‘Ripples Under the Skin’, is an intriguing title for a documentary film. But trust Farah Khatun, who wins National Awards with almost every film she makes, to discover a fast-disappearing tribe of working men hidden in the nooks and corners of Kolkata. Khatun is an editor and filmmaker based mainly in Kolkata and she makes documentaries on little-known subjects that deal directly with a section of people who are very much a part of this world but we hardly notice them.

She is a two-time recipient of the President's National Film Award in India for the Best film on Social Issues for her directorial debut 'I am Bonnie' and her first feature-length film ‘Holy Rights’. Both films have bagged prestigious awards and were widely screened.

With ‘Ripples Under the Skin’, Khatun focuses on a class of poor Muslim migrant men who are almost a disappearing class. As the film opens, we see a 65-year-old man trudging along the lanes and bylanes of a rapidly changing city - Kolkata, where the toils of this man with the ‘mashaq’, a goatskin bag filled with water to be carried and sold to people who need it. But who needs the ‘mashaq’ more, the man who carries it or the people he carries it to? The film suggests the answer.

“I feel it is a story to be curated, frozen, and archived as a relic of the past. ‘Ripples Under the Skin’ tells the story of the Calcutta that lurks behind the glitz and glamour of today’s Calcutta. It tells the story of a community of migrant workers who had come to this city to make a living, a city that never invited them yet somehow they made home, though ‘home’ remains elusive, a city that nourishes, waters itself through the toils of people like Nazim Chacha, yet conveniently forgets, casts them away when it chooses to walk towards the future,” says Farah who is clear about what she says in any film she chooses to make.

These men are known as ‘Bhistis’ and after the city began to supply water through pipelines, they began to lose their sole source of income through selling water in the leather ‘mashaqs’.

In 1897, British naturalist Edward Aitken explained the word ‘Bhisti’ in his book ‘Behind the Bungalows’: “Behisht in the Persian tongue means Paradise, and a Bihishtee is, therefore, an inhabitant of Paradise, a cherub, a seraph, an angel of mercy. He has no wings; the painters have misconceived him, but his back is bowed down with the burden of a great goat-skin swollen to bursting with the elixir of life.”

When asked what inspired her to make this film, Farah Khatun said, “I was in Mumbai for some work when filmmaker Joshy Joseph sent me an article written by my namesake journalist Farah Khatoon. He thought I had written it.

“I had read about Bhistis and to know more about them I started searching if there was any documentary on them. Back then I did not find anything apart from some news video clippings, so to document these last surviving Bhistis and their profession I approached Films Division to make a documentary on them.

“My primary concern in making this film was to document something that had not been documented before and was on the verge of vanishing in a few years.”

History unfolds two interesting stories about Bhistis. It was a Bhisti who changed the history of India by saving the life of Humayun, the second Mughal emperor, as he was about to drown in the Ganga during a campaign against the Afghans. Nizam, a Bhisti, inflated his goatskin satchel, the ‘mashaq’, and used it as a float for Humayun to cross the river.

In gratitude, Humayun granted Nizam the throne of Agra for a day. During his reign, Nizam cut his ‘mashaq’ into small strips and had them gilded and stamped — recording his name and date of coronation — and issued as currency. A Bhisti thus ruled an empire once, if only for a day.

The voice-over by Monalisa Mukherjee, informs the audience that the first recorded Bhisti in history was Bhisti Abbas traced back to 680 AD. During the war being fought by Imam Husayn and his army in Damascus, Abbas had to cross the Firat (Euphratis?) river to reach water to Husayn and his army. He never came back. Imam Husayn was the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and the son of both Imam Ali and Lady Fatimah.

The uniqueness of Farah Khatun’s subjects lies in her engagement with stories of marginalised. Stories that would otherwise get lost in a world where mostly power speaks. Through her lens thus one comes across the story of a forgotten trans footballer, of a woman from Bhopal who challenges patriarchy within her community and defies norms to become an activist in her mid 40s, of a lone fighter who builds a forest, and this one, of people engaged in a lost profession.

Farah met Nazim Sheikh who she addresses as Nazim Chacha, when she began research on the film among several other ‘Bhistis’ along the Metiaburuz neighbourhood in Kolkata. He arrived in Calcutta more than 45 years ago from Katihar, Bihar, where the family was engaged as tenant farmers and could barely eke out a living.

“I began work as a scrap collector and then learnt the skills of a Bhisti from my brother who lived here and became one myself” says Nazim Sheikh. “Water has no caste, no religions, no community and no God” he adds.

He visits his family back in his native village every four months or so. The camera and crew follow him to his village home where we see him playing with his little grandson he is certain will not become a Bhisti. In the village, he engages in farming mainly maize and wheat. His wife adds that she has to bear all the responsibilities of the family in his absence.

“Bhisti work is very laborious and lowly-paid” says Nazim, adding, “I get paid around Rs.10 for supplying water to a ground floor flat, then it goes up to Rs.20 to Rs.30 as I climb to higher floors.

“I am lucky if I am able to deliver 30 to 40 ‘mashaqs’ in a day but after lifting eight to ten ‘mashaqs’, the heart begins to palpitate. Add to this standing in long queues to collect the water early in the morning and the sweet water supply gets over after three ‘mashaqs’ are filled. We have to collect the water in a tearing hurry.”

Nazim has a daughter for whose marriage he needs to spend around Rs.2 lakh cash as dowry, and buy a motorcycle for the groom adding to the cost of the wedding and the party. “I have never seen Rs.2 lakh even in my dreams so I have no clue how I will be able to save this sum to buy a bridegroom,” he says, but talks quite matter-of-factly.

The camera then follows Nazim to a ‘mashaq’ repairer, S. K. Safeeq, who is probably the last ‘mashaq’ repairer in Kolkata. Safeeq says he came to the city when he was 12 years old and the train fare from his native place to Kolkata was Rs.12.

Safeeq had run away from home in search of work because his father who was a ‘Bhisti’ with the government drew a salary of Rs.54/ per month which kept them almost below the poverty line. He laments that since Bhistis are disappearing from the city, his work too, has been dwindling every day. He informs that there were 23 ‘Bhistis’ in Topsia alone at one time and now there are only three.

There used to be around 15 Bhistis in Khidirpur and Mominpur and now Mominpur has only one Bhisti left. Those who are left, try to make do with plastic vessels so Safeeq hardly has any work as one who specialises in repairing ‘mashaqs’.

“You can find the statue of a Bhisti outside a shopping mall and that in itself spells out that Bhistis are now a part of the city’s history” Safeeq said, as the camera closed on a big statue of a Bhisti in a shopping mall complex. The film was shot in different parts of Calcutta, West Bengal and Katihar District, Bihar in Nazim Kaka's hometown.

‘Ripples Under The Skin’ has been screened at more than a dozen film festivals across the board.It is scheduled for screening in May as part of the 15th Habitat Film Festival.

“Every film is a new experience, a new learning. In this film also I could explore the language of cinema using more of a metaphorical imagery which was different from my earlier films. Nazim Kaka is an inspiring person. His sense of dignity, spirit to deal with hardships of life is a learning that I would keep with myself,” Farah said, summing up her experience, praising Films Division, the producer, for giving her the freedom to treat, shoot and make the film any which way she had planned to, and of course, Nazim Sheikh and his family.