The author speaks to the directors of “Tomorrow We Disappear”, a film on Delhi’s Kathputli Colony

Kathputli Colony, a neighbourhood of magicians, acrobats and puppeteers near Shadipur, has been the site of a grotesque performance for the last few years: that of redevelopment. In 2011, when the Delhi Development Authority awarded a contract to Raheja Developers to redevelop the slum, American filmmakers Jimmy Goldblum and Adam Weber arrived in the area to make a film about the crisis that was playing out in the lives of the 3500-odd families resident there. The film, titled “Tomorrow We Disappear” will be screened at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival next month. The directors spoke to us about the film and its making. Excerpts from an interview:

How did you find out about Kathputli Colony? What made you decide to make a film about it?

Jimmy: Back in 2009 I was reading Salman Rushdie's “Midnight’s Children.” Very late into the book, the main character Saleem travels into a ghetto full of fakirs and jugglers and street conjurers. The government razes the ghetto, and like magic, it pops up elsewhere in the city. It was such striking imagery, and I wanted to know if Rushdie based it on anything, so I googled “India + Magician’s Ghetto.” That’s when I discovered an old article announcing the impending destruction of New Delhi’s Kathputli Colony. I called Adam, and we told our friends, Josh Cogan and Will Basanta. We knew we all had to go.

Can you give me a sense of the ground that your film covers? Are you not filming the actual relocation?

Adam: We arrived in New Delhi in March of 2011. This was when the plans for Kathputli were first announced. Raheja wanted to build their “Phoenix,” a 55-story skyscraper that’d tower over Shadipur Depot, and a shopping complex. We followed three artistes, a magician, an acrobat, and a puppeteer, all the way up until the point of their relocation.

Jimmy: The film obviously touches on the politics of the move, but we felt like if we focused too much on that one event, it would overwhelm the deeper story of what is unfolding in Kathputli. Delhi’s modernisation to us feels pretty inevitable. In many ways, we thought about our film like an asteroid movie. You try not to focus too much on the asteroid; you focus on people’s relationships, what they love, what they’re afraid of leaving behind, and so forth.

Can you tell us something about your characters? Was it easy for them to trust you?

Adam: Over the years a lot of people have tried to report on Kathputli; they do a one-off photographic essay or a short documentary or an urban studies project. A narrative has formed amongst many of the artistes: “we give you our stories and our art, then you take them, and go back to your country and profit.” We actually talked this out with Lee Siegel, who wrote a wonderful book about Kathputli in the early ’90s called “Net of Magic.” Lee told us: “If you want them to trust you, just keep going back.” That’s what we did, and that’s how we earned their trust.

What were the challenges you faced while making this film?

Jimmy: As we’ve mentioned, a lot of people have tried to tell this story. What that means is many artistes have preconceived notions of how you want to tell their story. They tell you what they think you want to hear: “This is the place of traditions, and the government is taking it away from us.” Even if that’s true, that’s a fairly superficial story and doesn’t get at the real existential struggles with which they’re dealing on a day-to-day level. It took us a lot of time to identify the cracks in that narrative, and that’s when we started to get at something that felt truly honest.

Adam: Weather. You may not be knowing this, but a slum in New Delhi in the April sun is not the ideal place to always be.

What do you think audiences outside of India can take away from the film? Is there a screening/release planned for India?

Adam: Our film captures a global phenomenon: cultures fading away in the name of progress. It’s a theme that’s very present in New York City, where Jimmy and I both live. We’ve met a lot of wonderful people in India who are upset that Americans needed to tell this story, but sometimes it takes an outsider perspective to recognise things that are culturally precious.

Jimmy: We are collaborating with Guneet Monga of Anurag Kashyap Films to make inroads into the Indian marketplace, but we don’t have screenings set up for India yet! So if any film programmers are reading this, please get in touch through our website, twdfilm.com.