films that make a difference
In July 2009 award-winning director Nick Read arrived in Mumbai to work with co producer Batul Mukhtiar for 3 months, spanning the monsoon, the Ganesh festival and Ramadan.
We spent several weeks meeting and talking to hundreds of children to understand their experiences and challenges. Although local NGO’s were helpful (Railway Children, SAATHI, Pavement Club etc), most kids we met on the streets – at traffic lights and soup kitchens, in day centres and doorways. All initially showed interest (many assuming we were Bollywood producers), and we started filming with a few. But there is so little structure in these children’s lives, it soon became apparent that only a few would we be able to follow over several months.
We worked in the smallest possible crew: Nick, Batul and our long-suffering assistant Vishal Waghmare, and with a small camera (the Sony Z5, recording 1080 HD 25p tapeless – for the techies amongst you). Our aim was to be as low profile and unintimidating as possible. One of the unique challenges of filming in India is the interest a film camera generates in any public space. Sometimes we’d be filming with over a hundred people behind the camera – carefully persuaded to stay just out of the frame. So the mantra of all documentary filmmakers ‘Just pretend we’re not here’ begins to sound a little lame. But in time people lost interest, and that’s when we began to capture some sense of the reality of our kids’ lives.
It’s important to pack a limitless supply of patience when working in iIndia – especially in the monsoon season, when any agreed schedule goes out of the window. We’d wait days for the weather to clear, and the traffic to abate sufficiently to make a simple journey across town.
Without mobile phones or a fixed abode, just tracking some of the kids down when we arrived to film became a major headache. We met twins Hussan and Hussein early on, and at least knew that whenever we returned to the Pipeline slum, we could usually find them somewhere in the neighbourhood. There were other challenges filming in the slums. Once the monsoon set in, the streets turned into open sewers. Humidity levels were extremely high, when the camera lens would mist up – inside the lens, not just on the front element – delaying any filming by several hours.
We met Deepa one rainy evening with a group of several kids selling flowers and other trinkets at the traffic lights at Bandra West. If you’ve visited Mumbai, like as not you’ve driven through this busy thoroughfare. Deepa was so small and fragile that she became an obvious choice, but it took several weeks of getting to know her, her brothers and grandmother before we started getting the strong material in the final cut.
We spent weeks around Victoria Terminus trying to find a runaway child who had recently arrived there, and met hundreds of the (mainly) boys who live around the station, some as young as 6 or 7. Theirs is a much more transitory, peripatetic existence than the slumkids, and so many of them are stoned on solvent, it was difficult to engage with them.
When we met Salaam we only had a few weeks left to film. But he was such a smart, bright lad who seemed to understand what we were doing from the outset, and seemed to completely lack the ‘self conscious’ gene. Most of all we managed to achieve a sense of having fun with him, more than any other kids we worked with, and I’d like to think that ended up in screen.
Despite being a major tourist attraction, filming around Victoria Terminus is tricky. There are so many commuters (up to 5 million a day!) to work around, and – since the terrorist attacks of November 2008 – the police are under orders to move anyone on, including streetkids and film crews. (Ideally we would have liked to film in the station itself, but the railway authorities charge an eyewatering £2000 a day to permit filming there, which was beyond our budget).
Filming with children anywhere, and especially unaccompanied kids living rough, poses exceptional ethical questions. To all the children, we explained in great detail who we were, and what we were doing – their informed consent is vital, and we endeavoured to ensure nothing was lost in translation. We set out to ‘give them the microphone’, and let them tell their stories in their own words. Sometimes it took several sessions for them to express themselves – but it was always worth the wait
During the 6 week editing, we did our best to minimise our words (in commentary). No doubt the cynics will say we indulged in so called ‘poverty porn’ or manipulated them in a variety of nefarious ways. All I can say is we looked after the children while filming as best we could, and tried to present their stories with dignity and sympathy.
Since filming stopped, we continue to stay in touch with the kids who feature in the film and look after them. True Vision has set up a Foundation to fund their education (which viewers can also contribute towards), and we have found school places for both Salaam and Deepa, with the help of local NGO’s. Now all we have to do is persuade Hussan and Hussein to return to school!
It’s a drop in the ocean, but we strive to deliver a duty of care beyond our departure and the film’s transmission, that will mean that Salaam, Deepa, Hussan and Hussein do not think we have forgotten them. We hope you won’t either.