Winner of two National Awards this year and a host of international awards, Children of the Pyre is a haunting documentary that deals with children making a life by stealing shrouds from dead bodies. Shocking, right? That is why Rajesh S Jala, the man behind the documentary, began to capture their harrowing lives on celluloid.
“Actually, I had gone to Benaras to make a film about the city. I didn’t know my subject; I just wanted to explore,” begins the filmmaker, who was in the city recently in connection with a charity event.
“During my stay in Benaras, I went to the Manikarnika cremation ground, which is the biggest cremation ground in India. I spent quite a few days there and one fine day, I saw a kid snatching the shroud from a dead body. I followed this kid and I saw a bunch of children doing this as a business. So, I tried to establish contact with them and continued to follow them. We spent a lot of time together and I thought their story was one that had to be told. So, for the next one and a half years, I followed them with the camera,” reveals Jala on what made him take up such a subject.
Jala says that a cremation ground is a difficult place to shoot as it is a very sensitive location. “I tried to keep a low profile. Perhaps, that is why I didn’t face any opposition from religious organisations,” says Jala and adds that there were other challenges as well. “Initially, when I started shooting, it was very challenging physically as well as emotionally. When you see a dead body, it affects you and scares you. But these children gave me a lot of strength; they inspired me to be there and I continued to shoot them for many months,” says Jala, who awards the entire credit for the project to these children.
To Jala, Children of the Pyre is not only a film, but a mission to change the lives of these kids. Even during the making of the film, Jala says that it was painful to see the children working at a cremation ground. “That’s a horrible thing. I thought I should do something for the children and I approached a leading NGO. They liked my idea and said we could launch a project.”
And so, on September 4, 2009, they launched Project Bhageerathi, which aims at transforming the lives of 300 children working at the different ghats of Benaras. “But I wanted to do something for these seven children, in particular,” says Jala, “An American couple came forward to sponsor the education of the kids and we sent four of them to a boarding school last month. Among the other three, one is a talented dancer and he has joined a dance academy, while the other two will be learning other skills.”
Jala, who is planning to screen the film across the country and launch the DVD of the film in a month’s time, gives two reasons as to why he didn’t choose to make a feature film, despite knowing fully well that it would have a wider reach. “Making a film on this issue would mean a lot of money, and I didn’t have the funds. Also, I thought making a documentary would be more realistic. Documentaries make you believe that something is happening for real,” he explains, but adds that there should be feature films made on such issues.
Jala says that the government, the civil society and the corporate sector have to play a role in rehabilitating exploited children. “Apart from the government, every individual should at least think about it, if not contribute to this cause. This thought process, hopefully, might lead to some kind of effort, which might, in turn, lead to the rehabilitation of more children,” he feels.
WHEN filmmaker Rajesh S Jala’s two documentary films — Floating Lamp of the Shadow Valley and Children of the Pyre —were screened, the audience was left completely awe-struck by the filmmaker’s talent in documenting the lives of these unfortunate and unprivileged children. The former dealt with the life of Arif in Kashmir and the latter about seven children, who make their living out of the dead at Manikarnika, Varanasi.
The two documentaries were screened as part of CANSWER initiative, a day-long programme that also saw an interactive session with directors Balu Mahendra, Madhu Ambat, Rajesh S Jala and Hariharan.
Speaking about the initiative, Dr Rajesh Jeganathan, managing director, Billroth Hospitals and the founder of Dr V Jeganathan Foundation, said, “I started the foundation in the name of my father V Jeganathan. In order to spread awareness on cancer we started CANSWER, a public outreach programme on February 4.” The objective of CANSWER is to create awareness among both, the urban and rural public.
“As part of the initiative, we had these two documentaries screened.
We have also invited students to participate in the short film and photography competitions on cancer awareness so as to reach more people. We’ve received 250 entries till now and there’s a special jury formed to select the winners.
Three winners from each category would be selected. The first prize consists of Rs 60,000 in cash and Rs 30,000 for the photography contest.” On the occasion, CANSWER donated Rs 1 lakh to PLAN, an NGO with whom filmmaker Rajesh Jala has tied up for the rehabilitation of those seven children.
Dr Rajesh Jeganathan also announced that the foundation would sponsor Arif with Rs 25,000 towards his education.
“CANSWER would be a continuous campaign and we would organise many events,” said Dr Rajesh, whose Dr V Jeganathan Foundation has allocated a sum of Rs 60 lakh per year towards treating cancer affected patients and 10 beds have been allocated for these patients at Billroth Hospitals.
“Child welfare is also our priority. The foundation would create awareness on diabetes, heart diseases and AIDS in the coming years,” informed Dr Rajesh.
Sharing his experiences on documenting the life of Arif, a boatman, in his documentary Floating Lamp of the Shadow Valley, Rajesh S Jala said, “I w e n t t o Kashmir in 2 0 0 5 - 0 6 , where I met Arif and it’s an extraordinary story. I was with Arif for a year documenting him in different seasons.
He is in a public school now and thanks to Dr Rajesh for donating Rs 25,000 towards his education.
He is in class seven at present.” Rajesh also added that he went to Manikarnika and developed a special bonding with those seven children, whom he documented in his award-winning documentary Children of the Pyre. “I spent a month there to make a film and I followed those kids for the next one-and-a-half years,” said Rajesh, who then tied up with PLAN, an NGO to rehabilitate these children.
Rajesh informed that four among the seven children are in a boarding school and one joined in a dance academy, as he’s extremely interested in dancing. “We’re working something out for the other two as they’re too old to join in a school, “ he said and added that “Children of the Pyre is not just a film, it’s a mission to try to change the lives of the kids.”
March 24: “I want more people to die.” The chilling statement was not from a psychopath killer but a 15-year-old vettiyaan working at Manikarnika, India’s busiest cremation ground at Varanasi. Like this Raja Choudhury, scores of children working in cremation grounds across the country may now pick up school bags, thanks to a filmmaker who has made a touching documentary on their miserable lives by the dead.
Children of the Pyre made by internationally known filmmaker Rajesh S. Jala, touched several hearts, including that of Rajesh Jeganathan heading the Billroth Hospitals here, who announced a donation of Rs 1 lakh to help get the crematorium kids to schools. “Big thanks to Chennai. This is the first time I got such a big donation for helping those children in Varanasi. My film has won several awards but only now I get the feeling that I have succeeded in my work,” said a beaming Jala, responding to the Billroth donation.
Mr Rajesh Jeganathan said rather than treading the beaten track of holding one-day health camps, the hospital decided to donate for the education of poor children. “Rajesh Jala is well known for speaking out on the problems of children. We were shocked when we learnt about this film on the sufferings of the children in Varanasi cremation ground,” he said, promising more aid for such kids.
The hospital has also decided to help a Kashmiri boy portrayed in Jala’s ‘Floating lamp of the Shadow Valley’ dealing with the tragedy of kids in the Himalayan valley in permanent strife.
Article in "Dear Cinema"
"Children of the Pyre" has been one of the most successful Indian documentaries made recently. It has won awards for Best Documentary at various festivals including Montreal, Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, USA and Sao Paulo besides winning a special jury award at the national film awards of India. The film has been in the competition at Pusan, Leipzig, Munich, Warsaw and Mumbai (MIFF).
The humble Rajesh Jala talks to Ameya Bahulekar and Pratik Singla in Mumbai, where his film is competition for the Golden Conch.
How did you start with ‘Children of the Pyre’ as a project?
I had this fascination for Banaras for ages and I wanted to make a film on Banaras but I didn’t know what. Three years back I visited the place to explore and find a subject. I stayed there for a month and one day I went to this cremation ground and I observed these kids. It was quite a revelation for me. I started following these kids and I thought this is the story I should do.
Since the location was religious and sensitive, what kind of difficulties did you face?
It was very difficult to shoot the film. There was a ‘three tier’ security there (barriers which I had to cross). The official permission was the first obstruction which was not easy to get. The second was the cremators’ community who were not comfortable with the idea of somebody shooting there for months at a stretch. A day of two may be tolerable but not more than that. So I tried to convince them of my intentions. I also got some kind of local support which highlighted the fact that I was really involved with the kids. After a while they did not bother me. The third hurdle was a group of local people (touts) who make their income by minting money from foreigners. There are hundreds of foreigners coming to this cremation ground everyday and they sit for hours there. There touts willingly or unwillingly give out information to them in exchange for money. So I was a big threat to them (with my camera), since what they were doing was illegal. So initially I was intimidated by them subtly and indirectly, but somehow over time we managed to handle them. But the most difficult part was actually being there at the cremation ground, mentally and physically because it is not very easy to be.
How did the relatives of the deceased react to the concept of shooting at that place?
I was asked many times by them to ‘shut up’ and ‘stop it’ and things like that. Then I would just pack my camera and leave because I couldn’t say anything to them. But many months later there were encouraging occasions when a relative protested and a cremator told him- “If you want to cremate the body, he has to shoot it. He is a part of our community and he has been here for months.” It occurred a couple of times.
How did you plan/organize out the shooting?
Around 80-90% of the film is candid. I never planned anything. Only the early morning montages were composed and planned. We would shoot for nights at a stretch and then sleep for days. There is not a single moment of time when I had not spent at the place. During the summer schedule, my intention was to shoot the kids at the peak of temperatures because I wanted to see how they would handle the heat. The temperature had crossed 50 degrees. The crew and I were dehydrated, sick and were literally limping in the last days of the shoot.
What made you continue at such a location?
These kids were so inspirational. All credit to them. Their resilience, struggle, and their strength, gave me strength. They manage their lives without moaning about it. They happily spend their days earning money without care. They just have fun. It’s a very difficult irony which was so inspirational.
How was it working with the kids? What kind of rapport did you have with them?
It was not easy to build a rapport with them with this nature. They reached a level where they asked questions which were not so comfortable. They questioned my existence. Initially they would treat me like a tourist or as a stranger. But gradually when they could see that I was not leaving their presence, just like their shadow, very gradually they became serious. Later on they would be camera conscious. But when you stay there for weeks and months, you become a part of the crowd. I became an integral part of the cremation ground while I was shooting.
Where are the kids now? How are they doing?
It is interesting. I was very keen on doing something for them. Last year I approached an NGO which works for children. They said that it was a very small project and hence they cannot do it. So then I came up with an idea of a bigger project with more houses and more kids which they liked. Eventually on the 4th of September we launched a project which aims to transform the lives of children over a period of five years. For the first six months, ten children were sent to English vocational centre. Every day they learn English for an hour in Banaras. In the afternoon, there is a teacher who comes to their mohalla and teaches almost twenty kids for three hours. This is an initial plan. For six months they would mostly collect data and understand their needs and requirements, to understand how, where and what to do. The organization does not believe in giving money directly, but believes in community transformation. They have also started organizing theatre workshops for the kids. There is also an American gentleman, who loves Banaras and visits occasionally, who has offered a stipend to these seven kids. Four out of seven kids, who are receptive to studies, are going to be sent to pre boarding school. After which we will try to prepare them for boarding school. This is the plan. The journey has begun.
What about the mental state of the kids?
These kids will never be ‘normal’ kids. I have recommended these kids for counseling. They have to be sensitized. So a psychiatrist will probably council these kids and try to bring them back to a normal state of mind.
What do you think about the documentary scene in India? Where do you see it going?
There is talent in India, but no budget. There is always the problem of money. The scene is not very good. So, if there is any kind of support from the state or an organization without questioning their vision and without compromising their intentions that they have set out, it could be better. The audience is there but then again no platform. These obstructions stop the filmmakers to flourish.
"Split Film Festival" tells about the Director of the film
Film: Children of The Pyre
Director: Rajesh S. Jala
Born in Kashmir, India in 1969, Rajesh S. Jala has shot, directed and produced documentaries since 1997. His work has been shown in international festivals and broadcast on Indian and foreign television. In 2006, he made his debut documentary feature, FLOATING LAMP OF THE SHADOW VALLEY, which was selected for the Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival, Palm Springs Film Festival and the Raindance Film Festival in London. His second documentary feature, CHILDREN OF THE PYRE (2008), is another critically acclaimed film which won numerous awards including the Best Documentary Award at Montreal World Film Festival and the Best Documentary Award at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival. The film was also in competition at the Pusan and the Munich International Film Festivals.
Synopsis "Children of The Pyre"
Seven small children work day and night at the biggest crematorium on the planet, located on the banks of the Ganges in the holy city of Varanasi. The children earn their living by keeping the 40 funeral pyres burning 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Hundreds of children and adults, all belonging to the caste of untouchables, work to burn the bodies. Every day, some 150 deceased Hindus are brought to Varanasi by their families. The children's job is to stoke the fire, pluck human limbs off the ground, perform the cremation rites and do other dirty jobs. Director Rajesh Jala reveals their horrible working and living conditions in a captivating cinema-vérité style. Shot over the course of 18 months, Children of Pyre captures the children's misery in a visually superb manner. Searching for the most intriguing moments in the children's life, including their refuge in smoking marijuana, Jala has succeeded in making a powerful and memorable film. There are many documentaries about Varanasi, but it's not often that we get to see a child's vision of hell on earth.
Waking Life and Death: Children of the Pyre review
By Rowena Aquino
Winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary, Rajesh S. Jala's Children of the Pyre takes a direct approach to documenting the lives of children born to work at the Makarnika Cremation Grounds.
The startling documentary Children of the Pyre arrived at the IFFLA last weekend to present the unsettling yet undeniably affecting lives of seven young boys who are among some of the children who work in Varanasi, Banaras, India as cremators. Filmed over the course of 18 months in the "busiest" and most sacred cremation ground in India – the Makarnika Cremation Grounds – located along the banks of the Ganges River, filmmaker Rajesh S. Jala's latest feature-length documentary upends and redefines the meaning of "direct" in direct cinema and its observational, non-interventionist style.
The film is nothing but direct in speaking with and filming the 7 children, in showing the process of cremation, and even close up shots of burning bodies. At the same time, there is no attempt to hide the presence of Jala and the camera mediating the boys' lives. In individual interviews, some of the children like Ravi express desire to end the conversation to go off and do something else, or call Jala on possible prejudice – against, for example, the fact that a majority of the boys smoke marijuana. As such, what one sees on the screen never translates as the result of a claim that "these images give an over-arching view" of these children's lives. The camera does not serve here as a kind of morbid avatar to experience living in and off of funeral pyres like the children, only to stamp upon it during the editing process a narrative arc of happy closure where the children "get out" -- so that spectators can feel good about having watched wretched conditions while not being in the same situation.
So let's say the obvious: the problem with most documentary films that deal with some kind of explicit content, especially when children are involved, is the impulse to contain the subject within the film – by tracing an all's-well-that-ends-well arc for drama's sake. Not that I don't want a happy ending – who doesn't? But the danger, even hypocrisy, in participating in harsh living conditions while filming people and situations is that the rush to the happy ending can all but eclipse the actual everyday lives of those who, unlike the camera (because it isn't human) and unlike the filmmaker (because…well, s/he is a filmmaker), cannot or do not move out. Certainly, Jala wants to help these children and bring heightened awareness to the kind of social system that conditions and perpetuates such child labour. I don't question that. But what I appreciate most about Children of the Pyre is its understanding of the power of "present tense" filmmaking that direct cinema made all but the norm, while realising that direct cinema's "crisis" structure is at the very least defective and suspect.
Jala filmed over 100 hours of footage with the children, their respective families, and the locals that live or work in and around Makarnika. But the resulting film never leaves the cremation grounds, a decision that condenses the visual force of the subject, principally because the children more or less live, work and sleep there. And yes, visually, Children of the Pyre is a difficult film to watch. It's very physical, sensual, in the sense of being aware of the materiality of the body.
Images of the body abound, that result from this mode of living to which the children are more or less born (they are members of the "Dom" community – considered to be "untouchables"): some of the children's bodies are pockmarked due to constant exposure to the pyres (100-150 bodies are burned daily); body parts become detached as the pyre blazes; the burning of skin; the children's faces covered in sweat; the dancing body of a woman on a stage for a festival, located next door to the cremation grounds; Gagan, one of the boys, dancing himself, energetically, perhaps even joyously – to such a degree that he isn't aware of his talent; the piles of silk shrouds that cover the dead, which the boys snatch expertly in order to sell for their livelihood.
"Mode of living," "livelihood"? More like survival.
Children of the Pyre
(Documentary -- India)
By EDDIE COCKRELL
A the Elements production. (International sales: the Elements, New Delhi.) Produced by Rajesh S. Jala. Executive producer, Sharmishtha Mukharjee. Directed by Rajesh S. Jala.
A harrowing vision of a hell on earth, not-for-the-squeamish docu "Children of the Pyre" profiles seven Indian boys who tend an ancient, sprawling, 24/7 open-air crematorium. Helmer Rajesh S. Jala shot for 18 months, and though the narrative momentum is scattershot, his images of children at risk are undeniably powerful. A lock for human-rights-themed fests, the pic will need gutsy cablers and a dignified homevid push to reach appropriate auds.
Manikarnika, which means "earring" in Hindi, is the oldest and largest such facility in northeastern Indian city Varanasi. On the bank of the mighty Ganges, its 14 funeral pyres on ghats, or steps, burn constantly with the bodies of loved ones brought by pilgrims. It’s the "untouchable" kids’ job to stoke fires, pluck errant limbs off the ground, elude adult fists as they scrounge for brightly colored shrouds for resale and keep traffic moving. Appalling work conditions are ameliorated by marijuana and adolescent variations on gallows humor. Pic is dedicated to the "millions of ill-fated children who never get an opportunity to have a normal childhood"; the helmer has begun a fund to raise money and awareness.
Camera (color, DV), Jala; editor, Sheetal Koul; music, Roy Menezes. Reviewed at Montreal World Film Festival (Documentaries of the World), Aug. 26, 2008. Running time: 73 MIN.
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Prod. & Ph.: Rajesh S. Jala
Festivals: Montreal (Best Documentary Award), Pusan, IDFA
Source: The Elements, New Delhi
Ever visited India? If so, Varanasi was almost certainly on your route; tourists arrive here for one reason alone: Manikarnika, the vast open-air cremation grounds on the banks of the Holy Ganges, where more than 150 bodies go up in flames each day with the promise of liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
A great 24/7 industry exists around the rituals of death, providing a living for many people. Scampering between the families of the deceased and the business owners are children for whom the site is a playground. Kapil, Sunil, Manish, Ashish, Yogi, and Gagan, six boys from the “untouchable” class, spend most of their time collecting material to stoke the fires. Ravi, not more than fourteen-years-old, already has experience with the bodies themselves; according to him he has already stoked no less than 1,000 pyres. Without Western self-righteousness or passing judgment, documentarist Rajesh S. Jala followed these children for a year and a half. The average person would do anything to avoid contact with death, but for them, this contact is a means of survival. And, even in the most horrific of moments, children are children. The film’s protagonists represent millions of other children, who instead of going to school, struggle to earn a loaf of bread for themselves and their families.
The following are the other awards announced today:
Best Investigative Film: Distant Rumblings, directed by Bani Prakash Das
Best Animation Film: Prince and the Crown of Stones, directed by Gautam Bengal
Special Jury Award: Rajesh S Jala for Children of the Pyre
Short Fiction Film: Stations, directed by Emmanuel Palo
Best Film on Family Values: Appuvin Nayagan - Spotty (My Hero), directed by Madhavan
Best Cinematography: Three of Us (Shariqva Badar Khan, Filmlab), When This Man Dies (Jayakrishna Gummadi, Adlabs)
Best Audiography: Mateen Ahmad, Children of the Pyre
Best Stations: Manoj Kannoth, Stations
Best Music Direction: Narmeen, Vipin Mishra
Article on indiantelevision.com
Indian docu-feature 'Children of the Pyre' wins Award at Montreal
By Indiantelevision.com Team
(18 September 2008 9:30 pm)
NEW DELHI: Children of the Pyre, a docu-feature shot in Varanasi by Delhi-based filmmaker Rajesh Jala, has been awarded the audience award for the Best Feature Documentary at the recently concluded Montreal World Film Festival.
The 74-minute film, that is about seven young boys who work at the Manikarnika Cremation Grounds on the banks of the Ganges, "created a stir at the festival right from the beginning", Gautam Hooja of Indo-Canadian Films International told indiantelevision.com.
The award was given away at the closing ceremonies at the Theatre Maisonneuve.
Children of the Pyre has been nominated for competition in major well-known international film festivals in Pusan, Leipzig and Sao Paulo.
Rajesh Jala attended the Montreal Film Festival and was present on closing night to personally receive the prize, the only award at the festival for documentaries.
- Montreal World Film Festival, Canada, 2008
- Sao Paulo International Film Festival, Brazil, 2008
- IFFLA, USA, 2009
- Special Jury Award & Best Audiography National Awards India
- Asiatica Film Mediate, Rome, 2009
- Best Documentary & Cinematography, IDPA, Mumbai, 2009
- Special Jury Award, JEEVIKA Film Festival, 2009
Nominated in Competition
- Pusan International Film Festival, 2008
- Munich International Film Festival, Germany, 2008
- Leipzig International Documentary Film Festival, Germany, 2008
- Warsaw Film Festival, Polan, 2009
- Mumbai International Film Festival, India, 2010
- South Asian Film Festival, 2009
- SPLIT Film Festival, Crotia, 2009
- IDFA, Amsterdam, 2008
- IFFI, Goa Official Selection, 2008
- Tampere International Film Festival, Finland
- Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival, Greece
- MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York
- Jerusalem International Film Festival
1st Assistant Director: Raman T. Sharma
email Id: firstname.lastname@example.org
Director and Cinematographer: Rajesh S. Jala
email id: email@example.com
the millions of ill-fated children
who never get an opportunity
to have a normal childhood
Direction & Photography
Rajesh S. Jala
First Asst. Director
Raman T. Sharma
Sanjeev Nandan Prasad
Song “Ud Jayega…”
Singer: Pt. Kumar Gandharv
Translation : Shantiveer Kaul
Vijaye D. Sharma
Chief Production Coordinator
Bharat Singh Mehra
Rajan lal Arya
We are grateful to the warm support of
Ravi, Gagan, Kapil, Ashish, Yogi, Manish, Sunil
and their parents
Late Pt. Arun Kaul
Sanktha guest house
Asian Educational Services
© The Elements 2008