The search for Zakhir begins in a place of scavenged trash: a recycling depot in a Bangalore market called Jolly Mohalla. This is clearly not somewhere that documentary filmmaker Indu Krishnan belongs, despite Bangalorean roots, and her questions are met with guarded vagueness.

Is it somewhere that Zakhir, a rag-picker, belongs? “He’s not one of mine,” a shrunken old man tells Krishnan. “He looks nice,” a street-sweeper on MG Road says, looking at his picture. It’s true, he does.

A lesser version of Krishnan’s documentary might have ended its search in the jailhouse, since that is where she locates him – locked up in connection with the death of a fellow street-dweller. A crasser film might have given the last word to the police officer who delivers a queasily mechanical diagnosis of the murder: “These folks, these rag-pickers, they have these habits,” he says. “Then fights break out which end in murder.”

But in Krishnan’s film, nothing is that simple. When she named it Good Guy, Bad Guy, a title which lands as neat and familiar on the tongue as a sugar-coated capsule, she was likely messing with you. This is a film that gnaws at mythic binaries and slips the grip of lazy moralism. The discovery of the imprisonment of Zakhir, whom she had befriended “free” a year earlier, is instead an opportunity for the film to take a dog-leg turn. Krishnan bails him out. “Perhaps it was compassion,” she muses in a voiceover. “Or just the realisation that without Zakhir, there would be no film.”

The documentary will be screened at the Delhi chapter of the Urban Lens festival, organised by the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, between November 16 and 18.

Good Guy, Bad Guy.

Compassion, of course, doesn’t really mean “to feel sorry for”, though I’m sure that Krishnan did feel sorry for imprisoned Zakhir, whom she first encountered when she noticed him sharing chocolate chip cookies out to a family of monkeys, and who had once told her that he envied the city’s stray creatures their liberty. At root, compassion means “to suffer with”: to step across the breach of difference into emotional proximity, towards some kind of joint perspective.

The breach between Krishnan and her subject is particularly wide. Zakhir, aged 20-something, is a profoundly marginal character: penniless, adrift, stigmatised by birth and occupation. During the five years covered by the film, we see Zakhir work three different jobs, of which two have him elbow-deep in the refuse of wealthier people. Like thin armour, he wears a perpetual smile that shades between humour and wincing rictus. At night, when he’s wakeful with fear of police violence, he knocks himself out with drink. He and his friends call their moonshine-analgesic “solution,” but it’s a poor man’s solution: the kind that blunts the symptom and does nothing for the cause.

Krishnan, in her late 50s, was born into the sort of Tamil Brahmin family which, she said, “almost felt embarrassed” by its material privilege; which preferred to imagine itself as faded gentility rather than powerful elites. Having moved to New York in her fledgling years to study art, Krishnan grew up to be, among other things, a drifter of the most privileged kind: homes on two continents, her time portioned out between Bangalore and San Francisco. Her newest film is about her hometown, but she has no trouble outing herself as a stranger to its milieu.

“Certain kinds of stories draw you to them, and though they seem very different on the surface, you’re actually always asking the same question,” she said. “I feel that question is always about looking at the world through someone else’s eyes, and knowing how the world is looking at them.”

Is it actually possible to inhabit someone else’s point of view? “No, it’s not,” she said. “You’re always an outsider negotiating that space. And it has to be a problem; you have to problematise it.”

Problematising, in this film, includes the choice to eschew the authoritative stance struck by many documentarians: the film’s “Indu-ma’am,” as Zakhir is heard to call her, is more a compromised character than an all-knowing narrator. “Your coming has made things more difficult,” we hear Zakhir’s aunt say in one scene.

Did she imagine she would “find” Zakhir, when she began making the film? “I actually don’t know” said Krishnan, “I had no idea. But I thought the search itself would be illuminative.”

It’s a good way to describe the film: the roving lick of torchlight in the dark space between the imperative of shared perspective and its impossibility. To Krishnan, these pulses of light are necessary not because they resolve the question of Zakhir, but because they rattle reductive presumptions – “like to know what his dream is. We’ll think ‘okay, that’s his dream: he wants to get a job’.”

Her “we” – the film’s natural audience – is “middle and upper class people,” whom she suspects of hoping for a Slumdog Millionaire pay-off, or at least, for the comforting corroboration of whatever their preferred myth of poverty happens to be. To them, to us, she offers no quarter. “It’s not a feel-good film,” she said.

Zakhir’s charge is not murder, exactly, but “common intention,” a term which suggests passive complicity, a collapse between being somewhere, or being someone and doing something. When the lights came back up after a screening of Good Guy, Bad Guy in a Bangalore art gallery earlier this year, the mood in the audience was prickly. What exactly had we just been accused of?

If it’s all too easy to imagine that someone’s drives and desires can be folded into the tiny space occupied by their socio-economic label, it might act as a helpful corrective to remember that pretty much everyone secretly wants to make a movie. “I have one impossible dream,” Zakhir confides early on in Good Guy, Bad Guy. “To make film songs, or write a story, or maybe act in a bit part... I want to tell a story that will make people understand what hardship is.” He writes a script – a dramatic, syncretic mashup of secular and religious iconography, as if scavenged and refashioned from the narrative flotsam of the city. He wants to show his manuscript to a well-known filmmaker, and contrives to use Krishnan to get there. “You must tell him,” he urges her, “this boy comes from great hardship...”

His stage-direction of Krishnan inverts an earlier moment, when, over an image of Zakhir in prison – standing before glass-less barred windows and teal-green walls – we hear the voice of a prison guard issuing instruction: “No need to go into all that is not okay here”.

Zakhir in Good Guy, Bad Guy. Courtesy Indu Krishnan.

Story-telling, Krishnan suggests in her film, is like any slippery negotiation of power: morally ambiguous, unequal, and prone to corruption. Zakhir’s own fiction-making is framed, with unjudgemental interest, as a “blossoming” of his pragmatist’s dishonesty: “at a given moment, a fitting lie will emerge,” he tells the camera, in one scene, looking pleased. Krishnan exposes herself to scrutiny, too: perhaps it was compassion, she said – or was it self-interest?

Story-telling isn’t redemptive per se, but it is vital. Krishnan said that she thinks Zakhir’s stories are what keep him going. For Krishnan herself, telling this story seems to represent an imperfect tool against the “cruel divide” of social class. “I don’t want to come to this position where we’re completely siloed and there’s no getting through, you know?” she said. “You have to grapple with it. To reduce someone to their social class is to denude a person.”

The film’s aesthetics groan in the grappling. The world is under-saturated, jittery, frequently either under- or over-exposed. The music labours so baldly for its emotional yield that it imports some of the absurdity of a stage-whispered aside: this is a cheerful bit; this bit is ominous.

But Krishnan also has a magpie’s eye for the lovely bric-a-brac of the changing city. What she calls, in conversation, “the brew these guys live in” might be a place of scavenged trash but in her hands it glitters with recombinant symbolic potential. A street-sweep snaps a large plastic McDonald’s M in his hands, grinning. In a piggery where Zakhir works, a sow snoozes by a propped-up cardboard cut-out of red-lipped glad-ragged Isla Fisher in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

It’s in similar tiny, often humorous, and meaningful glimpses that we grow familiar with Zakhir – familiar enough to know that we don’t know him at all. Is Zakhir a good guy or bad guy? Of course, we’re quite unqualified to answer. “I think that to feel you have a lock on someone, I think that’s a conceit,” Krishnan said.

Better to say that he’s a guy who holds his palm flat and still so monkeys can retrieve what he’s brought them, a guy who is honest enough to express a connoisseur’s satisfaction in lying. He’s a person who seems oppressed by the expectation that he should ever be still, or, in his aunt’s words “firm up his life”. He’s a person with a restless, particular, full-sized inner world. In other words, a person.

Indu Krishnan.