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.
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