The Scavengers of Dreams: Suman Ghosh’s film talks about the forgotten people

Shardul Bhardwaj and Sudipta Chakraborty as waste-collectors in Salt Lake deliver ‘the finest performances of the year in an Indian film’

Kolkata October 29 dmanewsdesk: ‘Kahani banti nahin chhorr ke raja rani / maan ke chalo re bhaiya itihas ka baani / bhookh se marey gareeb tab bhi kahani na bani / raja rani piye paani wo bhi baney kahani.’ (History tells us that there are no stories without kings and queens. While the poor starving to death never makes the news, the mere act of kings and queens drinking water is newsworthy.)

A group of women sit around their slums during a break from the day’s work and sing of history’s preference for the privileged. Watching the sequence in Suman Ghosh’s ‘The Scavengers of Dreams’, I was reminded of the photographs splashed all over the media of an important political figure with a broom in his gloved hand on October 2. That is news. The ones whose daily grind it is to go around our streets and homes cleaning, scavenging, collecting the refuse we generate… well, they are neither important nor photogenic.

The song – by legendary dramatist Badal Sircar and sourced by the film’s actor Sudipta Chakraborty – and the philosophy behind its pungent words lie at the heart of Suman Ghosh’s starkly real film. One that oscillates between its protagonist duo’s bleak, crumbling existence and the crumbs of joy that come their way. A leftover cake from a birthday party. A cigarette lighter or a can of used deodorant that they find from their daily garbage hunts. A moment of intimacy in the dingy spaces of their shanty where after the day’s unrewarding toils they still find the reserve for some banter and laughter at the loud arguments of the well-heeled newlywed couple in the tony neighbourhood in which they go collecting waste every day.

Birju and Shona (Shardul Bhardwaj and Sudipta Chakraborty) are the desperately impoverished couple who make a living collecting waste from upscale localities (Salt Lake in Kolkata in this case, but could stand in for just about any place in the world). They have a young daughter, Munni. The world is just emerging from the pandemic. Munni has started going to school again after her education had to be stopped in the absence of the means to afford online classes. Suman is too perceptive a filmmaker to underline the pandemic’s impact on people who live at the edge of survival. So, he just leaves us with a couple of delicate and poignant sequences involving the girl’s attempts at counting numbers and reciting rhymes.

Like his previous outing, ‘Searching for Happiness’, with which this forms a sort of thematic double-bill, Suman eschews a formal narrative structure and opts for lived-in reality and improvised situations. As the couple go about collecting waste, or as they take their mid-afternoon break with their friends, sitting around a garbage dump or a slum, playing a game of cards or singing about life’s vicissitudes, what you get is not so much a ‘film’ as vignettes from the life of the ‘other’ India, an India we prefer not to think about, not to see. Every situation feels organic, developing almost on its own, yet never losing sight of the larger picture, never giving in to easy clichés and platitudes – the way Birju’s employers in the municipality deal with him, the way he is addressed by the people from whose houses he collects the waste, the utter callousness of our attitude to people like Birju and Shona.

In one scene, Birju ends up cutting his hand from a broken bottle carelessly kept in the trash pile by a resident. As he protests the man’s thoughtlessness, the latter shouts at him, berates him and ends by calling him a ‘Bihari’ – the ultimate insult men of a certain class can heap on the class Birju and Shona belong to. So well done is the sequence and so stunning the manner in which that final epithet ‘Bihari’ is hurled, it reminded me of our own callousness when the man collecting trash comes home in the morning, and we inadvertently say, ‘Kuda aaya hai.’ The garbage – not the garbage collector, we do not know his name anyway – has come.

Underlining Birju and Shona’s travails is the very real fear of being rendered useless, out of work, which is an important strand of the narrative. The municipality has decided to replace the refuse-collecting handcarts with battery-operated vans. Birju does not know how to handle one. His simmering anger at his precarious situation is reflected in his almost cussed defiance of and unwillingness to try his hand at the motorised contraption. Again, here you have a filmmaker supremely aware of how advancement in technology runs the real risk of alienating a large section of people unless they are equipped to deal with that technology.

What aids the general air of verisimilitude about the film are its production design (Angelica Monica Bhowmick) and cinematography (Ravi Kiran Ayyagari), coming together in the telling sequence immediately after the song with which I began my review. Right through the film we are aware of the lived-in nature of the spaces the characters inhabit. There’s not a wrong note in the slums, their interiors, the outdoor spaces. You can almost smell the rot.

Just consider the way the camera captures the dingy alley with mud-and-brick-plastered walls on either side through which Birju makes his way even as the women start singing. As he crosses the frame with the women in the foreground, to the right there’s a ramshackle bicycle (just the kind you would find lying around in a shanty like this), before the singing fades and is replaced by moving piece of background music, as the camera moves in to a junkyard where Munni is swivelling on a makeshift swing made of a tyre before coming to rest on the wizened figure of a man (Nemai Ghosh, a Suman Ghosh regular) sprawling against an upturned cart.

The brilliantly designed space is made of the many odds and ends, including a rocking chair, a globe and a few CDs hanging from bamboo planks, a commode that Birju may have gathered in his garbage hunts. The sum total of his life. And none of this calling attention to itself, but coming together organically.

Of course there are the performances too. Shardul and Sudipta deliver what, for my money, are the finest performances of the year in an Indian film. They are pivotal to the film’s authenticity and they do not falter one bit. However, what is remarkable about the whole project is that most of the performers are not only non-professionals, many of them are trash collectors in real life. The greatness of what Shardul and Sudipta manage lies in the fact that it is almost impossible to tell them apart from their real-life compatriots.

So rooted and lifelike are the two that in the one sequence that Birju explodes in anger – brilliantly shot – you are suddenly made aware of the film’s other major strength: its unhurried pace. There’s nothing to these lives that merit a rush. Their days and nights are a relentless grind against everyday misfortunes. It’s only in the urgency of Birju flying off the handle that one realises how measured Suman’s pacing of the film is.

This is the kind of film that has gone out of fashion. A cinema that is about life in all its ugliness, the despair it entails, the relentless fight for survival to keep intact one’s self-respect, to prevent oneself from falling into destitution. This is the kind of film that a Goutam Ghose or Mrinal Sen would have been proud of. In fact, the fate of the couple, what they go through, the starkness of the narrative, reminded me time and again of Ghose’s Paar, a film that Suman counts among the ones that influenced his decision to be a filmmaker.

Which is also what makes The Scavengers of Dreams an important film. Here’s a film that talks about forgotten people, about people who will not find mention in history, who will never make it to the news except as mere statistics in a catastrophe, if that. And it does so honestly and without sentimentality, and without pulling any punches. It’s a film that posits that there are stories beyond kings and queens worth telling and then dares to tell us one. Warts and all.

The Scavengers of Dreams’ is being screened at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2023

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film and music buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer

Source: The telegraph online