What do the names Raja Hindustani, Toofan, Jyotsna, Reshma and Chandni have in common? They are names of popular Hindi films. They are also the names of a group of children, brothers and sisters, who are wandering performers on the streets, pavements, fun-fairs, carnivals, markets, grounds, bridges and railway platforms of Kolkata in noted filmmaker Arvind Sinha's King of India.
Ratan Singh, the father of these children, is a migrant from Chhatisgarh, who claims to be a descendant of the 'Nats' of Rajasthan, but lives in a tent-like temporary shanty in the suburbs of Kolkata with wife Radha, and the children. Today, the Nats are outside the caste system, and considered untouchables, although the medieval Rajputs they claim to be descended from were famed warriors. For several months each year, hundreds of wayside performers like this family make the chaotic and colourful metropolis their temporary home. "In the big city there is a ready audience for their entertaining skills. But they live in conditions that even the most primitive municipality should not approve of," says Sinha.
"Nats are mentioned in texts like Manu Smriti and Kautilya's Arthashastra, each at least 2000 years old. They are found in practically every part of the Indian sub-continent," says Sinha. "They hold their separate social identity close to their heart. A lot of them are quite gifted, both in looks and artistic qualities. I've observed them to be robust, sensuous, nomadic, and carefree. They are also known to encourage their women to practice prostitution on the side to augment their earnings," he adds.
Sinha is a leading Indian documentary filmmaker. He has won some of the most prestigious awards in the world for his films - in Leipzig, Bilbao, New York and Japan. He also won the prestigious Hoso-Bunka Foundation TV Documentary Competition in 2001. He has won the National Award (President's Award) eight times, five times as director and three times as producer. He picked up these children while he was making his earlier documentary Journeyings and Conversations on migrants from Bihar, UP and other states who have made Howrah and its periphery their homes. He began following the children as they wandered from one street to another, went back home, shared a cheap thali of food and sang, danced, performed acrobatics with cheap and crude make-up on their faces, over a period of six years, from 2002 to 2008.
King of India was screened at the Joris Ivens Competition at IDFA in Amsterdam, one of the two Indian films ever to have been selected for its main competition. The film is a wide canvas of the poverty Ratan Singh lives in with his family. The camera travels into streets and bylanes of a Kolkata we do not generally get to see, thus throwing up a collage of the city from a perspective many are not familiar with.
"I have tried to take both a macro and a micro view of the Nat community of performers in the backdrop of a totally insensitive 'mainstream' India, which is unwilling to provide physical space to these people living in the margins. No one either cares or notices their presence among pigs and dogs and rodents, and I found them co-existing without any qualms in blissful harmony along the railway tracks," says Sinha, who grew close to the Singh family over the six years he took to shoot the film.
The camera opens on the crudely painted face of a little boy of six or seven. His name is Raja Hindustani, after the popular Amir Khan hit because, his parents say he was born the day Raja Hindustani was released. He is a street performer who performs on the streets of Kolkata, on railway platforms of Sealdah and Howrah, with his older brother Toofan and sister Jyotsna, to the accompaniment of a cheap dholak that has seen better days. This little boy Raja, and his kin are the heroes of Sinha's 107-minute-long film.
Ratan Singh's time is spent putting make-up on their faces with indigenously prepared black kohl for eyes, moustaches, etc, some garish red paint for lipstick and rouge and talcum powder for the face. The rest of his time is spent drinking and dancing away to merriment, singing old Hindi film songs and taking pride in his ancestry. The deep influence of Hindi mainstream cinema on the lives of the family and on the performances of the children comes across strongly. When the family walks out of a temporary theatre after watching a Bengali film, Singh spells out the names of three popular Hindi films from which ideas and plots have been lifted for this film.
The wife pitches in, cooking and cleaning as the debts begin to mount. When asked why they do not send their kids to school, Ratan Singh says they cannot afford to, adding, "what will they gain from schooling?" A while later, Radha smiles and says, "We are smart people you see? Our children earn a lot so instead of our spending money on education that will hardly bring in anything, even without education they can bring in a lot every day." But her daughter-in-law Julie repeats that she wants to send her son Kishore Kumar (named after the playback singer) to school because "he will be able to read and write and keep hisaab-kitaab and maintain accounts and will not be cheated."
Over the six-year span the film covers, Sinha shows how the eldest girl, Janaki, is married off to a boy from another family of Nats from their old Chhatisgarh village. Toofan grows up to marry Julie, a love marriage. Along with his wife and infant Kishore Kumar, he heads the siblings in their daily routine. Ranjan Palit's camera returns again and again to the performing kids, closing up on the smiling painted face of Raja Hindustani, or on Julie's collection plate as she goes around the crowd to collect the money.
There is one touching shot showing Toofan and Julie's toddler carted around for the shows, turning on his stomach to puke on the street. Another shocking sequence shows Chandni fall off the make-shift trapeze during a performance that hurts her but no one talks about taking her to a doctor, including Chandni herself. Another scene shows little Kishore Kumar trying to learn the tricks of the trade when he has not even begun to talk!
Through the story of these children, their parents and their pathetic existence, Sinha makes a scathing indictment on the skewed development that globalisation has brought forth into the city. "The story of children like Raja Hindustani is just a tip of the massive iceberg of a growing population that remains completely forgotten when the benefits of globalization are shared by the fortunate few. Ratan Singh, his wife Radha who he throws out when Julie enters to take charge, their children and grandchildren are merely a metaphor for the massive poor whose lives have not been touched by the booming economy," sums up Sinha.
The names of these children stand out in stark irony against the films they are named after. In this sense, King of India is a powerful socio-political statement. At the same time, it also raises questions and points an accusing finger at a Shining India of which we are a part, where even the radiance of the glitter does not reach the lives of these children who light up their street audience with joy and fun, but they remain in the dark themselves.