Their way of ‘looking’ at the world is through Bilal’s eyes

How Bilal cheers his loved ones up with his childlike purity and innocence, even in the most desperate circumstances.

By Lieve Thuis

The Netherlands, 2020 – “Bilal” is a film about an unusual story of a three-year-old Muslim boy living with his younger brother Hamza and blind parents in the chaotic centre of Kolkata, India. The world of Bilal shows rare moments of sharing love, fun, cruelty and hope in a struggling Indian family.

The documentary opens with a typical morning for the Akhtar family. Temple bells are ringing somewhere in the distance, notes of the soulful azaan (the Islamic call to prayer) wake up the streets of Taltala. Sound effects come across sharply in the dark ambience because sounds are the language Bilal and his parents communicate through. There are children fighting, playing, arguing, trying to find their own forms of entertainment. The entertainment normal children enjoy is denied the ones in Taltala by accident of birth and the reality of their environment.

While the small alleys of the slum the family lives in are slowly filling up, Bilal and his parents do their everyday chores. Bilal helps them make coffee and prepare breakfast. He knows how to communicate with them through sounds and – most importantly – touch. Bilal is never jobless – if he isn’t guiding his blind parents through life, he is busy training up the art of making mischiefs to his brother.

The next morning, children in the neighborhood are preparing to celebrate Bilal’s third birthday. Candles are brought in, there is cake and a crowd of children surround Bilal, asking him to blow out the candles and eat a wedge of the tiny cake. It feels like the entire neighborhood has taken on Bilal’s growing up as its collective responsibility.

The poverty that you will see in every shot of this film can be depressing – the terrible conditions of the small room where Bilal lives in with his family, the single bed sometimes soiled with Hamza’s vomit, sometimes with his urine or often with the milk spilling out of the feeding bottle. A bottle falling off the bed and breaking, with the blind parents Shamim and Jharna using sound as their only guide and their kids as their source to clean up. The presence of the stark atmosphere vanishes as the camera closes in on the bright smiling face of the little Bilal, with his big, naughty eyes making fun of the world around him.

Sourav Sarangi’s Bilal (2008), an 88-minute documentary film shot in one of the darkest slums in Kolkata, has won awards at 14 film festivals in India and abroad. Bilal travelled over fifty international festivals winning eighteen top awards.

Bilal stimulates both discomfort and empathy in a perspicuous and intimate portrayal of the life of a little Muslim child, his blind parents, their poor neighbourhood and affiliative community in the city of Kolkata. The director makes it clear that he has no issue to solve, his approach of filming is completely objective and not pitiful, which is hard in such critical conditions. The structure and approach of the film is straightforward, uninterrupted and unpretentious.

Nevertheless, the documentary inevitably reminds us of the darkness of ignorance that maintains a world beyond our vision because it is easier to live in the smugness of not knowing such misery.

Earlier work of the director:
Sarangi has chosen compelling subjects for his earlier films too. His debut film, Tusu Katha (The Tale of Tusu) (1996), was an ethnographic documentary shedding light on traditional Indian rural life of women engaged in a harvesting ritual called Tusu. In 2006, he made Bhangon, an investigative documentary on river erosion in eastern India causing environmental disorder and migration of innocent victims. In 2012, Sarangi directed Moddhikhane Char (Char… the No Man’s Island), another documentary on river erosion causing the existence of a new island called Char and its emerging migrants.