Can you make a colony vanish?

Published: 20 November, 2011 01:33 IST | Yoshita Sengupta |

Three creative blokes from Brooklyn tell us about a unique magician-performer colony in New Delhi that's about to disappear

Three creative blokes from Brooklyn tell us about a unique magician-performer colony in New Delhi that's about to disappear

The reason former US First Lady Laura Bush knows about a bridge at Shadipur Depot in South Delhi is thanks to the people who live under it. Kathputli Colony is an unusual slum that's home to hundreds of puppeteers, magicians, acrobtas, monkey trainers and performers, who once lived the life of gypsies. It's a world in itself, segregated into sections depending on the specialised prowess of its residents. And so, you can choose to drop by at Kalakaron ki Basti or Madari colony, as residents dressed in vibrant circus attire dodge heaps of garbage lying on either side of a dirt track.

Ishamudin stands on his roof, as his son puts things away after a magic
act. Ishamudin gained global recognition in 1995 when he first performed
the Indian Rope Trick. Pic/Joshua Cogan / Tomorrow We Disappear

And this world that fits into a 5.22-hectare plot is about to be razed. The Delhi Development Authority (DDA) had talked of its desire to clear the capital's slums, known as jhuggi jhopri clusters, before it hosted the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Sixteen year-old Maya Pawa's parents began stretching her limbs when
she was three years-old. Now, she is regarded as the most talented
acrobat in the colony.
Pic/Joshua Cogan / Tomorrow We Disappear

Newspaper reports suggested that as part of a scheduled two-year redevelopment, the builder agreed to move the colony's residents to a temporary site. But only those families with valid identification cards would be granted homes. A door-to-door survey conducted by the DDA counted 2,700 families but unofficial estimates put the number at 10,000. The lives of these artistes is nothing but ironic. They have lived in squalor for 50 years with little support from the government. But when it comes to showcasing India to the world, officials turn to Kathputli's residents.

Where else in the world can you enter a slum full of artists and have
them offer to show you photo albums stuffed with pictures of themselves
with Laura Bush, and former presidents of India?
--Jim Goldblum, director

The colony caught the fancy of three American artists Jim Goldblum, Adam Weber, and Joshua Cogan who arrived  in Delhi in 2011 to film Tomorrow We Disappear. Goldbum speaks to Sunday MiD DAY over email about the success of their first shooting schedule, and how even a 'Delhi Belly', unbearable heat and stubborn rickshaw drivers cannot discourage them for revisiting this month to wrap up the project.

Could you tell us about the people involved with this project?
My name is Jim Goldblum, and I am director and interactive producer of the film. In 2008, I won an Emmy for New Approaches to Documentary for the film,, which was an interactive documentary I produced with Bluecadet, Josh Cogan, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Adam Weber is co-director for Tomorrow We Disappear. Weber is an editor, who has worked for directors like Quentin Tarantino and Michel Gondry. Our Director of Photography, Will Basanta is an amazing shooter, whose film Jess+Moss premiered at the Sundance festival last year. He is working alongside my old friend, Joshua Cogan, to make this film beautiful. 

How and when did you come across this colony in Delhi?
I was reading Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and there's a section in there where the protagonist enters a magicians' ghetto. There was this line in there -- "the ghetto of the magicians disbelieved, with the absolute certainty of illusionists-by-trade, in the possibility of magic", and I just loved it. I Googled India + magician ghetto and found a small article about the sale of the Kathputli Colony. Seven months later, we were there, filming it.

What's the Kathputli community like?
Many of these performers are nomads. Before radio, television, and film, they were the people who were crafting stories that would be heard from Bengal to Rajasthan. Many cultural historians hold them responsible for creating the space for India's unification.

These characters have lived momentous lives, lives that hit the lowest degradation, and saw glimpses of the highest luxury. Where else in the world can you enter a slum full of artistes and have them offer to show you their photo albums stuffed with pictures of themselves with Laura Bush, and former presidents of India?
Were they open to interactions?
We were not the first filmmakers to show up there and try to tell their story. There have been exploiters in the past,  both, from within India and abroad. At first, they were understandably sceptical. But we kept showing up, every day for six weeks, in the heat of Delhi's May, and earned their respect. Honestly, we just approached the whole project as a collaboration; artists working with artistes, and when they caught onto that, we had an amazing time together.

Now, one of the street magicians, Rahman, refuses to perform in a spot where we filmed him because it reminds him of us. It's a really lovely thing, isn't it, Jewish filmmakers from hipster Brooklyn can be like brothers with Muslim magicians in the slums of Delhi? 
Any hiccups?
Ha! Three of the four of us got the 'Delhi Belly'. I was thankfully spared. The kids in the colony loved the camera, so every time we were trying to get a nice intimate shot of alley ways, we'd suddenly have a dozen children begging us for 'one photo'. That made shooting a bit tough. The hardest bit was that rickshaw drivers refused to drive us there. We'd spend an hour on certain mornings haggling.

How long did your first production schedule last?
We were there for six weeks between April and June, 2011. 
How did you manage to find funds for your first schedule?
We got a production grant from Condition ONE in Brooklyn, and we also raised funds from friends, family, and old business contacts. 
Where does the film stand and when do you intend to begin the second production schedule?
We are coming back to New Delhi at the end of this month. We are about halfway through our shoot, and are really looking forward to checking in, making sure everyone is okay.

What do you plan to do with the film?
This is a story we all believe in, and we want to make sure it is seen by as many people as possible. I would love to have it up on Indian television or posted online to make sure it's viewed.
Did you stumble on any more stories while in India?
When you are in documentary filmmaking, the question you are always asked is, "Have you found your story?" In India, the problem is there are too many stories, so the real challenge is to find your focus. For now, we are keeping our attention on the people of Kathputli to make sure we tell their story with honesty and integrity. That said, if you hear of anything cool, we are open to pitches!

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