Where Sleep is a ‘Matter of Life and Death’
Art And Culture

Where Sleep is a ‘Matter of Life and Death’

A new film tracks India’s homeless as they struggle to find a place to rest.
New Delhi’s middle-to-upper classes throng to one of the big, fancy malls in the city on the weekends -- in search of a new outfit from Zara, the Louis Vuitton-stamped bag to match, or the newest pair of Ferragamos. But Delhi’s migrant laborers, many of whom may have helped build these malls, look for something much more basic every night: a place to rest their heads, reports an article on citylab.com.
The demand among the Indian capital’s homeless for safe, state-run spaces has long outweighed the supply. That leaves thousands of homeless men, women, and children to sleep in the open: on pavements that divide busy roads, or under bridges and stationary cars. In the summer, heat or mosquito-borne diseases claim lives; in the winter, it’s the freezing cold.
Every few months or so, news of a car running over some pavement-sleepers make the headlines. But such incidents barely register on the radar of the city’s more privileged residents.
From 2004 to 2015, more than 33,000 homeless have died on the streets of the capital for many of the reasons mentioned above, according to government estimates. Those who survived have remained invisible.
A new documentary called Cities of Sleep explores their world, uncovering how terribly fraught such a basic human need has become for the people at the base of the Indian socioeconomic hierarchy.
 No Safety Nets
 “The idea was to look at sleep through a social and political lens,” Delhi-based filmmaker Shaunak Sen said. “Just a good night’s sleep is a matter of life and death for some people.”
The film follows Shakeel, a young homeless man, as he deals with the “sleep mafia,” goons who try to capitalize on the scarcity of safe sleeping spaces in the absence of government safety nets. “We were the first to recognize the sheer economic might of sleep,” explains Jamal Bhai, a man who rents out cots to the homeless men like Shakeel, in the movie’s trailer. “They say we’re illegal, but we’re the ones actually doing social service.”
Another character is Ranjeet, who runs a “sleep-cinema,” a makeshift shelter under an iron bridge on the banks of the Yamuna River. Large sheets of cloth divide the space into four compartments in which Bollywood movies are screened, and cots are available for 10 rupees (15 cents) a night. Every day, roughly 400 homeless people come to this shelter, Sen says, hoping to find a spot for rest and to escape their economic circumstances.
The film premiered in Delhi this month and is making rounds at film festivals around India.


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