Interviews

The Story of a Mysterious Artist Colony in India and Its Looming Eviction

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Scene from ‘Tomorrow We Disappear’ (all images by Joshua Cogan)

In a time when hardly anything is difficult to find, there exists a mysterious artist and magician colony hidden in the alleyways of New Delhi, India, called the Kathputli. The feature-length documentary Tomorrow We Disappear is visually stunning and documents the Kathputli Colony as it approaches its looming eviction. The film opens up a dialogue on our cultural infatuation with newness, the homogenization of capitalism, and where we place value. The story also reveals how outside solutions to a community’s problem do not always align with that community’s values.

The Kathputli Colony has lived in these homes and alleyways for half a century and is composed of painters, folk singers, acrobats, jugglers, puppeteers, magicians, and more. Many inhabitants are well-respected artists both in India and abroad. In 2009, the New Delhi government sold Kathputli to developers for a fraction of its worth and the land was set to be bulldozed to make room for the city’s first-ever skyscraper. The film highlights the vibrant colony and focuses on three talented performers of different ages as they wrestle with the reality of the approaching eviction: Puran Bhatt, one of India’s most talented puppeteers and whose late father was the first president of the Kathputli Colony; Rehman Shah, a magician who performs comedic and gruesome street shows daily; and Maya Pawar, a daring acrobat who feels that Kathputli needs to change and embrace a more modern culture.

The co-directors and co-producers Jimmy Goldblum and Adam Weber stated, “our hope is that our audience gets to see the colony like the many artists in it see it: as a world with no distinction between life and art, where India’s past, present, and future blur together, a home that somehow — impossibly, incomprehensibly — still brims with possibility.” I was able to catch up with Goldblum and Weber, and the film’s cinematographer, Joshua Cogan, for an interview on their experience of making the film.

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Sarah Walko: How did you end up getting involved with the Kathputli Colony and was it through reading about it in Salman Rushdie’s iconic Midnight’s Children or was it something you had come across while working on other projects?

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Post for ‘Tomorrow We Disappear’ (click to enlarge)

Adam Weber: Yeah — it was completely — Jimmy and I were college roommates and English majors together so Midnight’s Children was a book we were reading and we were completely motivated by that book. Neither of us had heard of anything that remarkable before and coming out of a magical realism story with this fantastical quality — the way he describes everything in the book. When I read it I was like there is no way that this could be real, it’s got to be just an allegory, a metaphor. Jimmy had the brilliance to Google it and he found only one little blurb but that’s really what started it all — that a place like this did exist. But even before we went we were really having a hard time finding out that much information about it. There were conflicting reports of what was there and what wasn’t there. We contacted some journalists who wrote pieces about it and through them we found this magician on Facebook and through him we were able to contact the colony, and he’s not actually even in the film. When we traveled there he met us outside of a metro station in Delhi and took us through the labyrinth of little pathways that led us to the colony. It was pretty wild.

Jimmy Goldblum: You can imagine the head state of two young filmmakers when they realize that the passage in one of their favorite books about a slum full of magicians, acrobats, and puppeteers — and walking in we found the passage — to be absolutely true.

Sarah Walko: Were you thinking ‘I can’t believe no one else has made this film before’?

AW: It’s true. At first it seems like such an exaggerated idea and such an exaggerated place — so many things that are separate from the world that we come from personally but the idea is that the film is very relatable. These aren’t just magicians and puppeteers getting supplanted by a new modern high rise. This is the journey of all of us, which is: what value does where we came from play in the place that we’re going? It was a bizarre place to be, and as artists especially, there was this identity crisis that Jimmy and I were going through already — what value does the work we do have and what value do all of these things have in a world that may or may not need us? And this is what they were going through, just at a much more extreme level.

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Scene from ‘Tomorrow We Disappear’

SW: I recently read an article in the New York Times Book Review that said our “cultural obsession with newness” comes with a sense of loss, especially when that loss is something that our culture doesn’t necessarily value. I thought you presented the story very neutrally — letting the audience continue the conversation once the film is over. I thought, for example, the choice to focus on the one young woman Maya was a good choice because her concerns surrounding some of the health conditions within the slum and the mistreatment of women were all very valid.

JG: I think, for us, the movie has kind of an interesting narrative arc in that we wanted to present this idea of how they might view themselves and how people might view them — that sort of inside/outside perspective which felt very mythological: the traditional magicians, acrobats, puppeteers of India, the very sort of romantic notion, and as the movie progresses we wanted to slowly strip away the romance but still leave you with things that we consider very valuable, which is that for these people, even those who wanted to stay there, it all comes down to how you want to raise your children. And what you are actually left with is this the reality of these magicians losing their home, a father struggling to take care of his children, or the young woman who is coming from this culture and trying to find a way for herself while still admiring the values that this place had taught her. And I think the minute we were able to peel away the layers of what we might think of as mysticism and this orientalist idea of India, we were left with something very heartfelt and resonant, we hope.

SW: How did you decide which specific people to focus on in the film?

Joshua Cogan: It took a lot of time talking to people, exploring the landscape inside the colony, trying to figure out which people had the strongest stories to tell, and how we could weave together a tapestry of characters that best represented the diverse experiences of people in the Colony. Each of them represents a different approach to the transition: those that evolve their craft and adapt with great success, those that cling to the old ways with a certain conviction that may hurt them in the long run, and those that saw the challenges as an opportunity to come to a new way of life. We also fought very hard to represent both men and women, young and old in the film, so that we could capture as much range of voice as possible. The truth we tried to tell is that there are no easy answers, it’s all very complicated and adaptation, albeit necessary, is a painful and difficult process.

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Scene from ‘Tomorrow We Disappear’

SW: Yesterday when I was online researching the skyscraper that was supposed to be built I found a website that presents this as a very positive redevelopment project. The site uses language like “squatters” and “slum,” presenting it as a solution to people living in these circumstance while helping New Delhi get rid of its slums. I wanted to hear your thoughts on that aspect of the situation.

AW: That’s a really good question I think on a number of levels. I think the scene that resonates the most with me is when Puran asks “are we artists or are we poor people?” The fact that these new flats are being offered to many of these people for free adds to their identity crisis. If they were just being kicked out, they’d still hold on to the shred of understanding that ‘well, we are itinerant artists, this is just our path.’ But this whole “we’re going to give you flats for free in this slum redevelopment project” — that communicates that “oh the government is trying to solve the problem of poor squatters on a piece of valuable land.” On the one hand, they’ve gone abroad to perform on behalf of India as representatives of the traditional culture, and on the other hand, they come home to a government that treats them just like any other slum dweller. There are efforts being made on the developers’ side to take into account these things — everyone is trying to find a solution I suppose — but I think it’s this question of self-identification that’s really at the heart of all of it: should they just take something that accepts their fate as poor people? Should they just take whatever they can get? Or should they keep fighting to live like traditional artists?

JC: As India becomes increasingly more capitalistic, its understanding of itself has changed. To the developers, this type of language helps support what they would like to portray as a form of social service or justice. While there in no doubt that the conditions of the Colony were unsanitary and crowded, these characteristics could have been addressed without completely destroying it. Communities have been redeveloped for millennia, but it takes intention and planning. By marginalizing the communities as “squatters” or “slum dwellers” there is an effort to delegitimize them, the basis of any campaign of land grabbing. We saw this in America as we took over native lands by calling them “savages” or “uncivilized” and we see this in modern America in the redevelopment of poor communities by using similar tactics to those seen in the film. The truth is, if we really wanted to help these communities, we would bring in resources and education, but help isn’t really the true agenda in any of these cases.

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Scene from ‘Tomorrow We Disappear’

SW: How has the film been received by the Kathputli Colony and India, if it’s been shown there?

AW: We are going this coming October to do a colony-wide screening. But the movie premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and because Jimmy and I are local New Yorkers, the festival used our travel budget to fly out Puran to represent the film in person. And that was an amazing moment because we had formed a relationship with Puran — at that point we had known him for years. And while we were working on it, he didn’t really know the context of how it was going to be shown. But at the Tribeca Film Festival he was introduced and invited to come and speak after each screening and everyone in the audience stood up and applauded him and it was a really emotional experience as he spoke on behalf of the film. And I think ultimately that’s what I would hope happens with this film. And what I hope happens for the colony — that the film is just a platform on which they get to say what they think and what they’re going through. The film has a range of opinions and ideas — some people are going to understand Maya’s perspective more, and some people are going to identify more with Puran, some people with Rehman, some viewers are going to be a combination of all of the characters. But my hope is just that people will listen.

SW: Josh Cogan, since you are an anthropologist, how did this inform your process and experience with this project?

JC: I think at the end of the day, this is a beautiful documentary, but just as equally a visual ethnography of a fascinating culture in great transition. In my heart, modern ethnography is collaborative, or otherwise empty and without any vibrancy. It’s taken a long time, but anthropology has come to shun its colonial roots, and sense of cultural paternalism. My own training and experience have evolved through learning empathy and awareness necessary to approach cultures that are facing such painful change. A lot of it is just learning to listen, being careful not to project a narrative on subjects, and allowing them to tell their own story. Sitting with people, truly just being with them is an equal exchange, everyone is learning and sharing, and this is where the real power of collaborative telling comes out. In this case, we were given the blessing of having subjects that come from long lines of storytelling. They are bearers of the tradition and craft that have come through the ages, they have passed their songs and histories from one to another. To a point, this is just another transition, but their own understanding of their cultural histories gives them strong perspective, as in some ways, all stories are made up of ones already told. We just weave them together in different ways, pulling out the lessons that matter. I hope we honored this as best as possible.

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Scene from ‘Tomorrow We Disappear’

SW: Have you been back since they moved into the transit camps? I know there was some footage of it in the film but at that point I don’t think they had moved in just yet. Is the slum now completely bull dozed?

JG: No, actually, what happened was our movie sort of came out in the midst of a hurricane. The Tribeca screening was concurrent with the elections in India where the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was ousting the Congress Party, and Congress had sold the colony and a lot of the bureaucrats who were about to lose their jobs were like, ‘we have to get them out of here,’ because they had a lot of money to make in that redevelopment scheme. The land is worth about 200 million dollars and it was sold for about 2 million dollars from the government to the developers so that, you know, you give the land cheap and then everyone profits on what is actually made there. So right before the elections, they were really trying to oust them, but because the film was premiering, because we had a lot of contacts in Delhi and because the artists had a lot of contact in Delhi, we were able to put a lot of media attention on it and the Kathputli were able to stay. The new party that has come into power in Delhi which is the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is much more sympathetic to their cause. And government officials and chief ministers in Delhi have actually seen the movie and quite liked it. We’re watching this with obvious vigilance and concern and healthy skepticism but we have to say that for the first time in over four years of production of this film we are viewing things with a bit of optimism. Only 300 families have moved out of about 3,000 plus families in total and the 300 families that did move aren’t artists.

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Scene from ‘Tomorrow We Disappear’

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After spending time with this film, my mind keeps going back to two statements that Weber and Cogan said, “our hope is just that people will listen” and “a lot of it is just learning to listen, being careful not to project a narrative on subjects, and allowing them to tell their own story.” We’ve all got something to say to the world, individually and within our cultural groups. This film is a reminder of how valuable and necessary it is to have different perspectives and keep the collective imagination expansive and open.

Tomorrow We Disappear has screened at various film festivals and released on iTunes August 25.

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