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 new film tracks India's homeless as they struggle to find a place to rest.
New Delhi’s middle-to-upper classes throng to one of the big, fancy malls in the city on the weekends—in search of a new outfit from Zara, the Louis Vuitton-stamped bag to match, or the newest pair of Ferragamos. But Delhi’s migrant laborers, many of whom may have helped build these malls, look for something much more basic every night: a place to rest their heads.
The demand among Delhi’s homeless for safe, state-run spaces has long outweighed the supply. That leaves thousands of homeless men, women, and children sleep out in the open: on pavements that divide busy roads, or under bridges and stationary cars. In the summer, heat or mosquito-borne diseases claim the lives; in the winter, it’s the freezing cold.
Every few months or so, news of a car running over some pavement-sleepers make the headlines. But such incidents barely register on the radar of the city’s more privileged residents.
From 2004 to 2015, more than 33,000 homeless have died on the streets of the capital for many of the reasons mentioned above, according to government estimates. Those who survived have remained invisible. A new documentary called Cities of Sleep explores their world, uncovering how terribly fraught such a basic human need has become for the people at the base of the India’s socioeconomic hierarchy.
“The idea was to look at sleep through a social and political lens,” Delhi-based filmmaker Shaunak Sen tells CityLab via Facebook. “Just a good night’s sleep is a matter of life and death for some people.”
The film follows Shakeel, a young homeless man, as he deals with the “sleep mafia”—goons who try to capitalize on the scarcity of safe sleeping spaces in the absence of government safety nets. “We were the first to recognize the sheer economic might of sleep,” explains Jamal Bhai, a man who rents out cots to the homeless men like Shakeel, in the movie’s trailer. “They say we’re illegal, but we’re the ones actually doing social service.”
Another character in this world is Ranjeet, who runs a “sleep-cinema”—a makeshift shelter under an iron bridge on the banks of the Yamuna River. Large sheets of cloth divide the space into four compartments in which Bollywood movies are screened, and cots are available for 10 rupees (15 cents) a night. Every day, roughly 400 homeless people come to this by the shelter, Sen says, hoping to find a spot for rest and to escape their economic circumstances.
“This city is divided by sleep. To figure out the extent of someone’s power, observe the way they sleep,” Ranjeet says in the film. “Only the man who sleeps and wakes up as he wishes is free in the truest sense of the word.”
The film premiered in Delhi this month and is making rounds at film festivals around India. Check out the trailer above.