement. Aspiring to be a nurse someday, Deepa talks about the practical hurdles of migration, inadvertently tied to the tendrils of personal identity and individual expression. Highlighting the slight variant changes in the tint of patriarchy (although she feels freer in India, the constraints here are also deep-rooted), Deepa remains hopeful that her efforts will bear fruit someday.
Whilst alternating among the six lives Mahajan chooses to focus on, the audience is transported within the home of Surjakanta, a filmmaker living near the India-Myanmar border in Manipur. Intensely aware of the importance of showcasing the truth of everyday existence via film, Surjakanta retells his journey thus far, which is that of a man brimming with the passion to make movies that grant a voice to those silenced. As Surjakanta explains the mechanics of a vintage 3D toy camera, a gift from his father which ignited his love for cinema years ago, the nostalgia and longing embedded within border narratives emerge in a beautiful, despairing stance.
The other tales Mahajan chooses to focus on are rife with varying shades of emotion: some smile to mask the unbearable pain of lost love and separation trauma, while others remain cheerful even against a backdrop of hopeless circumstances. However, the sequence between Mahajan and his mother Rekha, who lives near the Wagha border, emerges as the emotional fulcrum of Borderlands. Their conversations are deeply personal, and Mahajan manages to place himself close to his art without dense self-referentiality – a rare quality that shines through via the film’s consistent ability to balance empathic observation and understated participation.
In essence, Borderlands captures wounds that span generations, while gently unveiling the complexities of marginalization and identity, viewed through the perspectives of gender, nationality, class, sexuality, and the resilience of the human heart. The notion of the ‘other’ is deconstructed in subtle ways. The film’s incredibly realist and grounded aesthetics help elevate Borderlands above amped-up border narratives reliant on theatrical sensationalism. Borderlands concludes its threads on a hopeful note, leaving audiences with seminal lingering questions about contrapuntal identities and the countless lives uprooted and upended by borderlands.
Borderlands is an Indian Documentary Film directed by Samarth Mahajan. The film was featured in 2020 Cannes Film Market and was premiered at DOK.fest München (Documentary Film Festival).