It is the Utralikkavu Pooram festival at the Shri Rudhiramahakalikav temple in Kerala, and huge crowds have congregated, amidst the elephant and wooden horse processions, in daylight, at the clear open fields of the temple to celebrate through that most primal expression of joy: fire, and fireworks. As the fireworks are set ablaze and the congregated mass delights at the sound and the enormous smoke clouds forming, the sense of jubilation is palpable. Yet the smoke clouds eventually obscure the actual clouds in the sky; they obscure the sky itself; covering the crowds in darkness and casting an ironic shade over the festival itself.
It is Diwali in Bengaluru, and as with every other iteration of the festival of light in thousands of localities across the country and beyond, fireworks form the centrepiece, the main attraction. Triumphant primary colors light up the night sky, yet, once again, the smoke clouds eventually gather to obscure even the natural light of the stars. The fireworks end up revealing some kind of immanent contradiction in the idea of fireworks, in the idea of festivals, in the idea of fire.
K R Manoj’s documentary “Work Of Fire” repeatedly highlights these contradictions. In recounting the mythical origin of fireworks, it emphasizes how the Chinese alchemists in the story, trying to create the elixir of eternal life, ended up accidentally inventing fireworks, the ultimate representation of all that is fleeting and ephemeral. At two crucial points in the narrative, the film veers into poetic contemplation of the dichotomy of fire itself – both nurturer and protector, as well as destroyer. It thus tries to mythologise the dichotomy between tradition and transgression that makes the use of fireworks in festivals so appealing.
As the late filmmaker Chalam Bennurakar – who himself made the acclaimed documentary “Kutty Japanin Kuzhandaigal (Children of Mini Japan)” on child labour in Sivakasi – points out in the film, Diwali as a festival has ancient ties to the harvest, the fulfilment of the entire year’s labour in growing crops, and thus its association with joy is also representative of the joy of the harvest. Fireworks are an effusive expression of this joy, and have become associated with tradition. Yet the joy in fireworks is itself transgressive – the joy of loud sounds and bright lights that you don’t see everyday, that exist outside of everyday reality and thus disrupt the structures of the quotidian. The year’s worth of labour in producing crops is celebrated through turning fireworks – themselves products of a year’s worth of labour – into ashes.
Fireworks are simultaneous reminders of victory and death.
Despite its mythical ambitions, “Work Of Fire” does not reveal any profound truths or insights. Most of the film is almost concerned with a creating a mood piece centred around things we already know about the fireworks industry and Sivakasi. In that sense, it is not a work of profound journalistic ingenuity, and comes across more as an art project; nevertheless, it has some political points to make, especially in the way it structures its narrative and, as already mentioned, in its emphasis on contradictions.
The first third of the film contains no dialogue, and is concerned just with setting the mood through sound, visuals, and occasional text. It thus lulls the viewer in by presenting powerful, effective images – a certain kind of reality – without any commentary attached, thus making the viewer draw their own conclusions. It also helps the film distance itself from its subject. It is a strong cinematic device used competently, and it almost conveys the idea that there’s another layer of contradictions the filmmaker is trying to get at: one of sound.
Even when the interviews begin, the dialogue is sparse; instead, the film concentrates on making effective points through the juxtaposition of images of factory workers in Sivakasi – mostly women – working with almost machinelike precision to churn out firecrackers on an assembly line, with jubilant diwali celebrations in Bengaluru (all the while relying on ambient sound to set the mood). The imagery of workers in Sivakasi is slow and deliberate, arresting the viewer through the elaborate fascination of repetition. The camera lingers on the visible effects of the work on the workers – bodies slowly turning silver – as well as on the speed and precision of the hands putting together the finished products.
The political points being made here are all implicit, conveyed through the structure of the film. The closest the film comes to an explicit political point is when it contradicts the traditional opposition to fireworks on the grounds of pollution, by showing both the necessity of the industry for the livelihoods of the workers, as well as the importance of the festival in terms of tradition and catharsis. Yet, the film is careful not to take a side; it holds itself at a remove, letting people like Bennurakar, the factory workers, directors of fireworks factories, and fireworks performers do the talking. The film thus grounds itself in the experiences of the people most closely involved with the industry, as well as the ground reality of labour; but it also cushions itself from criticism that might arise from taking an explicit political stance on the matter.
The moody, effective camerawork, credited to Shehnad Jalal, Jomon Thomas, and Arun Bhaskar, go a long way towards setting the tone. It is appropriately grand and grimy as and when necessary, at one point even literally marking the screen with grime.
Towards the end, the film mentions two major fireworks related disasters that happened while it was being made, both of them in 2016 – the Kollam Temple fire in Puttingal, and the San Pablito Market fireworks disaster in Tultepec, Mexico. Even as it takes stock of the death toll of these disasters – the death toll of fireworks – it cuts to images of celebrations, ending with visuals of spectacular, colorful fireworks against the night sky, exploding into nothing, making one final point about the inescapable irrationality of it all. And as it ends, leaving you with some powerful visuals to ponder, you can’t shake the feeling that it trades the opportunity to say something substantial for the chance to capture myth on camera. The film creates effective poetry out of the metaphysics of fireworks – their history and their inherent contradictions. But rarely does it directly engage with the politics of the industry, or the morality of using fireworks (or the morality of trying to get them banned). As a result, it feels like the film is always on the cusp of saying something, without actually saying it – it explores the lives of the workers, and the association different people have with fireworks, and even makes brief mention of the toll they take, without actually making a point – just raising a lot of questions. In trying to create poetry as effervescent as a firework, and allowing the audience to draw their own answers out of it, it perhaps becomes as ephemeral as one.
Catch K R Manoj’s film “Work Of Fire” at 3 PM on Tuesday, September 19, at India International Centre. To see the full Open Frames Festival programme, click here.