In this documentary, Varanasi’s sari weavers talk about their craft and its present state of decline
“I used to weave saris. It didn’t pay well, so I took to driving a rickshaw.”
Somewhere in the middle of Bunkar: The Last of the Varanasi Weavers, filmmaker Satyaprakash Upadhyay asks erstwhile weaver Shyam Jiyavan if he still keeps his loom. He does, he says, but at home. Does he still use it? “No, I have dismantled and stored it carefully so that it stays safe,” he says.
Another former weaver, Naeem, talks to Upadhyay while sitting in his bright red-and-green autorickshaw. He sounds disgruntled: “I used to weave saris. It didn’t pay well, so I took to driving a rickshaw.”
Several more of Naeem’s kind find a voice in Upadhyay’s debut documentary, where Varanasi sari weavers talk about their craft and its present state of decline. Most of them have been forced to abandon their profession because it is no longer feasible. Activists and revivalists, who are trying to help the artisans, plead their case.
Since the film is pegged on the weavers, it is a pity that it does not delve deeper into their personal narratives. We meet them late, some 13 minutes into the lengthy and sometimes repetitive 68 minute-long film. The film rides on its breathtaking visuals, capturing the vibrancy of the art form, from the rich hues of the saris to their delicate detailing, and Varanasi’s landscape of opposites, with its teeming life and rituals of death. Cinematographer Vijay Mishra’s artistry is somewhat marred by the relentless background music though.
Bunkar opens with a shot of the emerald-green Ganga and pans to Varanasi’s riverfront before it unexpectedly cuts to a CGI of the river — a voiceover that seems determined to exhaust all the metaphors related to weaving. Sample this: “I [Ganga] have watched the loom of time weave the past into the present.”
The film then segues into a sketchy history of the art form, lists the weaving styles, and then comes to the threat posed by the near-identical, mass-produced and significantly cheaper saris made on power looms. The threat has forced many craftsmen to take up other professions.
“I can’t blame one department or a particular association [for the decline], for the problem is vast,” says Upadhyay. “My aim is rather to inform people,” he adds.
And so the tone of his film remains equivocal and non-committal to the point that at times it contradicts itself. It does manage to make interesting juxtapositions — but that may have been accidental.
Take, for instance, the documentary’s discussion on the government’s efforts to protect and preserve the art form by giving it a GI tag and a Handloom Mark. A weaver concedes that such initiatives have given a boost to his business. This is followed by a former weaver saying that only a handful of craftsmen who were awarded the government certification could benefit from it, and that the effort is hardly enough to combat the steady and overwhelming influx of power-loom products. The documentary does not dwell on this disparity.
Upadhyay’s film is an important discussion on the lives of the Varanasi sari weavers but its voice flounders. At the same time, it achieves more by way of solutions than similar documentaries, which do no more than simply acknowledge that a problem exists.
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