Director, Chandrasekhar Reddy:
While Meghalaya is an ideal destination for tourists, the east Jaintia Hills, a district that was formed as recently as 2014, is slightly different. Vast meadows and lush landscapes are interspersed with mounds of coal lying across hundreds of dumping grounds. The same year, The National Green Tribunal banned rat-hole coal mining across the state. The extremely hazardous process involves crawling to dark pits in order to dig out the black gold under. While we are still reeling under the impact of what is being called the year of forest fires in India, the government is putting more forest lands up for clearances to mining sites. Aside from destroying ecosystems, this industry is also known for exploiting child labour. Chandrashekhar Reddy’s documentary, Fireflies in the Abyss takes you through these black holes, unravelling the lives of the miners before the ban.
Hailing from the Nilgiris, Ooty, Reddy works as an independent director-producer making commissioned films for channels such as Nat Geo and Discovery. Reddy shot the movie in 2012, while shuttling between Uk and india. Coalboy was his short that first emerged as an offshoot of the main film.
Fireflies in the Abyss has been previously screened at the Busan International Film Festival and the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival where it received awards for Best Film and Best Camera. the documentary first showed up in an unedited version at Good Pitch, a forum for funding, marketing and distribution that was held in Mumbai in 2014. And most recently, it was at Hotdocs—North America’s biggest documentary festival. He spoke to Platform about the film.
It was while researching for another film in Meghalaya that you met the three boys who took centrestage in your short, Coalboy. Where did you find them?
What took me to Meghalaya initially was helping with research and development for a film on sacred forests for a production house in the UK. when the work was done, I stayed back an extra week to understand the deeper dynamics of the mining region—it was fascinating, with so much going on. Like most people within India, I was unaware of what was actually happening in the region. I was shocked, and yet excited by the frontier boomtown dynamics that I encountered. It is not just coal mining; there is widespread limestone mining in the same area. And more recently, uranium has been discovered too. With poor legislation, it is free for all. There was vast immigrant labour coming in from neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal. And the floating population has given birth to numerous issues—rampant gambling, prostitution, drugs, AIDS and human trafficking. There is simmering tension between the locals and the immigrants; neighbouring villages are fighting among themselves over land; most of the villages will have no drinking water after 25 years or so of mining and there is uncontrollable destruction of forests and rivers. And of course, the law has been dysfunctional. It was mind-boggling to make sense of all that, let alone form a coherent narrative. But I thought telling the story through some kids was a good way of entering the situation. And I shot with the three boys to form a teaser. I was hoping to raise funds with it. I was introduced to these boys through an NGO based in Shillong.
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