Chandrasekhar Reddy’s internationally acclaimed docu-feature, Fireflies in the Abyss, has just been awarded the National Award for Best Non-Feature Film. Let’s take a look at an interview we did with him way back in June, 2016. 

After its world premiere at the Busan Film Festival last year, and an India premiere at MIFF 2016 (where it won the Golden Conch award for Best Documentary Feature film and Best Cinematography, in the National Competition category), it was also the only docu-feature from India to be selected for Hot Docs, the prestigious Canadian International Documentary Festival held earlier this year. The 88-minute film captures the dream of 11-year-old Suraj, who fights his way out of the rat-hole coal mines in the Jaintia Hills of North East India to put himself in school. The film follows Suraj and several other miners whose lives intertwine, to reveal extraordinary circumstances and the brutal choices they are faced with.

Chandrasekher Reddy

Reddy is an independent film-maker and has previously worked on projects for National Geographic Asia, Discovery Asia, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Indian Ministry of Tourism and BBC UK. What prompted him to work on this subject? “I had gone to Meghalaya to research another film on some sacred groves there. That’s when I discovered that they were mostly gone, and a burgeoning coal mining industry had spread like a germ across the beautiful landscape. The epicenter was a frontier-like boomtown called Lad Rymbai. I found this place fascinating; it had migrant labourers from all over — Nepal, Bangladesh, Bihar, West Bengal. It was a cash economy, with rampant drug use, prostitution, gambling and so on. After a bit of research, I also discovered that young boys worked in the mines, so I stayed back to understand what was going on.”

Researching the subject was quite difficult for Reddy, as there was hardly anything in the news about it. Also, people did not want him snooping around, as most of the mining activity was illegal. At that time, he came across an NGO report that said that at least 70,000 kids were working in the mines. “It would have been easier if I was intending just a reportage kind of film, but I was quite clear that it had to be a narrative that followed an individual, or a set of people, for an extended period. So finding a situation where I could do this without putting myself at risk was the main challenge.” The risks were considerable. “I figured early on that the miners were never threatened by my presence — it was the mine owners and coal brokers who I had to watch out for. So, the entire film has been shot hand-held, since even a tripod would attract attention. I had no crew with me either.”

Fireflies in the Abyss

What Reddy has come back with, other than a cracking film, is a treasure trove of memories. “There was never a day when I wasn’t struck by something — most of all by the generosity and solidarity the miners shared. Initially, I went with the notion of making a film on just “children in mines”, but many of my preconceived notions broke down and it became an impressionistic film of my experience. When you see the film, you will recognize all the moving moments. I think that when I discovered this 11-year old boy had succeeded in putting himself in school, it was the most emotional moment. While on the face of it the film deals with some pressing concerns, it is not a social issue film. It is really a glimpse into the lives of people who most of us are unfamiliar with. Perhaps this film will help us understand just a little bit more what life is like for kids like Suraj.”