Alongside making epic-length documentaries about Jagjit Singh and RD Burman over a ten-year period, Brahmanand S Siingh kept working on a feature film about another well-known personality: the child rights’ activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi.
A fictionalised account of Satyarthi’s efforts to free children from bonded labour was written by Siingh and fellow filmmaker Prakash Jha over a decade ago. “We would talk about the story on and off,” Siingh told Scroll.in. “After many hits and misses, the film finally got rolling in 2017. We knew about Kailash Satyarthi’s work, and we thought that here was a beautiful subject that people needed to understand. At the same time, I didn’t want to make a film on him, but his inspiring work.”
In the initial story, a young boy named Babu from a debt-ridden family is sold to a carpet-weaving unit in Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh. Babu’s elder sister, nine-year-old Jhalki, insists on accompanying Babu, but is separated from him. Jhalki’s courageous attempts to find her brother form the crux of the story.
Once the project got rolling, the story developed along with writers Tanvi Jain and Kamlesh Kunti Singh. Jain was added as co-director. After 14 drafts, Jhalki was finally completed this year. It has been doing the rounds of film festivals over the past few weeks, including the Jagran Film Festival and the Singapore South Asian International Film Festival.
Jhalki will be released in theatres on September 27, but for Siingh, the journey doesn’t end there. “We have designed a reach into the interiors – we will charge lower ticket rates, for instance,” Siingh said. “We also have four impact advisers on the project who will take these films to national and international platforms. Commercial prospects are something that can be worked out – are you looking to recover money or are you looking to make a blockbuster? My film is much more about the reach and impact I want to create instead of the money recovered.”
The cast includes professionals such as Divya Dutta, Sanjay Suri, Govind Namdeo, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Joy Sengupta. Aarti Jha plays Jhalki, and Goraksh Sakpal plays her brother, Babu. “We found the talent from the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar belt through our casting director,” Siingh said. “Aarti was low down in terms of our basic preferences. But we realised that she was Jhalki from the way she started opening up in the acting workshops. We saw the fire inside her.”
The framing device for Jhalki, which is used in the opening credits and continues through the narrative, is an animated folk tale about a persistent sparrow who moves heaven and earth to free a trapped seed of grain. “This folk tale is very popular in the northern region,” Siingh said. “Folk stories sound juvenile, but they do hammer home the point – of determination and courage and not giving up.”
Another reason to use the folk tale was to lighten a potentially weighty subject. “I could have made a powerful documentary on the same subject, but I chose a feature,” Siingh said. “If I am trying to create awareness, I have to find elements of entertainment. The folk story helped a lot here.”
Siingh’s experience with documentaries also helped him to make his debut feature. “I felt a great advantage, since the documentary helps you see reality in a very interesting way,” he said. “A feature filmmaker might sanitise or design, but I looked for the raw moments.”
The film was shot in Mirzapur in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where the carpet-making industry has often been accused exploiting child labour through deeply entrenched networks of corruption.
“If you want to create awareness and touch people’s hearts and wake them up, making films like this one becomes important,” Siingh said. “What could be more relevant than children and their childhood?”
Satyarthi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 along with Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, is portrayed by Boman Irani in Jhalki. Documentary footage of Satyarthi and some of his campaigns in the closing credits solders the link between the plot and its inspiration.
“I find it energising that Kailash Satyarthi is doing something like this in India,” Siingh said. “It was important that people relate the film to reality in the end, so we thought we would have him there. When people see this footage, they wake up, and the conversations are on a different level altogether.”