Born on the eve of India’s independence, Saleem Sinai believes he is endowed with magical powers. Jimmy Goldblum’s encounter with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was enough reason to pack his bags for India, in search of a “world where magic exists”. “I searched online for a place of magicians in India, and I came up with Kathputli Colony. So within two months, I came here,” says Goldblum, who visited the slum cluster in West Delhi’s Shadipur area in 2011.
But after realising the ground reality, Goldblum with his friend Adam Weber, directed a feature-length documentary called Tomorrow We Disappear, which premiered at the Tribeca Film festival, New York, earlier this week. “I had wild notions that this place will be full of magicians. But pretty soon, I realised there was no truth behind my fantasies and the slum is nothing like I had imagined,” says Goldblum, over the phone from New York, where he and Weber are in talks with movie agents.
Kathputli Colony, roughly spread across 13 acres, has been home to 2,800 artistes and their families for four decades. It’s been in news with the recent plans by the Delhi government to raze down structures here to make homes in high-rises for the artistes. “We are not taking a position in this film of good v/s evil. We are only presenting voices and saying that there should be a more nuanced approach to the relocation of urban slums,” says Weber, who has co-produced the documentary with Goldblum. He made three trips between 2011-13 with Weber, and shot for a span of six months, with the artistes.
In the 80-minute film, the makers look at three case studies as a representation of the heterogeneous voices from the community: a puppeteer, a magician and an acrobat. Puran Bhatt is a puppeteer, and the senior-most artiste in the documentary. A National Award-winning artiste, Bhatt is actively campaigning against the government’s redevelopment plans through signed petitions. Meanwhile, Maya, an acrobat in her 20s, embraces the proposed changes and looks forward to moving into her new home within a few years. On the other hand, Rehman, a magician, struggles to make sense of the whole situation and contemplates his future outside Delhi. There is a line by one of the characters, in the film: “We do not know who we are. Are we poor people or are we artistes?” It is telling of the neglect and fading cultural traditions for these artistes. “Rehman had a special existential angst, upon which we knew the film could turn,” says Goldblum.
The three characters are shown going about their daily routine of earning a living in the colony: Rehman, who descends upon busy street junctions and is forced to bribe cops to execute a performance; Maya, who practices acrobatic stunts at her home and teaches aspiring performers a few stunts in the colony; and Puran entertains small crowds of children at the colony with his Rajasthani string puppets. The film also shows discussions within the community about resettlement.
After initial hostility and curiosity from the artistes, the filmmakers were able to blend in. “We didn’t want to give them the impression that they were performing for us,” says Weber, who has earlier been the editor on Michel Gondry’s documentary about Noam Chomsky titled, Is the Man who is Tall Happy? This is their first collaborative project and Goldblum’s earlier work was an interactive feature called Live Hope Love, on AIDS/ HIV positive survivors in Jamaica.
The two are not mere spectators in this issue which is currently in the courts. Their website has links to reach out to the artistes and engage in debates. They recently interviewed families, who have agreed to move into the transit camp, for potential follow-up projects.They hope to screen the film in Delhi soon.