There is an instance in Prantik Basu’s Bela — a lived-in documentary rooted in a titular village in Purulia, West Bengal — where a woman tries putting a heap of dry leaves on her head. The rigour of the act reflects the preciseness of a habit. Her hands move like responding to a cadence. And then, exhibiting a lifetime’s worth of training, takes a wooden stick and adjusts her balance. The moment plays out with such lucidity that it casts a spell, unlocking at once the gift of Basu’s artistry and the reward of watching closely.
A similar sense of rhythm lulls Basu’s latest non-fiction which documents lives of the inhabitants as they prepare for a local competition. Members of the Manbhum Sramjibi Chhau Nritya Dal first made an appearance in his 2017 outing Sakhisona (winner of the Tiger Short Award at Rotterdam Film Festival). But in Bela, their occupation and preoccupation constitute the centre piece.
Throughout the runtime, Basu follows these dancers and members of the houses with such stealth agility like the camera is held by invisible hands. At one point, it focuses on a man mangling chicken as his wife looks on. None of them is really visible, but the astuteness of the documentation makes a ritual out of the moment, making it impossible to look away in spite of wanting to do so.
With gradual progression, Bela enlivens the texture of the community’s existence, bringing a curious gendered division of labour to the fore. It is the women who are involved in more physical toil, mentally mapping ways to bypass the tyranny of red ants. Basu’s gaze lingers on their feet as they pound rice and gather wood, emphasising the exertion. They adorn the houses with a sticky mixture of rice as they wait for the men to come. The men are creatures of the night, remaining immersed in practising Chau dance — a classical acrobatic form seeped in folklore — for a local competition. They wear ornate costumes and reenact mythical stories. The garish masks donned by them eclipses their identity, laying bare the need to be more nimble — feminine, if you will — as a necessary trait.
This singularity of gender fluidity lends one way of reading Bela. The other way is to view the documentary as an act of restoration. For the indigenous community, constituting of Kurmis and the Mahatos, the Chau dance is both a means of distraction and an outlet to sustain their endangering stories; a remnant of their culture and a mode of asserting it.
In a way, Bela is reminiscent of PS Vinothraj’s Pebbles, an affecting story of the shifting dynamic of a father and son relationship which doubles up as a piercing portrait of a village in Southern India. In both instances, narrative orthodoxy takes a backseat, egging a participation to view the mundane. Pebbles spotlights an India pushed to the periphery out of regulated negligence. Bela focuses on members of a community resisting a similar oversight by holding on to the narrative of a practice. Granted Vinothraj uses fiction to depict the actuality of misery, but that Basu shot Bela for over two years and condensed as two days, offers the documentary a fictional smokescreen of its own. In both instances, depiction offers a way for preservation.
Bela concludes with a heartbreaking moment that reveals more than it hides. A group of old men sit in a huddle as a middle-aged man teaches intricacies of Chau dance to an adolescent group. They lost the contest. It is a new day. For once their are not obscured by darkness. A phone conversation floats in the air. Someone is relaying news of their recent loss. The voice from the other end recollects the shared time of practising dance together. He works in Goa now, distanced by survival compulsion. Image of a younger generation taking up the mantle gets infected with the realisation that the price to do so is becoming steeper. Their community is gradually diminishing. Competitions give them an excuse to come together. In reality, they are fighting against time.
(Bela screened at International Film Festival Rotterdam)