The Neolithic Hongshan of China, Cambodia’s Khmer Empire, the inhabitants of Pakistan’s Indus Valley, the Anasazi—cultures up and vanish all the time in world history. And as tragic as the loss of these cultures may be, it might be more tragic that in certain cases we’re not even sure what, exactly, happened to them. Solving the first problem requires a lot of different parts moving in unison. Solving the second just requires a guy to sling a camera. In Tomorrow We Disappear, Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber take the chance to document a contemporary culture that’s on the precipice of dying out: the artists’ colony of Kathputli in New Delhi. If you’ve read Salman Rushdie, you’ve heard of this community, though you might not realize it at first.
Rushdie wrote about Kathputli, the “magician’s ghetto,” in his landmark second novel, Midnight’s Children. In the book, the slum is bulldozed to the ground as soldiers yank residents out of their homes and arrest them. In Tomorrow We Disappear, the situation in Kathputli never grows quite so dire, but that’s not to say the settlement’s disposition is especially cheery, either. As its fate hangs in the balance, Goldblum and Weber capture Kathputli’s mood by following a select number of its tenants over several years. There’s puppeteer Puran Bhat, street magician Rehman Shah, and acrobat Maya Pawar: They’ve each spent their whole lives in Kathputli, but none can agree on how best to meet its impending demolition.
Which might be the biggest surprise of Tomorrow We Disappear, that Goldblum and Weber don’t spoon feed their viewers black-and-white perspectives on their subject matter. The Indian government wants to dismantle Kathputli and install a shopping center and high rises on the land—in a Hollywood film, the developers would be mean-mugging scoundrels, Kathputli’s artists would be scrappy, heroic underdogs, and, in the end, commerce would hit a brick wall comprised of people united to stop industry’s grinding wheels. In Goldblum’s and Weber’s film, those developers are still pretty goddamn scummy—you get the sense that the lead on the project wears sunglasses just to cover up dollar signs floating in his pupils—but when the people come together, they tend to bicker and squabble. What’s really best for Kathputli?
Puran believes that Kathputli must be preserved so as to preserve their art and their history. We’re tempted to take his side in all bouts with his friends and neighbors: He’s a charmer, a man with a big belly and a bigger smile whose infectious, scratchy chuckle could disarm a hostage standoff. Rehman, Puran’s childhood pal, is more of a fatalist. “Whatever has life in it will die with time. This is fate,” he muses. Young Maya has the most pragmatic view, thinking that maybe by signing on with the developer and letting them raise posh skyscraping condos, Kathputli is making progress. The world moves fast; Kathputli has to keep up.
They also have to fight for their identities. We see Rehman repeatedly halted from performing for a crowd by police, who attempt to extort him in the process. The artists aren’t taken seriously by the people, who often cruelly equate Kathputli’s dwellers with vermin. Would living in a stylish flat furnished by Indian bureaucracy change that? The film vacillates between Puran’s romanticized view of Kathputli and a street-level context: Kathputli’s streets are so carpeted with refuse that people drop their litter on more litter. But the film doesn’t endorse gentrification as much as it promotes a nuance of outlooks. (Besides, if the credits tell us anything, it’s that pride and dignity mean more to human beings than ludicrous ultra-luxuries.)
Most importantly, Tomorrow We Disappear shows us what the world loses if it loses Kathputli. In a final, lingering sequence, Rehman openly wishes he could stop the world “for just a moment.” Goldblum and Weber oblige with a slow-motion montage of Puran and his comrades in action. Such is the power of art: Whether with a lens, a tightrope, or a marionette, art can make life hold still. If nothing else, that seems worth preserving, whatever the cost.
Directors: Jim Goldblum, Adam Weber
Release Date: August 25, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.