Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A short film explores why India's controversial sport is so important for three slum residents.
A story Indian grandmas often tell kids about the Hindu god Krishna is how, as a child, he would steal yogurt from earthen pots deliberately kept out of his reach. On Krishna's birthday, a festival celebrated in August each year, this scene is evoked when teams made up (mostly) of young men build human pyramids to reach pots of yogurt strung up at dizzying heights. At the tip on the pyramid, often as high as 40 feet, is usually a young child.
The festival is really popular in the southern state of Maharashtra in India. Small human pyramids form and dissolve during local celebrations held in several neighborhoods of the state's capital, Mumbai. Several bigger competitions around the city—in which teams from India and beyond compete—draw large crowds and corporate and political sponsors.
The pyramids are just as dangerous as they sound. Last year, one person died and almost 300 people were injured in the festival in Mumbai, according to the Wall Street Journal. This year, the state has rallied for stricter age restrictions and safety measures.
But despite the proven dangers, people still participate—and a new short film explores why. "Suburban King/Top Girl" follows three characters from the slums outside of Mumbai as they train for a human pyramid competition in 2014.
The first is the ambitious coach of a team called the "Suburban king":
The second is a key climber:
And the third is a really cute, but much-too-little girl at the tip of the pyramid:
The video, set to a nifty funk/disco song by musician Donn Bhat, looks at one human pyramid contest from the eyes of these three characters. They talk about their aspirations as well as their reasons for shrugging off the very real risks of the sport.
Aakash Bhatia, the film's director, says the story is about what fear and fame mean to these characters from slums in the margins of the city. Mumbai—home to India's film industry and financial district—is the country's city-where-dreams-come-true. In a way, the three characters get to access that dream through this competition.
The music video has been selected as an entry in the Best Music Video category at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. Watch it here: