Director: Shaunak Sen
In the first chapter of Anurag Kashyap’s recently released Raman Raghav 2.0, Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Sindhi Dalvai (or Ramanna) surrenders to police saying he is here because he’ll get a proper place to sleep in jail; they charge thirty rupees outside. Policemen find his reason to surrender baffling, and one of them calls him a joker. What is strikingly similar between Ramanna and the protagonist of Shaunak Sen’s documentary on the business of sleep in Delhi, other than both lacking a proper sleeping place, is that both, inhabiting in the sleepless underbellies of two metro cities, are quintessential unreliable narrators. Difference: former is a serial killer, latter, a beggar.
He’s Shakeel, a migrant from Assam. Shakeel is not his real name though. It’s Manoj. He adopted this Muslim name because it gives him a sense of belonging with the people and places he walks into, which is dominated by Muslims. Naturally, a homeless, he has no place to sleep. He finds solace in sleeping shelters at night. Jamal Bhai, otherwise a tea vendor, gives cots to rent for anything between 20 and 50 rupees. It's mind-boggling to see how an entrepreneurial venture has been made out from a part of human routine.
Jamal Bhai does not trust Shakeel’s rugged and scarred face. No one does. Neither the filmmaker, nor the film. Shakeel has an impaired vision. His stories are hardly reliable. Homeless in Delhi, he has a pucca home back in his hometown in Assam. His not-so-good relationship with his father is the reason why he's in Delhi. His father wants him to have a steady job; is also willing to fix him up with one, but his arrogance comes midway. He’s also a wife-beater, he confesses. He can’t speak English, but can sing to the rap tunes of Bollywood songs. We see these flashes of his, and like a misleading compass in hand, we follow the story that has now become more about the biography of a person than a place.
Midway while filming, the crew lost Shakeel. He disappeared and was unreachable for around six months. Sen told after the screening that Shakeel bagged roles in two local TV shows in that period and one Bollywood film – Rajkumar Hirani’s Aamir Khan starrer p.k.; he’s the blind beggar on the bridge from whom Aamir takes money calling him an ATM. When he returned, he was indeed almost blind.
And in this period when they lost Shakeel, they found Ranjith – film’s another character who adds abstract and philosophical dimension to the story. Ranjith runs a sleeping shelter at Loha Pul, an old iron bridge over Yamuna River in Delhi, which is also a makeshift cinema tent. Ten rupees for three films on a T.V. that gives over six hours of peace. He acknowledges TV as a dream dispensing machine. “The best part of sleeping while watching a film is that you can’t make out what you’re watching is a film or a dream,” he philosophizes. For him, a sleep-inducing movie is not boring, it’s magical.
It’s really magical to see what ways people find to find a peaceful sleep. Meagre labourers, auto-rickshaw drivers do look peaceful when they are asleep or watching films here. “You can be anyone here, you can choose not to be a rickshawala that you are for the outside world,” says Ranjith while talking about his sleeping shelter as an escapist outlet. But within each of them is their daily tussle of survival.
Beneath them is the turbid water of Yamuna that fishes out around ten dead bodies a month. And above them passes the busy, lively city road. They, literally, exist between life and death. Extending on this metaphysical nature of sleep, Ranjith goes on to say, “Sleeping is like existing between life and death, between light and dark, between day and night. There’s a pattern, a rhythm, like how our body rises and submerges as we breathe while sleeping.”
Cities of Sleep tells in its opening scene that sleeping, in the city of Delhi, is not just a necessity or a habit, it's a privilege. It's a luxury that many can't afford. “The city can be seen divided merely on who sleeps where.” In between this socio-economic commentary on sleeping, the same voice slips in a philosophical one, “If you want to seize control over anyone, don’t let him/her sleep.” So the tone is set right at the beginning. It doesn’t feel odd when Ranjith philosophises, a little too much, about... sleeping. His ramblings do come across as heavily constructed though. But then which art form isn’t?
However, it does feel that the director has a pre-conceived, pre-researched idea and the visuals, no matter how fluid, want to direct us towards that inherent idea. Well, that’s, in fact, the nature of cinéma vérité but the idea is not to make it feel like that. Here it does. (So, is it being too true to be, err, truthful cinema?) Like that scene where a father is applying mosquito repellent to his kids to make them sleep peacefully and Amitabh Bachchan’s voice, talking about a poor man’s struggle to raise kids, from the nearby cinema tent runs as a voiceover. And the father goes on to tell his kids bedtime story – a regular hare-and-tortoise one, which is another story whose central conceit involves... sleeping.
There’s an upper-class gaze attached in the way Sen films Shakeel, one can accuse. In a scene, Shakeel looks at the camera, and asks, “You never do anything for me; only keeps on recording me.” In another documentary (or any film, for that matter), one would deduce such a scene to a fourth-wall breaking scene where the character is directly addressing to the audience. Here, the character is talking to the maker – the observer filmmaker – rather than the audience. The scene works at an altogether another level because, in a way, by intruding himself in between the audience and the protagonist, Sen made the process even more unobtrusive.
Sen doesn’t reply to Shakeel in that scene... instantly. Sen confessed after the screening that he was taken aback for a moment and after a long pause, he did reply to him. But we don’t see that in the film, because the story that Sen wants to tell lies in that long pause. And when you have a good story in hand, as they say, don’t let facts come in the way of it.
This review was initially published at TheW14.com.