For over five decades, magicians, puppeteers, acrobats, snake charmers and street performers have emerged out of and vanished into Kathputli Colony in west Delhi. Since 2011, the cluster of shanties and low-rise structures has been under another kind of spell – of redevelopment. One portion of the plot will be used to house 2,800 families, while the rest will be given over to skyscrapers and commercial complexes. Allegations of graft and undue favours have dogged the real-estate firm involved in the project, while the prestidigitators and performers squat in transit housing.

Tomorrow We Disappear, a 2014 documentary by Jim Goldblum and Adam M Weber, is an absorbing chronicle of the changes that have taken place in the slum cluster over the past few months. Shooting on the 80-minute film, whose backers include Indian producer Guneet Monga, began soon after the Delhi Development Authority began conducting a video census to separate genuine and spurious claims. (The DDA maintains a website on the colony’s development plans.)

“Remember us,” says one of the magicians to the directors, and they do just that. Through interviews with a set of characters, including renowned puppeteer Puran Bhat, acrobat Maya Pawar and magician Rehman Sha, they unearth the problems of developing a slum that has been created and shaped by its residents to suit their needs. The horizontally dense slum had enough free patches and limitless rooftops for twirling lessons, ten-foot-long puppets, fire-eating practice and 15-feet-high stilts, which are missing from the new apartment blocks.

The situation in Delhi is similar to Mumbai’s Dharavi shantytown, where redevelopment has been opposed by small-scale manufacturers such as potters and leather goods makers on the ground that their proposed new homes are not designed for their professional. Tomorrow We Disappear contrasts the old Kathputli Colony’s congested and impoverished but also colourful and accommodating alleyways with the barrack-like transit camp that can scarcely contain human, let along magician, and stretches out in grey and stultifying dullness. Excerpts from an interview with Jim Goldblum.

In your director’s statement, you say that 'Kathputli is dying', and you see the film as 'its funeral; not a Western-style funeral that laments the tragedy of loss, but an Indian funeral, which honors the uniqueness and vibrancy of its life'. How did you attempt to translate this idea cinematically?
It was really important that we didn’t frame our documentary as a depressing lament: “Oh, these poor artists losing their arts, losing their homes.” That sentiment is more commonly transposed onto them by outsiders and just not reflective in how the artists lived day-to-day. Many times they were sad, of course, but they were also funny, ironic, creative, and empowered. Our film’s protagonist Puran Bhat reacted to the news of the relocation by throwing a parade with jugglers, stilt walkers, fire breathers, monkey men, and a full Rajasthani brass band.

Many artists are marching forward and fighting to preserve their way of life against truly impossible odds, and we wanted the film to capture their wild dignified spirit.

How did you first hear of Kathputhli Colony, and why did it persuade you to travel to India and spend close to three years on shooting the documentary?
One of our favourite books is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Very late into that book the main character Saleem ventures into a magician's ghetto. There was this colourful description of a slum full of illusionists that the police would raid and bulldoze, and it’d pop up elsewhere in the city, like a magic trick. I loved the imagery so much that I wanted to know if it was real, so I googled “India + Magician’s Ghetto” and discovered a one-paragraph Times of India article from 2011 about the relocation of Kathputli. I forwarded that over to Adam, my co-director, and we left New York for India within six months.

How did you react to the peculiar geography of the Indian slum in general and Kathputhli Colony in particular?
You can trace Kathputli’s history like the rings of a tree. Because Kathputli has a bit of notoriety in the press, it’s harder for the government to just knock it down. So when other slums in Delhi are razed, many times their inhabitants will move to Kathputli. On the outskirts, you’ll find these poorer slum dwellers living amongst shoddy hovels, open sewers, and burning trash. But as you move through these labyrinthine alleyways, you begin to see giant bamboo stilts, beautifully painted trees, and hanging puppets ‒ and this is the actual Kathputli, where the artists live.

What were the challenges of making this film?
The conditions in an Indian slum can be very trying on the body. In the colder months, people burn plastics to stay warm, which is horrible for the lungs. Many of our team members fell ill. Adam would eat something wrong, and then do something our team liked to call “Adam's time travels”, because he’d say, “I don’t feel great” and then wake up a week later.

Were other characters also interviewed?
We interviewed over 20 different artists in the beginning of our project. For us, we approached this film much like a narrative, and we did our own version of casting. We tried to meet as many artists as possible, to see who looked good on camera, who were articulate in telling their own story, who had a vibrant art worthy of preservation, and who was affected by the larger plot of the government relocation.

Documentaries set in poor neighbourhoods tend to eschew colour, but Tomorrow We Disappear is bursting with rich colours and warm tones.
We collaborated with a team of brilliant cinematographers, each with their own super power. Will Basanta is an incredible Los Angeles-based director of photography, who specialises in filming unscripted narratives. He shoots real-life moments with a cinematic quality. Joshua Cogan is an Emmy Award-winning photographer who is able to fill the frame with so much vibrancy and life. And our additional cinematographer Naveen Chaubal is brilliant and unassuming so people would just let him into their homes, where he could capture these quiet, intimate moments.

We approached the film as a collaboration with the artists, to see their homes through their eyes. To an outsider, you may look and focus on the filth and make a quick judgment call and move along. But the artists have created a home, as imperfect as any, but one hand-built to create and preserve their art. If we didn’t capture that hidden spirit in the film, we would be effectively lying about the reality of this place.