Bittu

FILM STILL

Bittu

I have often wondered whether the incessant bombardment of tragedies so grossly dishonoured by the selfish agenda of news agencies, spewing out statistics and figures, builds our apathy. The clearly delineated numeric information in actuality, contains within it unmeasurable loss and grief but compassion is rarely shown in the great need to hold someone responsible. The 2013 Bihar midday meal tragedy, that led to the death of many children due to careless pesticide contamination of their meals, is one such incident. Karishma Dev Dube’s short film ‘Bittu’, inspired by this incident, re-imagines the tragedy and pulls focus towards the innocent people who lost their lives. “When there’s a tragic incident in the news, or in our phones on a daily basis, we tend to normalise the violence and learn to sort of put it away. This film’s intent was to humanise the figures of this incident, to show that they were real people with strong relationships with each other, specific ambitions, big dreams.”

Bittu FILM STILL

FILM STILL

The film begins with our introduction to Bittu and her friend Chand. Bittu is vivacious, fearless and raw. In the first few minutes, her friendship with her alter ego, Chand, takes centre stage. Immediately, the viewer becomes invested in Bittu’s life, reminiscing their own school friendships, an ingenious accomplishment by the filmmaker, especially since the film is only seventeen minutes long. “Bittu’s character was always my point of entry into the film. I wanted to portray a girl beyond her years, unaware of traditional gender norms and an individual within a very uniform society. The film centres on a close friendship between two girls and their experience details a lot of the subtleties of girlhood and systemic negligence that I experienced or observed growing up,” Karishma explains.

Bittu

FILM STILL

As the film progresses, we see Bittu and Chand in school. The classroom and school scenes are imbued with remarkable authenticity. “I wrote and developed the film over three years. I had what felt like a finished draft when I flew home for my first research trip early in 2018. With the help of the NGO Pratham, I was able to tour government schools in and around Delhi, to learn more about the specificities of the classroom culture in this world, as well as the midday meal scheme. I came back to New York and rewrote the world to what I had seen,” shares Karishma. As her narrative becomes more personal from hereon, the effects of it can be seen in the way she has made this film. “The story became a sort of tribute to my most formative friendships in boarding school, reflective of my own difficult relationship with authority and explored my own resentment towards prescriptive grammar, when used as a tool of superiority in India,” she elucidates. As Bittu’s unabashed nature alienates her from her peers and puts her in trouble with authority figures, small inklings of the tragedy about to befall this smal lcommunity begin to appear. In contrast to this wave, the Himalayan hills, against which the film is set are quiet with indifference, regarding the disaster from a distance.

Bittu

FILM STILL

“I’d like for people leave the film with the sense of love, respect and admiration for these kids, the kind I found working with them and having proximity to their lives. This film is about simple people from a remote place, but they are happy, self-sufficient, brilliant in many ways. This tragedy was a consequence of a mundane, careless mistake — it could happen anywhere, there’s nothing tragic or evil about these specific people or this place,” says Karishma. It is important then to give recognition to the actors whose incredible performances make the film extraordinary. Incredibly, most of the cast are first time actors. “With the help of my friend Nirvana Sawhney, I structured theatre workshops for the communities near the location of the film, that would also serve as auditions for big groups of children. A few weeks into the process, I found one community twenty minutes away from our location. I had just walked in when Rani emerged and came right up to me with, ‘What’s up, you want to play?’ I said yes and she disappeared for a while before returning with a big group of kids. Her confidence was electric. We found Renu, who played Chand, in the same community, two homes away from Rani’s. They were completely different, embodying the two characters with such odd accuracy, it felt too good to be true,” recalls Karishma.

Bittu

THE MAKING

As I explored the uniqueness of working with children, Karishma explains that, “We made this film with a cast over twelve first time performers, that comes with its ownscheduling challenges — we had to work around many people’s lives without disrupting anything for them. Working with kids can be hard, but they were at the forefront of all our set decisions. I had the most excellent crew that made sure we created a safe and fun atmosphere that was conducive for these kids to act as though no one was watching.” A film like ‘Bittu’ is also a testament to the power of the short film medium. It is imperative though, with the pandemic-related devastation and innumerable other catastrophes plaguing existence worldwide, ‘Bittu’ is a reminder for us to not desensitise ourselves from such tragedies. We need to continue to recognise, empathise and take action as much as possible.

Bittu

Karishma Dev Dube

On a parting note, Karishma shares her future plans with me, “I am currently producing a feature film for my close friend and collaborator, Mary Evangelista. It’s titled ‘Burning Well’ and takes places here in New York. We hope to shoot it this year. Additionally, I am developing my own feature that takes place in Assam and is loosely inspired by my family there.”

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Text Nidhi Verma
Date 30-10-2021