Nepali immigrants who spend their days working in the dark coalmines of Jaintia Hills, in Northeast India don’t lead a light existence. Chandrasekhar Reddy’s documentary explores the adversities and the daily struggle of the miners revealing the unbelievably extreme and dangerous working conditions.
We come across men of different age, such as Nishant – probably in his 30s – and Subba – of middle age, but the most significant and striking character is, without a doubt, the 11-year old Suraj. Working at the mine to take care of his family, Suraj has characteristics of an adult. As his alcoholic father and his elder sister can’t provide anything for him, he has taken his life on his own hands hoping for a better future. He cooks, he fishes in the dirty muddy river and he digs in the pitch-black ‘rat-holes’. His look reveals a childish innocence, in contrast to a strong sense of maturity. When the narrator asks him about going back to school, he replies “How long will I live off others?”.
The documentary offers a strong observation of the inhuman working conditions and brutal child labour in a developing country such as India. But apart from that, it does more. It comments on the exploitation of the immigrants. It is the Nepali immigrants who go through this incredibly brute process – working in the illegal coal mining. The documentary also contains still photographs of the miners, reminding photojournalism.
There is a strong aesthetic and symbolic contrast between light and darkness in the film. On the one hand, we dive into the claustrophobic mining holes, with the only spark of light being the miner’s head torches. The camera – often attached to the trolley that the men use to collect coal in – illustrates the suffocating atmosphere and the lack of space and light. The need for escape is directly transferred to the audience. We become witnesses of the horrible working conditions that can cause physical pain and sometimes even death. This abyss of darkness and desperation is highly contrasted with the soft-sunlight ‘road trip’ shots. The camera, now attached at the front of a vehicle, either car or truck, takes us on a drive through a regional road. Although what we actually see is a bunch of trucks, the movement of the camera, accompanied by the country-like soundtrack, gives a sense of freedom and escape.
As the narrator mentions, “Once in the pit, they all look for a chance to break out. Some escape, most don’t.” The only way for a descent life is escaping from the extraordinary and horrendous circumstances of the coalmines. This is the case for Suraj’s family, who decide to return to Nepal. However, the 11-year old boy is ‘old’ enough to make his own decisions and act independently; he stays behind with a group of friends and enrolls himself in a local school. The film ends with a feeling of hope for a better future. As the title suggests, there is a spark of light, there are still many fireflies in the abyss…
Fireflies in The Abyss showed in the UK last month as part of the London Indian Film Festival, but you can catch it now on BFI player. You can find out more information about distribution and exhibition of the film worldwide by clicking here. And you can also watch the film trailer below: