The Bengali film Jhilli, whose title means “Discards”, is dedicated “to all the misfits of society whose voices remain unheard... but they do exist”. Ishaan Ghose’s film is about that class of people you see out of the corner of your eye but never actually notice.
Jhilli is set largely in the Dhapa dumping ground at the eastern tip of Kolkata. Here, Bokul (Aranya Gupta) ekes out a living from whatever he can lay his hands on, including rubble and bones. Narcotic substances numb the brain and help Bokul pass the days, one indistinguishable from the next.
Ganesh (Bitan Biswas) is more enterprising, teaming up with Guddu (Sayandeep Guha) to sell second-hand goods on the streets. The other key characters are the readily despairing Shombhu (Shombhunath) and the frequently harassed trans person Chompa (Sourav Nayak).
Written, shot and edited by a first-time director, Jhilli is designed as a throat-grabbing sensorial experience. The 93-minute film is marked by a fluid narrative style. Scenes throb with rawness and immediacy, providing a scorching view of life in the dumps. Ghose’s camera matches the frenetic movements of its characters, who bound wildly about in an unending hustle for survival.
Jhilli won the top award in the international competition section at the recently concluded Kolkata International Film Festival. The self-funded production had no shooting script and was heavily improvised, Ghose told Scroll.in.
“We shot the film with the Sony a7sii camera and one lens – a Canon 16-35mm – on a hand-held stabilizer,” he added. “We did not have any sound equipment. The sound was recreated completely in post-production with my sound designer Aneesh Basu, which took us a year during the pandemic.”
The makeshift approach mirrors the precariousness that surrounds the film’s characters. Ghose had another reason to work with a skeletal crew.
“I had the responsibility of documenting and making a film about people who are completely neglected and isolated,” he said. “There was no way I could land up in their lives with a big film production crew. The kind of cinema I love is made with great love and is free of any agenda.”
The intense and sometimes uncomfortable visuals place Jhilli on a continuum of films about urban squalor, from Los Olvidados and Salaam Bombay! to Chakra and Mondomanila. Jhilli resembles Mondomanila the most in its freewheeling tone and carnivalesque flourishes in which hyper-realism co-exists with heightened moments.
It’s the kind of film that doesn’t have a production designer. “The locations and the reality of everything make it raw, there wasn’t a thing that was decorated,” Ghose pointed out. “Everything was shot on real locations. We would just rearrange what was available.”
Ghose has a personal connection with his film’s subject matter. “Irrespective of where I come from, I felt isolated and lost all my life like the characters of Jhilli,” he said. “I wanted make a film about people and their suffering and celebration of life. I wanted to do something honest and truthful with my own life, and the only way I could do it is making a film that would take me somewhere unknown. In a society we are in this constant loop where we are so self-centric, we don’t look beyond our blinkers. It was necessary for me to begin my filmmaking with some truth.”
Jhilli includes a tribute to another classic about poverty. The workers at the garbage dump chase a bunch of squealing pigs – a hat-tip to Paar (1984), directed by Ishaan Ghose’s father, Goutam Ghose. Starring Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi, Ghose’s masterpiece includes scenes of the actors herding pigs through a swollen river.
Ishaan Ghose began assisting his father on shoots in 2010. “Over the years, I kept working and fell in love with it [cinema] because it gave me so much to look forward to,” he said. “I learnt everything about filmmaking by working.”
The 34-year-old filmmaker dropped out of school in Kolkata, where he grew up and still lives. In 2008, he enrolled in a music school in New York to study drumming, but dropped out of that course too. “It was disheartening but I’m glad I found filmmaking,” he said.
His family encouraged the switch. “Being around my parents, my sister and I got exposed to great cinema and art since childhood, but nothing was imposed,” Ishaan Ghose recalled. His family members were the only ones with whom he shared the rushes of Jhilli.
Before embarking on his film, Ishaan Ghose shot documentaries and worked on commercials. Like his father, who is also an accomplished cinematographer, Ishaan Ghose described cinematography as “my true love”, a medium through which he can “communicate the best”.
Research for Jhilli began in 2016. The film was shot in around 30 days between 2017 and 2019.
“We shot mostly in and around the Dhapa dumpyard area,” Ghose said. “The bone factory was close to the dumpyard. All the carcasses of the city are dumped there and the bones get ground in machines, which are then used in many purposes, such as gelatin and medicines.”
One of the film’s most striking locations is in the heart of Kolkata, on the domed rooftops of New Market. Like so much else in Jhilli, the shoot was the result of a happy accident.
“We were shooting around New Market on Independence Day,” Ghose said. “All of a sudden a kid came out of nowhere came and suggested we follow him, which led us to the rooftop. They open the gates only on Independence Day.”
In the film, the gradual conversion of parts of the dump into a park threatens to push the characters even further to the margins. In actuality, the park was being built even as Jhilli was being made – yet another example of the ways in which the film erases the line between documentary and fiction.
Jhilli’s characters might be barely surviving, but they are vocal about their plight.
Life is progress, Ganesh says only half-sarcastically. What good is a garden, wonders Shombhu. Couples will come here to make out. It’s a miserable existence in this corner of Kolkata, but the human spirit just about endures.
In Goutam Ghose’s ‘Paar’, an audacious body-and-soul exploration of survival