In British writer Neil Gaiman’s book, Neverwhere, the protagonist, trapped in a dark, underground world, writes, “There are hundreds of people in this other London. Thousands maybe. People who come from here, or people who have fallen through the cracks.”
A film team in Delhi (not inspired by Gaiman) made a similar journey in 2015. They captured the lives caught in the crevices of India’s capital. The hour-long documentary, Shadows on Roads, heroes the population that works on the pavements and shows them as professionals and people. It will have its premiere in Delhi this month.
A churan vendor, construction workers, car washers, garbage collectors and booksellers fill the film with their experiences. Tailor Md Abdul Kuddur looks up from his sewing machine and says, “Don’t envy those who are ahead of you in life. You’ll never find peace. Look at the people who have less than you.”
Gabbar, a burly omelette seller with a handlebar moustache, surprises with his stoicism: “If you want to survive in this world, you have to tolerate the abuse that comes with it.” Each character has a personal philosophy that gives street smart a whole new meaning. Ramesh, a cobbler, knocks down the great Indian dream. “Ambition is pointless. Dreams are never fulfilled. That’s why I never have dreams,” he says.
Like many of his subjects, filmmaker Srijan Nandan, 38, is a migrant in Delhi. He came here 25 years ago to study. “As a student, one does not have access to high-end services and we tend to build relationships with the parathawala and the cigarette shop owner. I was fascinated by their zeal and the risks they took every day to earn a living. I decided that I would make a film on them,” he says.
After his post-graduation in social work, Nandan made films on topics such as the discrimination faced by Dalits during disaster and relief management, and participated in initiatives related to societal politics. His last film, Out of the Shadows, revolved around women who use drugs, an issue aggravated by the lack of policies for them. With Shadows on Roads, he attempts to bridge a gap between two ends of the food chain — the urbane audience and the marginalised subjects.
Nandan says the team spent a substantial part of the year building relationships while understanding the dynamics of the road. “Some characters are not in the film because they were comfortable with my notebook but not my camera. We respected that,” he says.