Children of the Pyre tells the story of seven young boys who survive by working as cremators at Marnikarnika in Benares, India’s busiest cremation ground. The film is a celebration of comradeship, creativity, strength and the human will to survive in the most unforgiving of environments.
RAJESH JALA’S documentary, Children of The Pyre is a film made according to true humanist tradition. It is the story of seven young boys in India and their lives working in the cremation grounds on the banks of the Ganges River in the Northern Indian town of Benares. The boys are seen as menial workers even by the older cremation workers. It becomes clear that they earn considerably less, both monetarily and in terms of status, than the adults doing the same work. The boys work long hours in harrowing conditions and lead extremely dark lives. Out of necessity they supplement their incomes by collecting the death shrouds after they are removed from the dead bodies. The boys are persistently subject to loathing and aggression on the cremation grounds yet they continue to endure, and more importantly, to imagine a better future.
VISUALLY THE FILM is exceedingly evocative. Jala prefers to shoot close-up, giving his viewers a direct line to the characters’ lives whether they are ready for it or not. The crackle of the flames combine with shots of burning bodies – they are intercut with children’s faces lit only by the light from the burning pyres. This is a powerful visual representation of the undesirability of a society that sanctions child labour in the ritual of cremation.
The dominant colour of the film is orange. Orange for the flames of the funeral pyre and eventually orange for the morning sun and the reflection it generates on the Ganges River. For the first 20 minutes of the film we do not see daylight giving it a film noir, nightmarish quality. Then under the hot sun of the Northern Indian plains, the same rituals play themselves out again: the carrying of the body, the manual incineration of the corpse and the boys’ often dangerous attempts to steal the death shroud once it is removed from the body, while avoiding the sometimes violent retribution of the older cremation workers.
The filmmaker is particularly adept at capturing the boys as they try to steal the death shrouds which they then sell for a few rupees each. They use a mix of casual stealth mixed with a child-like vigour, but at all times their sole aim is to acquire the shrouds. As a viewer, one wants them to succeed and this compassion is surely generated through Jala’s outstanding ability to empathise with and depict the harshness of their lives.
In one tragic sequence, the father of two of the boys, Yogi and Kapil, is shown singing drunkenly, obviously a broken man after a lifetime of work at the funeral pyres. The next shot shows Kapil and another boy Gagan, opening a bottle of alcohol and pouring it into two glasses. Their merriment is short-lived however as Kapil’s father catches them and slaps his son. Despite the father’s ironic yet understandable anger the obvious question the scene poses is: “what chance do they have of avoiding a lifetime of poverty and substance abuse?”
PERHAPS THE FILM’S true genius lies elsewhere, independent of the burning bodies and the boys’ seemingly wretched lives. Pursuing his subjects with remarkable vigour, Jala followed them over a two-year period and the intimacy he developed with these hardened characters truly comes through on film. Inch by inch Jala slowly divests them of their status as cremators and assuredly reveals their inner personas which, like any other human beings, are far more complex and definitively independent of their occupation.
At one point Jala cleverly places himself in the role of his perceived middle-class audience by asking one of the boys why he smokes hash.
In another scene two of the boys perform, somewhat mockingly, their version of the last rites upon the unclaimed corpse of a homeless man. At first their seemingly hardheartedness may be seen as callousness – perhaps Jala’s inclusion of this scene is just as much to illustrate that a certain amount of desensitisation is necessary to perform the job day after day. In another sense too, the boys provide some type of dignity to the final stage of a life which would otherwise have gone unnoticed. Jala’s acknowledgement of the basic humaneness of his characters, including their flaws, is the most impressive part of the film.
The film refuses to exoticise the process of cremation and forms a remarkable insider’s account. It also poses a number of questions about Western attitudes to death. After seeing Children of the Pyre one may well ask: “are Western practices and rituals linked to death and mourning – complete with expensive wooden coffins and catered wakes – designed to shelter people from much of the reality of death?” Perhaps Jala himself answers this question through his editing. When the film was cut for Western networks the producers required that virtually all of the shots of burning corpses be removed. These are undoubtedly shots that are crucial to the overall narrative and atmosphere of the film.
UNDERSTANDABLY, AFTER spending so much time with his characters and absorbing the reality of their lives Jala presents them in a somewhat heroic pose. Most notably however, the filmmaker has joined forces with PLAN international to create a program designed to improve the lives of more than 300 underprivileged children in Benares. This has also meant that, as a result of their participation in the film, the seven characters have been able to leave their work as cremators and start attending school. In this sense at least, as well as being an outstanding narrative on endurance and survival, Children of the Pyre is a film with a happy ending.