The Culture and Economy of Sleep of an Urban Underclass

A still from the film Cities of Sleep

A still from the film Cities of Sleep by Shaunak Sen

“When you are absolutely poor, oddly you feel relieved. At peace even. That you have fallen as low as you possibly could. Things can’t get worse, and it’s okay.” Says Shakeel echoing the views of the 19th century existential protagonists from Dostoyevsky’s novels. Shakeel is the protagonist of Shaunak Sen’s Cities of Sleep, a documentary about how Delhi’s underbelly sleeps.

The film follows Shakeel in Meena Bazaar, which dates back to Mughal times, which is now a crowded day-market that shelters homeless during the night. The film ends up documenting the informal economies that surround the sleep of the poorest in Delhi.

Sen, a Phd student from the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, was inspired by Ranciere’s The Nights of Labour, which documents the nights of the workers who participated in the 1830 french revolution. “In the winter of 2013, when I was driving near Meena Bazaar, I saw a group of 7-8 people carrying charpais.” He wanted to learn more about how these people slept, and began visiting various night shelters in Delhi. “That was when I realized that there is a large informal economy of such shelters in Delhi” Sen says, sitting at his home in the Chitharanjan Park of New Delhi, where the film was planned with his team and then edited.

With a photographer friend Sen recced Meena Bazar and spent several days making friends with Jamaal bhai, a teashop owner who runs a night shelter that provides a sleeping place for about 80 people. Once Jamaal bhai trusted them, Sen looked around for a character for his film. As Sen and his team vetted people, Shakeel hung around and constantly offered his insights about various things. “Shakeel is at the bottom rung here. His own relationship to the place was neither one of easy familiarity nor antagonistic hostility. He was also comfortable with the camera around him.” They had found their protagonist.

Shakeel is in his 30s, and from Assam. In the film he is seen in a thick woolen shirt and a plastic yellow hood that serves him as a muffler against Delhi’s biting winter cold. He tends to roll his eyeballs under his eyelids and sometimes poses as a blind man for sympathy and alms. He sleeps in the shelter run by Jamaal bhai. The film progresses through the changes in the life of Shakeel.

After a few days, Shakeel disappeared. The hunt began for a back up character and Sen found 29-year-old Ranjit, who runs a makeshift shelter for sleepers in loha pool, under the oldest bridge of Delhi. “Ranjit is a wise man. He philosophises a lot.” Sen says, “He is the abstract element in the film.”

Ranjit brings the film its essayist quality by offering profound insights into the lives of people who struggle to sleep in the city: “Ajaad wo hi hai, jo apni marji se soye aur jaage.” (Those who sleep and awake by their will are the truly free). There are other examples too, such as that of a tea-shop owner who charges people Rs. 40 for a night’s sleep.

Shakeel eventually returns, and finds that Jamaal’s business has disappeared, destroyed by the police. And with that, the film winds down to a close. The film will soon premier at screenings in Delhi’s India International Centre and other venues.