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Old Kolkata bhistiwalas make big screen debut, thanks to filmmaker Farha Khatun

17 December, 2022 11:36:33
Old Kolkata bhistiwalas make big screen debut, thanks to filmmaker Farha Khatun

At 65, Sheikh Nazim is one of Kolkata’s old ‘bhistiwalas’ (water carriers). Every day, he walks along the city’s lanes and bylanes, witness to the living history of its brick and mortar heritage. One of the last survivors of our rapidly changing times, he is still tireless, still inseparable from his water bag or ‘mussock’ (mashak), which is so much more than just a repository for about 30 litres of water. It is, in fact, a repository of an entire history. Some of that history has now been captured in ‘Ripples Under the Skin’, a film by documentary maker Farha Khatun. And Nazim is the face of the film.

Farha Khatun

This is also a story about Kolkata, told from the perspective of a migrant labourer. There was a time when thousands of people like Nazim travelled to Kolkata from Bihar (including what later became Jharkhand) in search of livelihoods. With time, the city became their refuge, giving them a roof over their heads, some form of income, and at least two square meals a day. Some of them managed to scrape together enough money to build a home of their own, some spent an entire lifetime in rented rooms.  

Farah’s film is up for screening on December 19 and 21 at the 28th Kolkata International Film Festival, in the Short and Documentary Panorama section. Explaining her choice of subject, Farah says, “I myself came to this city as a migrant in search of a living. Nazim chacha’s story was an inspiration. People like him fight relentlessly to stay afloat in the face of all odds, and help each other whenever needed. My film talks about this bond between warriors, through Nazim chacha.”

Farah herself travelled to Kolkata’s Roopkala Kendra to study film editing all the way from the remote Medinipur (West) village of Belda. Life as a Muslim woman among the city’s teeming millions wasn’t always easy. And her socio-political beliefs didn’t help. Which is what drew her to Nazim, who she met through a journalist friend. As she puts it, “I want my film to talk about the marginalised. We are all connected to water, and Nazim chacha is part of that connection.” 

With previous films like ‘I Am Bonnie’ (co-directed with Satarupa Santra and Sourav Kanti Dutta) and the 2021 National Award-winning Urdu film ‘Holy Rights’ (a 53-minute docu on Muslim women kazis), Farah has taken ‘Ripples Under the Skin’ to Barcelona International Environmental Film Festival in Spain, Queens World Film Festival, USA, International Film Festival of Shimla, and other festivals. 

Bhistiwalas hark back to a time when Kolkata had no pipelines to carry water. Their mussocks made of goatskin were a familiar sight across the city, carrying water to all quarters. Indeed, the word ‘bhisti’ apparently comes from the Persian word ‘behest’ or heaven, an indicator of the life-giving nature of the profession. 

Mussocks slung across their shoulders, bhistiwalas supplied water primarily for cooking and bathing, though until the 195os, many of them were also engaged in washing some of the city’s important thoroughfares. Both Kolkata and Dhaka were home to entire neighbourhoods of bhistiwalas, though the picture has changed beyond recognition now. Of the handful of bhistiwalas who still supply water to a few North Kolkata homes and shops, Nazim is one. 

Ripples Under the Skin poster

A demanding profession at any age, being a water carrier at 65 is a stiff challenge. Nazim charges Rs 10 for water supplied to ground floors, and between Rs 20 and 30 for upper floors. There was a time when he could carry up to 40 mussocks of water, which has now come down to eight or 10. At present, his only customers are meat and tea sellers, and forget the big screen, he cannot even remember the last time he saw himself in a photograph. 

Kolkata is still home to around 40 bhisti families, most of them originally from Katihar in Bihar. Living in rented homes in central Kolkata, they primarily cater to the areas around Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road, Brindaban Das Lane, Marquis Street, Elliot Road, the clientele comprising roughly 30 homes. Beginning their work at the crack of dawn, they visit each home and shop in turn. Nazim is happy with whatever he earns, his strong shoulders emblematic of an equally strong temperament. That is the strength of someone who carries history on his shoulders.

Ripples Under the Skin (Hindi, 29 minutes) will be screened at Nandan-3 at 2.00 pm on December 19 and at Sisir Mancha at 1.30 pm on December 21

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