By Divya Sachar
Early on, in Shaunak Sen’s Cities of Sleep, which explores the world of sleep shelters providing refuge to the homeless at night, a child asks his father to tell a bedtime story. The tale that is recounted is the old hare and tortoise fable. The lesson learnt is, those who work hard win, and those who sleep are the ones who lose. The film then goes on to turn this fable on its head. In Delhi, where the homeless have no place to hide from the brutal winter nights, the winners can afford the luxury of sleep, while the poorest of the poor, the losers, are condemned to the nightmare of having no place to hide, of having to face the void.
Cities of Sleep makes for an easy comparison with Aman Sethi’s A Free Man. Much like the book, the film is about the lives of the poor in Delhi. Both, Sethi’s book, and Sen’s film, are peopled by colorful characters, and have plenty of humor, something many books and films about the poor fail to capture, busy as they are documenting their misery. Both have characters who are an entertaining bunch of liars and philosophers, poets and braggarts. And both Sethi and Sen do not look down upon their characters. There’s no room for pity and both are shorn of manipulative sentimentalism. (I’m willing to overlook that big close up of a toy in a child’s hands, a metaphor used somewhat clumsily to denote a particular character’s helplessness.). But unlike A Free Man, there is little sense of hope or the freedom that rootlessness can imply. The universe of Cities of Sleep is much darker, the atmosphere bleak and noirish, both in terms of color palette and theme.
Two protagonists emerge from the narrative. Ranjit, a former rickshaw puller who now runs a sleep shelter under a bridge, and Shakeel, a roguish man who begs for a living. But ultimately the film belongs to Shakeel, the more colorful of the two. He is the quintessential unreliable narrator, given to bragging, boasting, threatening, fighting, exaggerating, always performing for the camera. One of the few times Shakeel is not performing is when he breaks down after visiting his father. Shakeel, in a sense, is also a tragi-comic Everyman. His face is often racked with the sheer terror, the existential despair of being all alone out there in the cold, staring at death in the face. The enormous yawns of the sleep deprived Shakeel often evoke Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream.
Performing for the camera is not just Shakeel’s prerogative though. Ranjit too performs, with his ready, poetic aphorisms, and the grandiloquent claim of having saved a thousand people from suicide. His sleep shelter, where one can sleep while watching Bollywood films, evokes a quasi-utopian world amid all the poverty and squalor, of a protective cocoon of restful sleep accompanied by unattainable Bollywood dreams.
Ranjit also talks of the relationship between sleep and cinema, and though the film deftly portrays the ‘economy of sleep’, its means perhaps are not cinematic enough. To be fair, editing a non-fiction film is never easy, especially when one is in the process of discovering the narrative as one shoots in an uncertain world. The essential nature of non fiction is to impose an aesthetic order on material over which one has little narrative control as the events take place in real time. The narrative of Cities of Sleep seems rambling at times. Characters are brought in for the colorful things they have to say but you don’t hear of them afterwards and they seem to get no narrative closure. The audio is cacophonous and one often can’t make out what is being said, and one has to rely solely on the subtitles. Technique wise the film looks much like a debut effort. However, what the film lacks in technique, it often makes up in its honest, non-manipulative and compassionate portrayal of the subaltern world of Delhi, and the freedom and candour with which the characters bare their lives.
In a significant moment, Shakeel, after a night of running from shelter to shelter for refuge, and failing to find it, politely accuses the filmmaker of not doing anything for him, of only being there to film him. The filmmaker, by including this moment, indicts not just himself, but the entire urban upper class to which he belongs, which also primarily comprises the audience of the film. The accusation is that this is a class of people who are not interested in the poor, unless it’s for voyeuristic, exploitative enjoyment of watching or reading about their vulnerability and misery, of poverty porn. The director later, in a discussion, clarified though, that he did help Shakeel, and responded to this question on camera, but kept it out of the film. This raises interesting questions about the power dynamic between the maker and the subject. Is an upper class director exploiting a poverty stricken man for the sake of art, or is this wily, though vulnerable, man performing for the camera, manipulating a better off person for survival? It’s an important ethical point, and the film does well to acknowledge the moment and ‘hand over’ the gaze, for once, to the subject.
This review was first published on the website takhty.in