'There is a need for sleep markets'

'There is a need for sleep markets'

'There is a need for sleep markets'

Only the man who sleeps and wakes as he wishes is free in the truest sense of the word’. This line from filmmaker Shaunak Sen’s documentary ‘Cities of Sleep’ rinses the true essence of the socio-political strains of sleep. It outlines the privilege that accompanies this simple and necessary act.

When Shaunak, who was at the Bengaluru International Film Festival recently, began thinking about sleep, it was an unconventional route he took. “I didn’t want to look at sleep through the traditional lens of science or psychoanalysis. I was interested in looking at the socio-political pressures it exerts on a city space everyday.” This is when he and his team began visiting night shelters in Delhi, where temporary sleeping shelters are in plenty, especially during winters. After a while, they narrowed down on two informal sleeping places — Meena Bazaar, a bustling old-Delhi market in daylight, and Loha Pull, an autonomous sleepers commune near the Yamuna river. “Meena Bazaar transforms completely at night. They charge Rs 30 — Rs 10 for a cot, Rs 10 for a blanket and Rs 10 for a quilt — for a night. These prices change depending on how cold it is.”

This informal economy, he says, is the city’s way to provide for the numerous daily-wage labourers who are homeless otherwise. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this system, these circuits arise out of sheer necessity. They provide a kind of social service.”

The initial incipient impulse for this film arose out of Shaunak’s own sleeping problems. “I suffer from chronic insomnia. But I wasn’t interested in talking about myself, that often becomes very self-indulgent and myopic. I wanted to see the arena of sleep with a political inflection.” From a philosophical study of sleep (texts like ‘Nights of Labor’ by Jacques Rancière held his interest), he conceptualised the idea.

These nearly undocumented eruptions of ‘sleep mafia’ piqued his interest on multiple levels. And unlike news reports that tend to dehumanise the issue, he spent two years visiting these shelters so it was hard for him to ‘other’ the sleepers. “But I was surprised by the sheer scale of it. In one of these areas, close to 800 to 1,200 people sleep together. The volume of the industry and the well-oiled machine that it has become was surprising.”

He hopes that ‘City of Sleep’ inaugurates some kind of change. But he admits that it’s difficult to create a completely measurable and transformative index. “There is a sort of disregard and amnesia towards the fact that winter needs a completely new regime of social sheltering.”

However, it is nearly a ritual for Delhiites to hand out blankets and quilts every winter. “It’s almost like a sacrosanct ritual that the middle-class (and everyone else) indulges in. It’s important to remember that the number of homeless people is enormous, as compared to government sleeping shelters, which fit just a fraction of that number. Therefore, there is a need for sleep markets.” Shaunak adds that he is wary to call this a migration problem, which it is largely.

Through this independent film, he hopes to raise questions in people instead of handing out stop-gap solutions.

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