A train is traveling past, not stopping. We see them, on the other side, blurred behind the rushing wheels. This is the metaphor for their lives. As India moves on, progressing, these children remain, untended, blurred, disregarded identities.
These are the children of the Nats, a 2,000 year-old subculture of India comprised of street singers, acrobats, mimics, dancers and musicians who survive day-to-day through performing and then passing around an old tin tray. The children troop out together with their mothers as soon as they are born. When they learn to walk they begin their training and soon after join their siblings in the act, collecting money at the end from generous on-lookers.
While filming another documentary, director Arvind Sinha, was captivated by Raja Hindustani, a darling, charismatic little dancer painted up with a black moustache and eye paint. He and his brother and sister, all named for movie titles, performed while they alternated beating a drum to a clever catchy beat. Hindustani dances and his older siblings do cartwheels and somersaults. They perform at festivals, train stations and in the streets.
Sinha is telling the story of the Nats, a community of ex-performers who live off the labors of their children. They are illiterate, living in structures supported by bent poles and dark plastic sheeting. They cook outside amongst the roving pigs and rodents. Each day they depend on what their children bring in.
Sinha kept up his relationship with Hindustani’s family over a six-year period, creating a cinéma vérité production that captures the essence of life for these people. As the children age their act becomes more sophisticated, culminating in some very fancy tightrope walking by the eldest girl. Their need for money is probably the dominant force in motivating her risky creativity in swinging the rope back and forth while she balances precariously. Sometimes she falls, hurts herself and is helped by her brother to stand back up.
The title of this film, “The King of India,” is a sarcastic title because the film is all about a child who is at one of the lowest levels of class in the country. He is the very opposite of royalty. All that is a right for other children, like education, health care and any form of economic assistance, is denied him. The father explains that since they are performers the government sees that they have a way to support themselves and so will not give them economic aid. This keeps the children from school as the parents depend on them to earn the money for their family’s survival.
Sinha explains in his synopsis of the show that as globalization has come to India, those who are educated are benefitting from the influx of jobs. However, there is an entire spectrum of the Indian population that is becoming further and further estranged from the benefits of this national progress. In order to survive, the Nats have to keep having children. When their daughters marry, at around 16 years of age, they leave to start their own family and performance production. So in order to survive, parents must keep on having children who will perform to support them.
I don’t know what will happen in the end. Will the last son marry, bring his wife to live with his father and then support Dad through his own children?
I also don’t know why the boys discontinue performing when they marry. What do the men do at 17 without a job? What does Hindustani’s dad do every day? Why does his mother return to her own family, leaving all but one of her children? What are the debts that the father has piled up? Why does the mother expect the father to return to her and beg her forgiveness? For what?
Even though this film has been presented at film festivals for the few months, it is obviously unfinished. Information is missing and the viewer, of course, wonders how loyal Hindustani will remain to his father. Will he stay with him through old age to keep up his support?
The bottom line is that “The King of India” is a very interesting slice of life in India. But it is very frustrating in its unanswered questions.
Director, Screenplay, Narration: Arvind Sinha
Co-director: Chitra Sinha
Photography: Ranjan Palit
Length: 58 minutes
India Release: Aug. 13, 2009
U.S. Release: Jul 14, 2010
Available on YouTube
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