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How and where do the homeless of Delhi sleep? A documentary uncovers an economy of the night

Shaunak Sen’s ‘Cities of Sleep’ meets desperate souls in search of slumber and the people who loan them a corner and the promise of a night’s rest.

“If you have to escape dengue and malaria, sleep on the divider.”

“You have to know… which parks have benches with thinner gaps between the wood planks, how to fold cardboard boxes.”

“If you want to assume complete control of someone, never let them sleep.”

“The difference between public and private property is sleep.”

Sleep theorising is usually the preserve of laboratory white coats, but these observations about one of humankind’s most basic needs have been scooped off Delhi’s streets. In his stunning documentary Cities of Sleep, first-time filmmaker Shaunak Sen chases the pursuit of a night’s rest across two parallel worlds within the capital’s netherworld. One is Meena Bazaar, the teeming marketplace in Old Delhi that after dusk is transformed into a battleground commanded by a formidable tea seller and man who supplies cots to the numerous homeless people who cannot squeeze into government-run night shelters. Jamaal decides who gets to rent a cot and for how much (the rates are higher in winter). In dimly-lit Meena Bazaar, he looms as both Hypnos and Phobetor.

The other universe hugs the bottom of the multi-tiered engineering and sociological marvel that is Yamuna Railway Bridge, colloquially known as Loha Pul. Two railway tracks make up the first layer, two roads the next. The third stretch houses a makeshift cinema tent, whose owner lets his customers doze off for Rs 10.

There is a less obvious third world in this typically Third World situation. The Films Division-funded documentary opens in the dead of the night on a typically lonely and well-appointed Delhi stretch. A dog and discarded plastic bags flit across the roads, while elsewhere in less-ordered quarters, the real strays who exist on the city’s grimy margins scramble for their nightly ritual.

“Sleep has been approached through the lens of psychoanalysis and a biomedical discourse, but I was interested in exploring the social and political exertions on offer at night,” said the 28-year-old Sen. Inspired by the ideas contained in French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s book Nights of Labor: The Workers Dream in Nineteenth Century France, Sen and his crew, including co-cinematographer Salim Khan and associate director Aman Mann, started visiting night shelters three years ago. They discovered a subculture that is as invisible as it is acute: some of the homeless people ended up at the overstretched night shelters run by the Delhi government, but many of them had to make their peace with sleep entrepreneurs like Jamaal.

Delhi’s night shelters have been featured alongside other afterhours creature in Uma Tanuku's 2012 documentary Night Hawks. Sen's Cities of Sleep unearths an informal system that functions in the night’s shadows. Sen and his crew made several visits to Meena Bazaar to win the trust of key local figures such as Jamaal and Gufran, a caretaker of a night shelter for children. The film observes Meena Bazaar’s nightly negotiations over the shoulder of Shakeel, a homeless man from Assam with a sepulchral appearance and a performative and dissembling personality. Shakeel’s near-dead eyes, weighed down with the cruelty of being at the bottom of the sleep chain because the day’s earnings do not add up, give the impression that he is blind.

Not surprisingly, Shakeel made the first move. “We were looking for people at Meena Bazaar when he came up to us and asked us what we were doing,” Sen recalled. “He told us he had been brought up in a night shelter and wanted to give us an interview.” Shakeel was both intensely real and endlessly colourful. “He would go on lying and changing his statements,” Sen said. “Over time, we realised that he had a particular relationship with where he would sleep at night – it seemed to be an oppressive governing principle in his life.”

The filmmakers initially intended use Shakeel as the anchor of the film, but his frequent disappearances prompted them to look for a back-up. They found it at Loha Pul, which is depicted as an altogether tidier and gentler place. The sleep business here is run by Ranjeet from a tent that doubles up as movie hall and bedroom. For a small fee, Ranjeet allows the floating population to take in Hindi cinema’s fantasies and grab some shut-eye mid-song. Both spaces are marked by the street-level acumen and sometimes violent competitiveness that tend to be engendered by desperate poverty and governmental neglect.

Sen opts for an observational style and often shoots his characters from a distance to place them within their surroundings. Shakeel’s single-minded pursuit is depicted in a series of recurrent shots that show him with his back to the camera, striding towards his potential destination of slumber.

Delhi is a city that is never at the loss of words, and the capital’s love for philosophising has percolated to the people it chooses to ignore. Shakeel's pronouncements reveal both his wiliness as well as his intense daily struggle to rest some place, while Ranjeet’s wisdom might not be out of place in a TED talk.

“Ranjeet speaks with an intellectual sophistication and ease that is stunning,” Sen said. The men are shown as characters rather than victims because of their will to negotiate a toehold in an intensely competitive metropolis. “Because these insights into their own condition are given with cerebral breadth, it seemed that they needed to be the main vector of the film,” explained Sen. “This dictated the form – we did not want to render these worlds transparent. If you have good access and characters who trust you, life unravels itself in richer ways than through direct question and answers or interviews.”

Observe and report

The observational documentary remains one of the most exciting forms of non-fiction storytelling because of its claims to veracity and honesty, but it also a minefield of manipulation and exploitation. Real life can easily be massaged into a pleasing or shocking narrative, depending on the filmmaker’s intention, while being voyeuristic about poverty is a real problem when privileged filmmakers parachute into pockets of deprivation.

The city film, another sub-genre that sometimes overlaps with the observational documentary, has its own pleasures and perils. An approach that is accompanied by filmmaking tricks – evocative and flavourful cinematography, a sharp sound design, neat editing to elide gaps and create bridges – can render abstract an otherwise gritty social reality.

Can a dimly lit hunt for a cot be as atmospheric as in a fictional feature? Can a moment of hard bargaining between the ruthlessly pragmatic Jamaal and a wheedling Shakeel yield entertaining repartee? Yes and yes, which is why there was a “crisis and a struggle throughout the edit”, Sen said. “The choice was between two approaches and two kinds of storytelling,” said the Jawaharlal Nehru University graduate. “One is a narrative driven by the pleasure of the plot that takes you forward, which is Shakeel’s life. The other is the abstracted form of exposition, of letting an idea unfold through moments of cerebral consciousness, such as what Ranjeet says about himself. Does one stick to the empirical social realistic approach or the more essayistic style?”

The matter was resolved by Sen and co-editor Sreya Chatterjee by approaching Meena Bazaar and Loha Pul differently. The footage that had been gathered over a two-year period became the story of a person (Shakeel) and the biography of a place (Loha Pul). “It came together posthumously during the edit,” Sen said.


Another frequently reported peril of the observational documentary is the attempt to suggest identification between filmmakers and subjects as a way of masking obvious differences in status. Shakeel plaintively asks Sen, “You only shoot, you won’t do anything for me?”

Sen attempted to tide over the gulf through “earnest curiosity”, as he called it. “At Meena Bazaar, our modus operandi was that every single day, we would first go to Jamaal and have a cup of tea from his stall," he said. "Or we would meet Gufran, who was practically an assistant director on the project. Because Gufran trusted us, so did Jamaal. After a while, everybody got used to us.” Ranjeet sees himself as an unofficial social worker who is filling in vast gaps in the city’s services towards its underprivileged.

The worlds laid bare in Cities of Sleep are dominated by men, since they make up the majority of the unsheltered population in the capital, Sen said. “There are night shelters for women or families, defined as a couple with children under the ages of eight,” he said. “But the migrant daily wage labour seen at the shelters is mostly male. I desperately wanted a third section with a woman character, but access was very difficult, since we would not have been allowed to enter the night shelters.”

The worlds that Sen did enter speak volumes about the state of the urban poor, in Delhi and elsewhere. The struggle to find a spot to sleep continues through the seasons. At one point during the monsoon, floods in the Yamuna force Ranjeet to abandon his tent and relocate for a fortnight. After the waters recede, he returns, as do the rest of the nightcrawlers. Everybody needs their few hours of slumber, and some must go to heartbreaking lengths for the simple pleasure of a good night’s sleep.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”


“Like what?”


A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”




“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:


This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.