“We are the flying birds. Here today and gone tomorrow.”
There is a magical place in New Delhi that is home to the world’s largest community of street performers. It is called Kathputli Colony, or, The Colony of the Puppets, and is the origin of India’s artistic traditions including singing, acrobatics, puppeteering and magic shows. In 2010 the Delhi government sold the Kathputli land to developers with the intention of building a 10-storey commercial and residential block, forcing Kathputli residents to re-evaluate their status and identity as mere ‘street rats’, or as artists. Tomorrow We Disappear follows members of the Kathputli Colony over 3 years as they begin a painstaking fight to keep both their homes and New Delhi’s culture alive.
A socio-political documentary directed by Jimmy Goldbulm and Adam Weber, Tomorrow We Disappear stands apart from fellow socio-political documentaries for reasons both good and… not.
From its synopsis, Tomorrow We Disappear promises to be two things; artistic and thought-provoking. While vibrant shots of the Colony and its inhabitants prove visually pleasing, story development feels slow and secondary to Goldbulm and Weber’s aim to create a piece of art themselves.
The films key strength is in its opening. Thrown right into a participatory narrative we are introduced to the films key protagonist – Puran, a puppeteer who wins viewers affection as he self-consciously asks the camera crew whether he should don a shirt for the documentary. After a brief internal struggle, he decides the plain singlet he is currently wearing is the perfect choice; he points to the rejected shirt “I wear that when I’m performing. Not now.” The participatory-style opening highlights a focus on ‘storytelling’ from the outset, but the importance of doing so truthfully. Key characters; Puran the puppeteer, Kehman the street magician, and Maya the acrobat, pull audiences into their world through piece-to-cameras, introducing themselves as artists who hope to have their culture preserved via means of a documentary. They are artists, and they are telling us their story.
The film employs the use of news broadcasts to provide authoritative context to Puran, Kehman and Maya’s statements, however this isn’t used enough. There is little outside opinion included, with the documentary’s primary focus being on how the community will (or will not) allow the development to take place. The community is torn, resulting in a documentary that consists largely of disagreements and disputes. While this sufficiently captures the heart break of the community, it becomes tiresome to watch and any plot development is few and far between.
The film’s most powerful moment occurs when Maya tells us of her dreams beyond being an acrobat; to become a teacher and to do a computer course. Her mother, in the background, interrupts, commenting that Maya will never marry and because of this, they are unsure whether to invest in her education. The camera focuses on Maya and we watch as she silently brushes away a tear. Although unrelated to the primary narrative, this small moment provides viewers with a brief instant of emotional relief, to recognise the sadness of not only Maya’s situation, but of the whole community’s as opposed to the stress evoked from watching dispute after dispute.
While typos in the subtitles became slightly annoying (if you’re OCD, consider yourself warned), the film was interesting and visually pleasing to watch. Word of advice, make sure you’re feeling attentive as Tomorrow We Disappear is dialogue heavy (which means a lot of subtitle reading).