National Chronicle

Boys can cry

New Delhi,  It was raining when the old woman’s son left for the US. She says the house wept too. She is sitting in the courtyard, alone. Maybe because the rooms are in mourning.

There is a certain rhythm to things in the way filmmaker Harjant Gill’s handles migration in his documentary film ‘Sent Away Boys’ that illuminates the experiences of those who are left behind, of course in addition to exploring the phenomenon of global migration through the framework of gender (specifically masculinity). Rather than following the journeys migrants undertake, he prefers to gaze at how families and communities are transformed by their absence, as well as the circumstances that motivated their decision to leave their home.

If you watch Gill’s three documentaries ‘Sent Away Boys’, ‘Mardistan’ and ‘Roots of Love’ back to back, what strikes most is not the lives of the subjects or the research. But the pregnant pauses. While ‘Mardistan’, a reflection on manhood, addresses the urgent and widespread issues of patriarchy, son-preference, sexual violence, and homophobia in the Indian society, it also presents the responsibilities and challenges confronting Indian men today. A married gay man, who insists that cannot leave his wife for she is not at ‘fault’…

‘Roots of Love’ delicately talks about identity, the turban and hair being representative – a young Sikh man, who has cut his hair, listening, while the mother tells the camera her anguish…

Associate Professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice at Towson University , Gill, a 2020 Fulbright-Nehru Research Fellow, who is at present developing a script which is a Punjabi adaptation of the great American novel, ‘The Great Gatsby’ is also writing his book, ‘Coming of Age in Macholand’.

Though all the three documentaries in the masculinity series were funded by the PSBT (Public Service Broadcasting Trust), the filmmaker agrees that funding for this format is certainly dwindling. “I have stopped applying for funding to Indian institutions primarily because I want filmmakers in India to be availed of those dwindling opportunities. I have been blessed to have a full time teaching position in USA, and I have been pretty successful at getting American institutions to fund my research and film projects. There are of course other trade-offs – I don’t have the kind of time I wish I had to work on my projects given my teaching commitments. I have also been writing a lot about how the distribution landscape has changed in the last ten years, with the arrival of streaming.”

He adds, “And now, with Covid-19, this will force us to innovate and come up with new ways of sharing our work and scholarship. I am ultimately hopeful and excited about the possibilities that emerge out of these new limitations which will lead to innovation in technology of storytelling.”

Talk to him about Punjabi cinema’s obsession with romantic comedies and the unserious depiction of people from this part of the country, and he asserts, “Punjabi men are the biggest audiences of these films and they are very popular among people in diaspora, for instance, my parents who live in CA watch almost every Punjabi film that has been released in the last 20 years. And most them they watch on YouTube. I would argue that Punjabi audiences interact with Punjabi films very differently from Hindi films that feature Punjabis. While Hindi films like ‘Singh is Kinng’ or even DDLJ are seen as “exaggerated” fantasy films where transgression of social norms, such as interfaith or inter-caste marriages are possible, Punjabi films like ‘Tera Mera Ki Rishta’ or ‘Munde UK De’ are viewed as a more accurate/authentic reflection of the reality on Punjab, albeit through rose-colored glasses of transnational migration.

“Even though they are poorly scripted and acted, Punjabi films are more palatable because they don’t transgress social norms around marriage, love, etc… There were films in 1980s such as ‘Long Da Lishkara’, where this was done, but the films that have come out after the 1990s – particularly the “NRI genre” of Punjabi films, are fairly muted in their plot lines… As an interlocutor summed it up for me, ‘Punjabi films are basically a travel video though videsh – you get to see how Punjabis live abroad, you to go on videsh-di-saar, while enjoying AC for three hours, what more do you want’?”

Stressing that with social media, he is seeing a lot of imagination at play, Gill adds, “The young are definitely engaging in everyday artistic expressions – which is how they cope with the utter banality and hopelessness that young Indian are confronting. I just wish there was more critical reflection, more questioning and more challenging of norms that went on among young Indians. Maybe we need to make films that appeal to them and can translate to platforms they prefer? There’s a reason why most of my films have been under 45 minutes. My students in USA, like their Indian counterparts, look interested within 30 minutes. It’s not their fault, they grew up in environment where their attention spans is constantly being interrupted or diverted. Yet, most Indian documentary filmmakers I know are still making films that are two hours long… maybe it’s the filmmaker and storytellers who need to adapt their approach.”

Still in touch with the subjects of his documentaries, Gill checks in with them via Facebook or WhatsApp. “Sometimes even if don’t want/need to talk to them, they call me up just to chat… I quite like the fact that they feel comfortable enough to get in touch whenever they want to talk, sometimes even in the middle of the night. They know as much about my life, as I know about theirs. A subject moved to Canada in Nov 2019. I learned about it via his Facebook page… most Punjabis won’t tell their friends that they are going abroad.. their friends only learn about their migration when they post selfies at the airport. I am hoping to travel to Canada sometime soon, after flights resume, and interview them for follow up interviews for my book.”

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