Filmmaker Ekta Mittal’s life is of discovery, learning and unlearning, and the ability to see things and people for what they are and knowing where the details lie. She believes that identities can be covered and there is no simplifying them.
After many debates and questions, she and her two likeminded friends co-founded Maraa, a media and arts collective, which is a non-profit but according to Ekta, does not function like one.
She shares, “We work with media and arts and look at these two as the things that guide the work. We have a very strong lens of gender, caste and class, and as we add more lenses to our way of looking, what we see is quite complex. But we don’t want to flatten things. We want to make it more complex not because we just want to make it tougher but I think that is how life is. The team believes that all issues are interconnected.”
The organisation’s work spans the art, culture, and media space – from conducting research to being involved in social development issues and curating festivals. One of their key highlights is the October Jam Festival, which lasts for the entire month in public spaces where artists from across the country perform. Ekta says that it is as important to host diverse audiences and people who can be better critics of the event.
A small team of five, Maraa works with many organisations. Ekta claims that they are always up for any learning opportunities, and adds that the team does not aim to scale further.
Its first project involved setting up 10 radio stations for which it received a grant from UNESCO in 2008.
Lessons Before Maraa
Even while pursuing her bachelor’s at Jyoti Nivas College in Bengaluru, Ekta was rebellious and reveled in theatre, which became an outlet to express herself. She and her friends would write scripts and perform on the streets.
She tells us that continuing her studies in social communications at Sophia College for Women in Mumbai helped ask tougher questions and moved her towards filmmaking.
Ekta worked on community radio for the first time at Bengaluru-based NGO called Voices. At Voices, where she worked for nearly six years after graduation, she began to see stories from villages and programme them. Here, she began spending time talking to villagers herself.
In time, she realised that NGOs, with their charity-like approach, are more about ‘empowering’ rather than changing.
Some of the villagers she spoke to asked her if she had the courage to listen to their real problems and if she really could live in an equal world, where the ones they help and ‘empower’ are equals as them.
Ekta clarifies that while she believes that these NGOs are doing good work, she was not interested in these frames.
She wanted to explore perspectives which might open up very different kinds of identities. This led her to start Maraa.
One of the communities whose identity is restricted in people’s perceptions are migrant labourers working at metro construction sites, says Ekta. She saw that migrant labourers coming from Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Bihar, and West Bengal are highly vulnerable as their whereabouts are not accounted for.
There are numerous cases of disappearances when it comes to migrant labourers and their near ones have no way to report or find them.
Exploring this area and talking to them led her to work and released three-part film – Transience, Presence, and Distance – based on the daily lives of migrant labourers and her interactions with them in Bengaluru alone. Her fourth film – Birha – took four years to make and portrays the lives of their loved ones back in their villages, and what they have left behind to come work in the city.
Reflecting on the movies, she said, “It was based on our interactions with the migrant workers looking at their inner world, their idea of home, memory, food, love, and longing. And not in this suffering victim light but to present him as a very dignified poet, philosopher, thinker.”
Believing that the root of the problem lies in fixating on certain idea of identities, Ekta urges people to move away from standard depictions.
“Sometimes, it important to understand that people from different classes also experience grief, pain, and loss,” she says.