Liar’s Dice, a film that captures the plight of migrant workers

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on May 22, 2020

Reality check: With her daughter and pet goat in tow, Kamala goes to Delhi in search of her missing husband   -  FILE IMAGE

The journey of migrants walking back to their homes hundreds of miles away finds resonance in the story of Kamala, the protagonist of Geetu Mohandas’s Liar’s Dice

Right at the beginning of Geetu Mohandas’s 2013 directorial debut Liar’s Dice, we meet the cherubic Manya (Manya Gupta), a little girl no more than five or six years of age, as she wakes up one morning and immediately calls for her mother, her lisp ringing loud and clear in snowy Chitkul (a real-life village in Kinnaur district, Himachal Pradesh, near the Tibetan border). ‘Kamala’ (her mother’s name) is pretty much the only word uttered loudly during the film’s 100-minute runtime. This is not a verbose story; conversations are infrequent and seldom last more than half a minute. In a way, this is an apt aesthetic choice, because the most important thing about the film’s plot — the plight of low-income migrant workers — is generally associated with collective silence in India.

Kamala (Geetanjali Thapa, who won a National Award for this role) hasn’t heard from her husband Harud in five months. He works at a construction site in Delhi, presumably as a daily wage labourer. She eventually loses patience with his incommunicado status and decides to go to Delhi to find out the truth for herself — daughter and daughter’s pet goat in tow. Along the way, she meets Nawazuddin (Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing a character with his real name; this is a no-frills film), a shifty-eyed stranger with a limp and a resourceful air about him. The limp has mysterious origins — he has just been soundly thrashed and dropped off from a Jeep in front of Kamala.

The two come to an understanding — she’ll pay him a certain sum (pee-say, in Nawazuddin’s delightful rendition of paise, the Hindi word for money) if he helps her reach the train station down in Shimla. After an initial spot of discord, he eventually agrees to help them reach Delhi itself. The rest of the story is about all that Kamala discovers and the sheer apathy she encounters in Old Delhi.

Two crucial sequences in the film (to say nothing of the harrowing climax) underline the dehumanising way in which poor migrants are treated in this country. The first of these comes about through a repetitive dialogue — “He’ll call you, he must be working”; Kamala hears variants of this line from several people before she actually sets off on her journey. The first few times, it works as dark comedy. The fourth time it’s simply tragic and we see Kamala bite back a sob. The “working” bit is especially poignant. The migrant labourer — hundreds of miles away from home — is only ever counted as a cog in the wheel. They have no identity apart from their work: Mason, carpenter, plumber and so on. Even working five months at a stretch with no letters and no phone call isn’t considered unnatural by Chitkul’s village elders: Such is the normalisation of drudgery Kamala struggles with.

The second instance is when Kamala reaches the house of Harud’s boss and speaks to his wife. The conversation is marked by escalating tensions — the boss’s wife is clearly lying through her teeth about her husband being out of town. She’s also visibly keen to get rid of Kamala. Here’s what raises Kamala’s guard: The boss’s wife repeats, almost verbatim, the same sentence she grew sick of hearing: “He’s working, he’s out of town, he’ll call in a few days”. When she says this, she maintains eye contact with Kamala and nods in a knowing, complacent manner, as if to say: “This is normal, we wives have to wait for men, and you and I are exactly the same, just stuck here waiting.”

But, of course, Kamala and this upper middle-class woman are not the same. The audience, through Kamala’s eyes, sees the disparity in their living conditions. Kamala has just arrived from the seediest of Old Delhi hotels, while this woman lives in a spotless flat in an upwardly mobile part of town. Recently, a group of well-meaning people in India started the Twitter trend #MeTooMigrant, intending to express solidarity with the lakhs of migrant workers walking hundreds of miles to return to their home states — everybody who tweeted with that hashtag should watch this scene to realise the scale of their disconnect.

The film’s name, Liar’s Dice, comes from a scene in the second half where Nawazuddin employs the titular game-of-dice to relieve a group of train passengers of their money — it’s as common a sight on Indian trains as the three-card monte is on New York sidewalks. It’s simple, really, the game. What you do is you promise the world to the mark (the victim of a con game is called a ‘mark’). You promise something for nothing, and once you have the mark’s trust, you take everything from him. You leave him with nothing but the clothes on his back, a bitter taste in his mouth, and an abiding distrust of ‘the man’.

It’s basically what India has done to its low-income migrant workers.


Published on May 22, 2020

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