Tomorrow We Disappear chronicles the last days of Kathputli, the mysterious hand-built artist colony first discovered in Salman Rushdie’s iconic Midnight Children. Hidden in the alleyways of New Delhi, a community of magicians, acrobats and puppeteers approach their looming eviction to make way for a modern skyscraper. Bound together by tradition and impending gentrification, this captivating film allows us to experience a culture’s magic and wonder before it’s gone.
Directors Jimmy Goldblum and Adam Weber are both critically acclaimed filmmakers. Goldblum won the Emmy for New Approaches to Documentary for “Live Hope Love,” an interactive documentary he produced for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Goldblum also wrote, filmed, and produced “The Institute for Human Continuity”, an online narrative for Sony Pictures’ film “2012”.
Weber edited Michel Gondry’s Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy (IFC Films), an animated documentary about Noam Chomsky, which IndieWire named one of the top 3 documentaries of 2013. Weber was an assistant editor on Gondry’s The Green Hornet, and previously worked as the apprentice editor on Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards.
Tomorrow We Disappear is now available on iTunes and through the films website at www.twdfilm.com. We spoke with co-director Adam Weber about why it was important to document the Kathputli colonies plight, the challenges they faced during the filming process and how they were able to gain the trust of local residents.
How did you first learn about the Kathputli colony and their plight?
We were college roommates together. We were both English majors, and constantly shared books and films with each other. I remember reading Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie one summer and being completely overwhelmed by it. It’s a beautiful and emotional journey of India’s Independence narrated by a boy named Saleem. When Jimmy read “Mightnight’s Children” a few years later, he found himself inspired by the “magicians’ ghetto” in which Saleem spends time near the end of the novel. A google search led Jimmy to a short Times of India article stating that (a) there is a place in Delhi that served as the basis for that novel and that (b) there’s a rumor it could soon be bulldozed.
Why did you feel it was important to highlight their story, to document their struggle?
Gentrification is happening everywhere. Being on the wrong side of modernization always feels like a losing battle. But what ends up being lost in typical tradition vs modernity-stories is the perspective of the people going through it. We hear about statistics or we see objectified poor people, but it’s always from a top-down perspective. When we traveled to Kathputli, the most striking thing to us was just how confusing this process was for the people living on the land. We wanted our film to show the messiness of how this information trickles down to the people actually being affected by it, and–more importantly–it’s psychological effects.
How did the Kathputli community perceive your intentions? Were they supportive and inviting from the start or did you have to build their trust?
Trust is always a tough thing to earn. When we first popped off the subway in Delhi and wandered through the alleyways into the center of Kathputli, they regarded us the way they regarded many white tourists before us–as white tourists. And we were. We had sunblock on, we had cameras around our necks, we had cargo pants on. But the difference in our approach is simply that we kept coming back, everyday, for months. And then we came back the next year, everyday, for months. And then we came back the next year. Over time, these performers stopped performing for us and we became friends–and our cameras became less of a bother and less of a barrier. As far as our experience goes in documentary filmmaking, I don’t really see a short cut.
Did you or your crew experience any conflicts with law enforcement, government officials or DDA representatives during the filming process?
Rehman, the magician in the film, warned us early on in our process that he and street performers like him had a long history of police harassment. We ran into two instances with the police while filming with Rehman, both of which we made sure to put in the film. In our first run-in with the police, they asked for a bribe to allow him to stay on the street, which he refused to give. The police broke up the show soon after and Rehman went home anxious about how he was going to put food on the table. Other than that, we were mostly shooting within the confines of the Kathputli Colony, which kept us pretty well hidden from any government officials.
Did you ever get a sense that the artists/performers felt a sense of duty or obligation to past generations to keep the spirit and tradition of their craft alive? If more resources and alternate career opportunities were available to the Kathputli residents, do you think they would explore these opportunities?
There is a lot of pressure on everyone in the Colony in either direction, which is why the film is more about an identity crisis than it is about anything else. There are many different opinions about how the traditional arts are kept alive. Puran, our puppeteer, feels very strongly that there is a deep interconnectedness between the architecture of a place and the culture within that place; knock down the walls and the connective tissue holding the village together is also at risk. He told us that “there in the flats, all of my dreams, all I want to learn and do, will go away…Our art is already half-dead. What’s left, that will die too.” Maya, our young acrobat feels differently. She sees the Colony as both a beautifully nostalgic, and problematic place. She is looking forward to moving into the flats and doesn’t think her art is in danger. She’ll continue to perform acrobatics regardless of what her house looks like.
Despite the poor conditions they lived in, the policemen forcing bribes and a government trying to drive them from their land, many of the residents appeared to be in good spirits. From your perspective, was that the general consensus?
They were all obviously going through a lot during filming. There were many nights that were tense, and plenty of moments in the film attempt to capture that mood. But while it’s hard to emotionally generalize the colony, we did notice that there was a much more laid-back, fun-loving attitude in the Colony when juxtaposed to our experience living in New York. The people in the Kathputli Colony live at a different pace. I can honestly say that spend a night on a rooftop drinking beer or rum is both a common occurrence in the Colony, and also some of the best nights that we had while there. Most people would regard us with a smile and probably even an invitation into their home for some chai.
Was there an individual subject or situation that particularly resonated with you?
Seeing Puran’s map of his ideal colony was a really powerful moment. It happened in the context of casually hanging out on his roof, drinking chai and watching him make puppets that someone had commissioned. We asked him what he would do if he could do whatever he wanted, and he pulled out a marker-drawn, aerial diagram of an imaginary artist village. That moment really struck us because his idealism was tangible. As his hand-built home is on the brink of destruction, he is still fantasizing about a new place dedicated to the traditional arts. As he pointed out the giant theater to us and described the intricacies of each family home, it was both powerfully hopeful and painfully hopeless. When we returned a year later, Puran had destroyed the map out of frustration.
What was the most challenging aspect of making this documentary? In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
There were of course many technical challenges when shooting in a place like the Kathputli Colony. We were hesitant to use their electricity to charge our equipment, our cameras would sometimes overheat during the summer months, and, as you can imagine, recording clean audio in an artists’ colony full of drummers is an impossible task. But, honestly, those technical challenges are secondary to the emotional challenges of befriending people in an endangered settlement who are constantly worried about their families–and there’s nothing you can do to prepare yourself for that.
Are there any recent developments regarding the Kathputli colony you could share with us? Have they successfully pushed back against the government and land developers or have they been driven from their land?
We’re in the process now of making arrangements to return to the Kathputli Colony for the latest update, but about 300 families from the slum have relocated voluntarily to the transit camp. The majority of the Kathputli people, however (~3,000 families), have refused to relocate. Also, the Congress Party, which sold the Kathputli land to Raheja Developers, have been ousted; the current government, the Aam Aadmi Party, is far more sympathetic to the artists’ cause, and while we always remain vigilant, there have been little bursts of hope over this past year.
What’s next for you? Are you currently working on any followup projects? If so, can you share any details?
Unfortunately we can’t announce anything just yet, but we’re both collaborating again on a global documentary series based that borrow many themes from our experience in the Kathputli Colony.