One Side of the Road series

Synopsis

A small village in Tamil Nadu in southern India has a road running through it. This road is a border that divides the habitats and it is a gateway to a larger world, the nearby industrial city, a means of possible emancipation for some, but the enslavement of others by the spatial segregation of castes in these rural areas of southern India. Between 2019 and 2021, four Dalits (“untouchables”) from the same village tell a story of permanent daily struggle: over-indebtedness, poor working conditions in the sugarcane fields and brick kiln factories, domestic and social violence, political unrest. These four characters describe their daily lives in four episodes.

Four episodes that form a life path around two extraordinary years marked by an international pandemic and its harsh economic and social consequences in the rural Indian world. Fragile lives on one side of the road, a ‘feeding’ partition of the territory; a road providing access to new jobs, education, a way to financial and social emancipation; but also segregating people on the basis of their social identities, that are created depending on the side of the road to which their destinies are entwined. A road that brings them together, at the same time.

Technical details

Format: 4 episodes of 25 minutes
Genre : large audience documentary
Language: Tamil, English
Subtitles: French, English

Director: Jalil Nordman

Script: Jalil Nordman
Images: Jeremy Carroll, Idrissa Guiro
Editors: Bastien Gens, Jeremy Carroll
Music composer and English narration: Shanks Kini
Translations and subtitles: Jasper Daniel, Jalil Nordman, Bruno Morat
Production: Butternut Productions and IRD (audiovisual department)

Genesis of the documentary 

Tamil Nadu, March 2019. We meet four “Dalit” villagers grappling with their daily difficulties in a small village of Tamil Nadu, near Panruti, around 60 km away from Pondicherry. A village intersected by a road, a border that divides villagers’ habitats, but also a road that allows escapes to the near industrial city, movements of people, the needful displacement of everyday life, a way to possible emancipation of some, but enslavement of others, through caste spatial segregation in these rural areas of South India. The four characters, Vijaya, Rhagavan, Pandy and Lakshmi, tell a story of everyday constant struggle: over-indebtedness, bad working conditions in sugar cane fields and brick kilns, domestic and social violence, sometimes political unrest.

In the spring of 2020, the COVID pandemic struck without warning bringing the world to a standstill. The lockdown in India, one of the harshest in the world, was implemented in just four hours after the news of the pandemic was announced. Millions of lives in the vulnerable segments of the society were the first to feel the heat of the lockdown. Migrant workers living precarious lives, with their plight tied to daily wages from seasonal jobs, found themselves unable to go to work, unable to repay their debts, unable to sell their agricultural production, and unable to fulfill even their basic needs. In these rural areas of Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, agricultural activities were interrupted and people had to rely on their own resources and families.

Tamil Nadu, May 2021. We meet again Vijaya, Rhagavan, Pandy and Lakshmi we interviewed two years back. How has the pandemic changed their lives? Have these fragile individual trajectories been inflected? These people faced an unprecedented catastrophically event. But to what extent were the tremors felt locally, in their villages, their families, their finances and in their minds?

Away from a factual narration of this unprecedented international shock, this film documentary actually offers crossed portraits of four common characters of a Tamil village in India, with a micro level incursion into a rural life where time seems to have stopped, despite the turpitudes of the world surrounding it: Vijaya and Lakshmi, two women seasonal labourers, a generation separating them, still facing similar uncertainties and concerns in their everyday life of working women; Pandy, watchman in Pondicherry at times, expert in ingenuity at others, the smiling face of his village every day and, since returned to his own village, an exhausted and aging daily worker. Rhagavan, an over-indebted and disillusioned rickshaw driver, struggling on a daily basis on the Tamil Nadu roads, while trying to escape the greediness of his financial creditors.

The precariousness of the characters made the making of this documentary complex, with a need to alternate between the urgency of filming and the necessity to write the film. The documentary was first meant to appear in a 50-60 minute movie, but we then decided to create four related episodes instead, so as to give an independent voice to each character.

Music composition note

The series One Side of the Road benefits from an original music. It took advantage of the proximity of the film crew to the field to create musical compositions from local music as practiced by folk musicians of the Tamil Nadu villages. The artistic musical production was directed by Shanks Kini. Shanks is a professional Indian musician, independent music producer and multi-instrumentalist (guitar, bass, violin, mandolin, trumpet…) based in Auroville, India. He explores the different genres of jazz, blues, rock, folk and funk. His encounters with Jalil Nordman during musical exchanges between them convinced him of the interest of taking part in the project and using his experience: to record sound and music locally (rhythmics, songs) in order to produce melodically and harmonically original music from this material.

For the documentary series, he thus composed and interpreted a rhythmic, melancholic and playful music, all at the same time. It borrows the spirit of the sound from the villages of Tamil Nadu, while diverting its sonorities to make it feel something both familiar and foreign.

Episode 1: Vijaya

Narrative portrait

Vijaya and her husband Veeramani have three children: Veepika, Vibinika and Vibisreya. She used to migrate to the neighboring state to work as a laborer in brick factories, under informal seasonal contracts with advance payments, a form of bonded labor that is common in India. She and her husband faced many hardships during these jobs, with young children to support in addition to her daily labor. her daily work. None of them knew how to make bricks, and Vijaya and her husband Veeramani had to learn the job on the job. Veeramani later gave it up Veeramani later gave it up and fell into alcoholism. Vijaya is now alone to bear the mental and physical the mental and physical needs of her family. Vijaya testifies with strength and emotion to these episodes of constant and daily struggle: poor working conditions, the trap of debt bondage in the sugar cane fields and the and brick kilns, domestic and social violence. Over the course of two years, she shows an astonishing resilience and a formidable strength of character allowing her to overcome the to overcome the difficulty and poverty of her daily existence.

Episode 2: Pandy

Narrative portrait

Pandy, as he is known in the village, is 54 years old, married to Kalaivani, and has two sons and a daughter. His children are all married, marriage being a central institution and a strong social marker in rural India.

Pandy testifies to various episodes of his daily difficulties: a feeling of abandonment and humiliation on the part of his sons in his village, as they no longer help him and seem to have abandoned him to his fate as an aging day laborer. A village that he wishes to leave, while he experiences increasing difficulty in finding a stable job; the vicious circle of over-indebtedness linked to his family commitments (the huge dowries paid for the marriage of his daughter and niece), and the pre-emption of his only property – his house, unfinished – by bankers who seek to take advantage of the pandemic and to recover the interest on his various loans A physical suffering because of his age to do the only – physical – jobs he still manages to get; a painful (and funny) episode of arrest for alcohol trafficking when he was trying to fraudulently sell a few bottles of Brandy during the confinement where the sale of alcohol was strictly forbidden and overtaxed in Tamil Nadu; his daily alcoholism, totally assumed.

Pandy is nevertheless a talkative, funny man, with eyes sparkling with mischief. He gives the impression of hovering above his daily misfortunes, with agility, a communicative good mood. He is a man that you meet every time you go to the village, present and welcoming, with his little children in his arms. The smile of the village in spite of his setbacks.

Episode 3: Raghavan

Narrative portrait

Rhagavan has important family obligations as the head of a household, father and uncle of marriageable daughters.
In 2019, he offers a tense and accurate description of the problems of political violence in his village, of discrimination against his low caste, a dalit (former untouchable), a village he had to leave to escape this violence. He seemed very distressed. He said he got along well with his sister, an important support for him. This is no longer the case in 2021. Instead, this year he describes a daily struggle to survive in a time of pandemic, with debts, including the loan on his rickshaw that he can no longer pay back. The incessant and insistent calls from his creditors to pay back his loan, calls that he no longer dares to take. The small jobs of compensation, his anguish to leave his rickshaw of the eyes for fear that his creditors take it back to him. The days are then spent in his only property, where he feels free paradoxically (“myown boss”), in the interminable waiting of the eventual customer on the deserted roads in times of confinement. He tells of the turf battles between rickshaw drivers to win the rare customer.

Working in the sugarcane fields during the pandemic, which was hard work, helped him earn enough daily to support his family and pay off his debts, but this work in the fields has been interrupted recently because of the successive confinements. Today, he is caught in this spiral of indebtedness and a poverty trap: family loans on his back (dowry for his nieces’ wedding), a huge loan for the purchase of his rickshaw, which he has to pay back every month; but he does not work enough anymore because of the confinements: not enough customers, as most of the roads are closed. The new traffic regulations linked to the confinement mean that he can only be on roads where there is little or no travel.
He talks about alcohol too, weekly for him (“on Sundays”), probably necessary, to relax from a trying life.

Episode 4: Lakshmi

Narrative portrait

Lakshmi is a 55-year-old woman of character, married for 39 years. She has experienced a integration into her new home when she married at the age of 16, having to live with her living with her husband’s in-laws, like all young wives in rural India. Her husband is the youngest of six brothers. They all live in the same house, one cramped room, with their wives and children. In the villages of South India, the young married woman must integrate into this extended family, physically of course, morally too, with the associated burden, in homes that are often too small to accommodate all the daughters-in-law, husbands/ sons, and their children. This form of “patri-localism This form of “patriotism” is ancient and resists time.
Lakshmi had to find a way to free herself from this hold, from this family straitjacket, through work, through these periods of seasonal migration.  to the brick factories in neighboring states, from which she was able to draw a benefit, a form of freedom, but at the price of great sacrifices – the loss of a young child, her first son who died in infancy, entrusted to the family, probably for lack of care.
She lived this first period of her adult life both as a form of personal emancipation  and also as a way to live her own history, to build an armor, that of a woman who became a maistry (intermediary between the employer and the and the employees, a form of foreman). Recognized and central in her host village (she comes from a neighboring village), now the cement between her sons and grandchildren around her, whose children around her, whose choices she dictates (marriage of course, the work of her daughters-in-law a fair return to her state of being 40 years ago), she radiates by her stature of a mature woman who has become free and independent. She testifies on the period of the covid, her beliefs and certainties about the ineffectiveness of the vaccine, about state aid in times of confinement. She also appears in the center of scenes of collective work of women in the fields, which she seems to have become the charismatic leader. She is the one who, on the road to the village, finds the tricks for picking and harvesting the Tamarind.
Lakshmi thus appears, like a mirror effect a generation apart, as the counterpoint to Vijaya of the firstepisode, their testimonies resonating through time: that of strong, resilient women, struggling with the rigidity of their destiny.


Contact

Christophe Jalil Nordman
IRD-DIAL,
4, rue d’Enghien,
75010 PARIS, FRANCE.
jalil.nordman@ird.fr

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