In 2013, 23 children from a public school in Bihar died eating pesticide-contaminated midday meals. Following the investigations, the director, accused of neglect, was sentenced to two prison terms of 10 years and seven years. The massacre, the result of a serious case of negligence, which was widely reported. But in what can be assumed as an inadvertent sequel to the report, the number distilled and diluted the tragedy. When the cost of lives is quantified, its cost is saved. When numbers determine the extent of a disaster, the length of the digits limits its magnitude. Incidents become instances.
In many ways, Karishma Dev Dube’s discomfort Bittu – which lost official nominations after being shortlisted for Best Live Action Short at the 93rd Academy Awards – is a narrative contrary to the crowded design of newspapers; The New York-based filmmaker pulls a story thread out of the stack of statistics, providing faces to the facts.
The film begins with two young girls singing and dancing for the pleasure of strangers. They swing their hands and the coins fall as a token of appreciation. Wearing similar sweaters, the girls are students who cash in on their age-aided naivety to earn some extra cash. Bittu and Chand (Rani and Renu Kumari, both non-actors and haunting in turn) are friends. They divide the money among themselves and sit together in class. They fight and plot at the same time. The private pleasures of friendship are reserved for hurting and humiliating, for keeping company and deserting. The story is about a day in their lives in which one survives and the other succumbs.
Dube sets most of the film in a school. The location is Dehradun, but it is never mentioned. This restraint points to his belief that the central disease of the story is universal. Similar to government school, where English alphabets are taught through the sounds they make, the principal’s refusal to heed the strange-smelling cooking oil complaint could happen anywhere. And this is because what the cause is not specific spatial depravity, but general neglect perpetuated by an imbalance of power.
The dynamics of class difference is visibly manifested in Dube’s works. She explored him head-on in Devi: Goddess – the 2017 short film that focuses on a homosexual relationship between a house helper and her employer’s daughter – using rebellious desires to challenge the rigid limits set by the classes. With Bittu, she describes its cost. There are no evil people here. The lonely teacher is attentive, loving. When a leaky bag of rice arrives at the school, the principal notices it and refuses to pay for it. And yet moments later, blunted by the carelessness of her position, she dismisses the cook’s concern about the oil. If with great power comes great responsibilities, it also allows more leeway to avoid those responsibilities.
But throughout the 17 minutes Bittu, Dube refuses to indicate a person for the tragedy. Instead, he carefully examines the structure that sustains such indifference and, reimagining the incident, sustains and underlines all that is lost in such stories of loss. Lives are lost, friendships are lost, children are lost and, for those who survive, childhood is lost.
The film ends with a haunting scene of Bittu moving in disbelief, his face filled with questions for which he has no answers. She leaves the place of devastation and tries to stop a car. Pass by his side. Then he throws a stone and forces her to stop. In his school they taught him that good children are those who do not make any sound. But Bittu knows that in an increasingly indifferent world, where lives are numbered, disobedience is the only way to survive.