Children of the Pyre (Rajesh S. Jala, 2008)
I’m a big fan of horror movies. Not because they scare me; maybe a half-dozen horror movies have done that in the past forty years, but because they are, in the main, a paradoxical escape from the horrors of reality. Horror movies are predictable, conventional creatures for the most part, as much a slave to their internal mores as romance novels. I haven’t seen a horror movie that’s truly scared me in over a decade. On the other hand, I can think of two documentaries just off the top of my head that I’ve seen in the past two years that have been far more disturbing than any horror film. This is one of them. (The other is Modify.)
Children of the Pyre takes a look at the lower-caste youths who scratch out a living tending India’s constantly-burning funeral pyres. Specifically, India’s largest funeral pyre is Manikarnika, in Varanasi. Legend has it that Manikarnika is the site where Shakti immolated himself, and so thousands of Hindi per year are transported here upon death to be cremated. Someone has to keep the home fires burning, as it were, and that job usually falls to children. They supplement their meager income—often the bulk of what their families make, as these are the children of the caste known in India as untouchables—by stealing burial shrouds, washing, and reselling them. (One of the movie’s most heartbreaking scenes, from an American perspective, is the title card at the end of this sequence that tells you how much they make per shroud. After that, you can’t help but think about the fact that this amount, to each of these children and their families, is non-trivial.)
Perhaps ironically, if you’re used to the American method of making “documentaries” these days, Children of the Pyre gains its power not from the naked manipulation of the viewer, nor the gross exaggeration of the subject matter. If Jala is influenced by any Western documentarian, it is Errol Morris, whose be-as-invisible-as-possible style of filmmaking is all too rare in America these days. Perhaps, though, a closer parallel would be to Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, despite his sole quasi-documentary, The Mysterious Object at Noon, eventually becoming so absurd that one would not be judged harshly for assuming it turns into a fantasy film halfway through. But Jala’s film has that same sort of filmmaker-journeying-into-the-heart-of-darkness feel as Weerasethakul’s, despite Jala’s camera rarely moving more than a hundred yards. He just points, shoots, and lets these pubescent and prepubescent kids tell their stories, full of bravado (both false and true), hope that has somehow not been smothered by the caste system, and a strong—one could never say “burning”—desire to enjoy their childhoods for as long as possible despite the strenuous, not to mention morbid, nature of their work.
Nancy Pearl, in her first book of recommendations, lamented that there are so few novels extant in which the work a character does takes center stage. The same is often true of film, but if you’re looking for one, Children of the Pyre is pretty hard to beat. It is powerful, deeply affecting, and more often than not flat-out disturbing. A lot of American documentary filmmakers could learn a great deal about how to craft a documentary from Rajesh Jala. *** ½