Last week I was lucky enough to watch two documentaries on Indian subjects back-to-back at Hot Docs, Toronto’s documentary film festival.
Kings of the Wind and Electric Queens is ostensibly about the Sonepur Fair, which takes place in Bihar every year on Kartik Poornima (the full moon day) in November. This documentary is not for everyone, as it has no storyline, no narration, not even any intertitles – it’s just 55 minutes of atmosphere at the fair. An elderly mahout and his young assistant coax an elephant into a river and scrub its skin with stones. A horse breeder shows off his best horse, a slender-legged and -nosed creature that looks like it stepped out of a Mughal painting. A Sadhu places tikas on the foreheads of men waiting in line to see dancing girls. Scantily clad and heavily made-up girls make sure to respectfully touch the stage before stepping onto it to half-heartedly gyrate. A group of stuntmen ride motorbikes around a “wall of death,” the cameras attached to their handlebars providing my favourite footage in the film. In addition to having no narration, the documentary also doesn’t feature a score – instead its soundtrack are the sounds of the fair: the voices of the men and women, honking horns and revving engines, and filmi music both new and old. Kings of the Wind and Electric Queens won the award for best mid-length documentary at Hot Docs.
Tomorrow We Disappear is a more conventional documentary about the Kathputli artist colony in Delhi and what happens to its residents when the land the colony sits on is sold by the government to real estate developers. The documentary focuses on Puran, a cheerful, National Award-winning puppeteer who doesn’t hesitate to get involved in the debate between the residents and the developers. In contrast to Puran is his friend Rahman, a street magician with a tendency towards moroseness and no interest in the controversy over the colony’s future. The cast of characters is rounded out by Maya, a young acrobat whose lovely face betrays no sign of a life full of physical trauma. Although trained from birth in acrobatics, and proud of that heritage, she also dreams of taking a computer course, or becoming a teacher. The documentary does a good job of showing the charm of a community populated by circus artists and related craftspeople, helped by a great soundtrack by one of the composers behind indie darling Beasts of the Southern Wild. But it also shows the problems of living in what is in fact a slum – flooding, dodgy electrics, and mounds of garbage just to name a few. The sale of the land their homes stand on raises difficult questions for the residents of Kathputli – including, heartbreakingly, whether they are really artists or just poor people. The residents also have to grapple with the idea that while being relocated into apartment buildings might mean a better future for their children, breaking up the existing community would make it more likely that their children won’t continue the practice of their ancestral arts. Unfortunately there are no easy answers for the residents of Kathputli, and the documentary, despite spanning three years, offers no resolution. In fact, it ends with news footage of the residents protesting against their eviction that was filmed just last month.
Despite enjoying both these films I have to also point out that Kings of the Wind & Electric Queens was directed by two French men, Cédric Dupire and Gaspard Kuentz, and Tomorrow We Disappear was directed by two American men, Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber, leading me to wonder why these quintessentially Indian stories were not being told by Indian filmmakers. Of course, you only have to look at the credits of both films to be able to guess at least part of the reason why – because these filmmakers had access to institutions (and tools like Kickstarter) that could provide funding so that they could research, film, and craft their respective documentaries.