One of the more memorable Indian films to be screened during the Mumbai Film Festival was Shaunak Sen’s documentary Cities of Sleep. The film is a study of the geography and economy of sleep in Delhi, where Sen lives. Delhi is one of the few cities in the country to have night shelters for the homeless. But when these are full, especially in winter when it’s too cold to sleep on the street, where do people go?
They go to men, themselves just a few rungs removed from the street, who profit from this bodily need. There’s Jamaal bhai, a godfather-like tea vendor in Meena Bazaar who runs a sort of parking lot for sleepers, which Sen stumbled upon in 2013 after a flat tyre stranded him in central Delhi. The city’s homeless rent cots and blankets from Jamaal bhai and retire on a patch of ground he has commandeered. For them, sleep is a precious commodity that he controls. They must keep him happy for he’s a moody fellow. So they gather at his tea stall and court him with poetry.
A cheaper option is Ranjit’s makeshift movie theatre beneath Loha Pul over the Yamuna where men come to watch old Hindi films and doze. The place is full of metaphors. The slumbering men are suspended between life, represented by the busy bridge above and temporary unconsciousness, echoed by the Yamuna, the Styx of Delhi where people often come to commit suicide. The movies are like manifestations of sweet dreams, which is why the men sleep easily to a soundtrack of songs and dialogue. These parallels are not lost on Ranjit, a philosophical figure whose voice we hear at the start of the documentary. “Do you know why people sleep on dividers?” he asks. Because the whooshes of wind scattered by speeding cars keeps mosquitoes away.
Sen’s guide through the film is Shakeel, a shifty, oddball character who has to search for a place to sleep every night. During the day, he affects a limp and begs at signals. At night he traces a sleeper’s map for Sen – the government-run night shelters, the spots where people are in danger of being shooed away by guards, the safe areas. He’s a bit of a liar and wastrel, which doesn’t make him very likeable. But these qualities also make him an intriguing character and one deserving sympathy. For the homeless are truly wretched as they’re deprived of sleep. The sage Ranjit says if you want to enslave a man, control his sleep. This is not entirely untrue as we’ve learned from accounts of custodial torture. For the urban poor, attempting to rest on streets that are strewn with filth, patrolled by unfriendly watchmen, freezing in winter and sodden in the rains, is a daily torture.
Cities of Sleep will be screened by Vikalp, a collective of documentary filmmakers, on Thursday, November 26 at 6.30pm at Jnanapravaha, Queen’s Mansion, Third Floor, Ghanshyam Talwatkar Marg, next to Cathedral Middle School, Fort. Tel: 022 2207 2974. Get directions here. There is no entry fee.