When sleep controls your life

When sleep controls your life

How crucial ‘sleep’ is to a man can be witnessed well in Shaunak Sen’s documentary feature, Cities of Sleep, which was recently screened at the MAMI (Mumbai Academy Of Moving Images), Mumbai Film Festival. As an academic pursuing his PhD in Cinema Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, the 28-year-old put his theory into practice and produced what he calls, ‘politics of sleep’.

“Mostly, sleep is explored through the lens of biomedical sciences or psychoanalysis, but I wanted to explore sleep under social and political pressure within urban spaces,” says Sen.

The film revolves around two protagonists - Shakeel and Ranjeet who are living on different sides of the ‘business of sleep’. Shakeel is a migrant who is ‘lazy’ and ‘jobless’ and Ranjeet who runs a business of providing homeless the space and provisions to sleep.

Their lives are clearly partitioned in two, Shakeel in Meena Bazaar and Ranjeet in Loha Pul or the Yamuna Railway Bridge.

“I wanted to show the two sides of sleep regimes, two different kinds of relationship the characters shared with sleep. I chose Shakeel as a character because he comes from the lowest strata even within the homeless. He was an outcaste even within Meena Bazaar’s homeless.”

Shakeel goes around nearly every night in search for a space to sleep. He often goes around the premises owned by Jamal bhai, who runs an informal night shelter on government property. Jamal spreads cots and blankets for Rs 40 and above, for those who want to sleep for the night. Most often Shakeel doesn’t have a penny to afford it. So some nights, he just sleeps on pavements and bus stops.

Ranjeet on the other hand, has a rather sensitive business running under Loha Pul, where he takes Rs 10 from those who want to use the space. The film also shows how over the years Loha Pul has become a residence and livelihood for many.
The film shows a the other face of Delhi, where one can recognise how sleep also can be monetised.

Sen’s film mostly follows the night time experiences of those searching for sleep. Their daily experiences have instilled in them the knowledge of existential crisis which only poets and writers could attain in their lifetimes.

Shakeel quotes in the film, “If you want to assume complete control of someone,
never let them sleep.”

Ranjeet says, “True freedom is when you wake and sleep according to your
own will.”

Through this documentary one can relate to Jamal Malik from Slumdog Millionaire, who just by recapitulating his life’s experiences as homeless kid on the streets in India, could answer all the bookish questions in Kaun Banega Crorepati game show.

Though the film follows Shakeel’s deprivations but the closing point of the film, where Jamal’s night shelter is shut down by the police, makes one shudder for the business owner, who sometimes let the down trodden sleep for free, as a loan.

Shot over two years, Sen says, “It was an emotional experience to see how these people live their daily lives. To my mind it can be partitioned into seasonal hardships. The winters and the rains are extremely tough times for these people. The films started with the idea that how a simple goodnight sleep can be a matter of life and death for some people. I wanted to explore women night shelters as well but because of logistical problems, I pursued only this. I will come up with a second part where I can solely focus on the women’s perspective.”

The film saw its first Delhi premiere at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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