It all started with one minute long ad films for inter-hostel competitions when he was a student at the prestigious IIT Kharagpur. That may have been his first exposure to any kind of film-making, but he knew that was his true calling because when Samarth Mahajan joined an FMCG company where he was doing an operations management job, he always felt misplaced.
“There was this perpetual strong urge to tell stories and be connected to people,” remembers this documentary filmmaker, whose film ‘The Borderlands’ is the only Indian documentary in ‘Goes to Cannes’ official selection — at Marche du Film (or Cannes Film Market).
Post quitting his job, Samarth went to Mumbai, where he met a like-minded friend, Ashay Gangwar, and became part of his venture Camera And Shorts — with a focus to make creative documentaries. Ashay also produced ‘The Unreserved’, and is co-producing ‘The Borderlands’ in collaboration with the media house All Things Small. Samarth’s first film, ‘The Unreserved’ won the National Award for ‘Best On Location Sound Recordist’ in 2017.
‘The Borderlands’ was conceived in 2015 – and it had a lot to do with his own upbringing in a border area and how he started noticing that they had become a political tool to divide people. “There is a monolithic image, where people only imagine a fence, army men and terrorists. We tend to obsess over the physicality of it. The idea that borders can impact people living far away from them, appealed to me. That’s precisely why the film is called ‘The Borderlands’, and not ‘The Borderlines’. It seemed like a nice idea — to repaint how borders become part of everyday lives, physically and psychologically, beyond politics and beyond violence,” he says.
Samarth feels that it is supremely important to have an understanding of how people live and think outside urban echo chambers considering most of the policies and political conversations happen away from ground realities. “Perceiving people to be as complex as they are, will allow us to focus on things more important than a national image. So the film aims to start such conversations on cross-border relationships in the sub-continent.”
The research for the film involved reaching out to people (journalists, sarpanchs, and NGOs, so on), besides on-location recce to find the right characters and situations. “A lot of credit here goes to my Associate Director, Nupur Agrawal. The core of shortlisting the stories was to find the scenarios which had an inherent border area linkage to them, and people who would open up to us beyond that linkage. We also focussed on how every story told should not already be a media centerpiece — to reaffirm our commitment of bringing to light unseen aspects of a story. The idea is not to bring out issues, but to put human faces to them (issues). Wherever we felt we had all the conditions in place, we decided to shoot.”
Stressing that the most fascinating aspect of documentary filmmaking is the fact that it helps the filmmaker capture newer experiences, while building them, he adds, “Of course, fiction has its own charm and one can control a lot of things in that format. Documentaries on the other hand, especially the ones I attempt to make, hinge on things going out of control.”
Lamenting that funding continues to remain a perennial issue for independent filmmakers in India, especially those working in the documentary format, he does see a ray of light, “But things are changing. Platforms like Wishberry enable filmmakers to crowdfund from their existing networks.”
As far as his future projects are concerned, a number of ideas are in the works. “A feel good short fiction about growing up in a small town, an intimate documentary about mental health, a not-for-profit which bridges the urban-rural divide. My primary focus is to complete the post-production on ‘The Borderlands’ as best as I can, and then explore where my future inspirations lie.”