sensory, material, & digital anthropology
Tomorrow We Disappear, a new documentary by Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber, introduces audiences to the puppeteers, acrobats, magicians, and musicians of the Kathputli artists’ colony in Delhi. Some of these artists have won national awards and traveled around the world, while others perform daily on the streets to make a living. Together, they represent parts of traditional Indian culture, passing down skills and knowledge from generation to generation.
The film explores the challenges that arise when the Indian government launches a development project to build Delhi’s first high-rise on the site of the colony. Officials need to remove the artists in order to access the land, and try to get the artists to agree to relocate to a temporary settlement, and then move into subsidized apartments in the high rise. Goldblum and Weber follow the artists as they navigate a convoluted and inaccessible bureaucracy, recording the injustices they face while providing a thoughtful, skillful exploration of the pressures of development and modernization.
The dynamic between preserving the past and accepting change emerges through the stories of three lead protagonists: Puran Bhatt, an elder of the community and a nationally-recognized puppeteer, Rahman, a middle-aged street magician, and Maya, a young acrobat in her twenties. For Puran, relocation into apartments would mean the death of the colony; Kathputli artists need space, earth, open air, and community. Maya, on the other hand, welcomes the move as a new start with fresh opportunity, a chance to pursue other passions and build a career. Rahman is caught in the middle, wanting his life in the colony to stay the same, but also hoping for more opportunities for his young son.
I was initially wary of the film’s framing as a salvage ethnography. The Kickstarter campaign promises to take viewers “into the world of the Kathputli Colony, to experience the last remnants of its unique culture before it’s too late.” This language is echoed throughout the story, and because Puran emerges as the main protagonist, his perspective comes through most clearly in the film. His arguments and artistic passion are compelling, and the cinematography and music work together to underscore his words with the fragile beauty of community life. The Wrap’s review of Tomorrow We Disappear describes it as “a real-life Beasts of the Southern Wild,” and there were many moments in the film when this rang true for me. The film is full of beautiful shots of Kathputli; people working together, supporting each other, making art, teaching children, carrying on tradition. Vibrant colors and inspirational score all strike a deeply romantic chord, and make it easy to feel that this community shouldn’t be destroyed, that things should remain the way they are.
Of course, the quest to crystallize the past is not only infeasible, but also undesirable for many members of the community. While this message is somewhat overshadowed by the inspirational clarity of Puran’s vision, Goldblum and Weber portray the other side as well: slums, mountains of trash, flooded houses, and limited opportunities to pursue other ways of life. And as Maya shares her dreams of becoming a teacher, and explains how she wants more, it feels wrong to insist on preserving the past at the expense of the present.
The result is that the audience is caught between possible futures for the community, lost in a sort of infinitely liminal space of contradictions and confusions. There are no easy answers here for anyone involved, from the artists to the Indian government. And as audience members we also become implicated, and are forced to question what role, if any, we should have in this story. These tensions run deep throughout the film, and leave viewers with a sense of profound uncertainty around these central questions.
However, as Goldblum and Weber reiterated in the Q&A, beneath the tensions between tradition and modernity, the film exposes a baseline of injustice that everyone can unequivocally agree to stand against. The Kathputli artists face an obscure, ambiguous process of resettlement, with little information from the government, and no answers to their questions about how the situation is evolving. Furthermore, new flats are being offered to only some of the community, which leaves many families uprooted in permanent states of dislocation. Here the film moves into more traditional tropes of activist documentaries, providing the audience with a clear cause to rally around.
Overall, Tomorrow We Disappear is well worth watching. Not only for questions it raises about how and why we should preserve traditional ways of life, but also for its portrayal of the Kathputli community itself. Goldblum and Weber offer intimate, nuanced portraits of Puran, Rahman, and Maya, and explore the relationships between individuals and the community as a whole. The film serves as a reminder that it is easy to speak of a ‘community’ as a cohesive, unified group, but that in reality this is rarely the case. And for anyone interested in folk art or material culture, Will Basanta and Joshua Cogan’s cinematography captures incredible detail of the craftsmanship and performances by Kathputli artists. Tomorrow We Disappear immerses you in the artists’ worlds, and leaves you wanting to see and learn more.
More information about the film, including future screenings and opportunities for action, can be found here.
Photos courtesy of Joshua Cogan
by ELIANA RITTS