A documentary with a throbbing heart, Kireet Khurana’s latest project seeks to secure hope for the homeless
Beggary is an everyday reality of city life but we seldom think where do people whom we meet at the traffic signals every morning spend the rest of the day. Do they enjoy the same rights as citizens of the country as we do and where do they vanish when a VIP visits the city?
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National Award-winning director Kireet Khurana’s latest documentary, The Invisible Visible, aims to build support through a nationwide campaign to repeal the controversial Beggary Prevention Act, 1959, and act as a catalyst to implement the Supreme Court order to set up shelters for the homeless in each district and have independent credible agencies audit these shelters regularly.
“Ideally, we need a law at the Centre which overrides the law and makes it redundant, which is where the real activism is happening. We are hoping through the film we shall be able to sensitise the lawmakers, the bureaucrats and other stakeholders, apprise them of the issues and seek their support in striking down the draconian legislation,” says Khurana.
Known for his highly acclaimed docu-feature, Saeed Mirza: A Leftist Sufi, in 2015, Khurana was invited to Aspire Circle, a fellowship programme consisting of a group of top social leaders from India. In this group, Khurana met a very young man, Tarique Mohammed, who ran a small but dedicated organisation — Koshish (a Tata Institute of Social Sciences affiliate) — which worked with the homeless.
Koshish’s work was noticed in 2018 when it took the lid off the rampant sexual abuse in a government-run institution in Muzaffarpur during a social audit assigned by the Bihar government.
“Tarique’s sharing was so evocative and powerful that every time he shared from his life or sordid stories about the homeless, tears would flow down my cheeks. His presence made me a lot more empathetic towards the marginalised. It was then that I decided to make a film, not just to support the cause, but to also grow as an individual,” says Khurana.
What is your take on the law that prohibits begging in a welfare state and its implemen- tation in big cities?
It is an absolutely unconstitutional law that had been legislated by lawmakers who didn’t understand the issues, nor did they want to solve it. They just wanted to wish the homeless away. Beggary is not a choice, it’s the last resort. And in that, if we criminalise poverty for millions, it’s a shame. Incarceration for being poor is inflicting even more pain on an aggrieved and struggling soul living on the edge.
You have tried to look at the issue of begging from multiple perspectives but at the centre is an NGO. How did you arrive at this form?
One of the main objectives of the film was to humanise the homeless and the people who are working with them. I took a decision much earlier that if I just make a film on the homeless and their issues without the human element, it will become like a regular, talking heads documentary. I wanted the film to touch, move and inspire. Apart from showing abject poverty, I wanted the film to reflect hope. And, in Tarique, I found an incredible leader of extraordinary integrity and commitment who had the intellect to address the issue at the advocacy level, and also the heart to physically be with the homeless and understand their problems on the ground.
The documentary has many evocative moments like an old lady not recognising her son. How did you get that?
We knew that Koshish had repatriated 75,000 people, some reuniting with their families after decades. The reasons for the separation or estrangement may vary but the reunion is almost always tearful. We had to be extremely vigilant and patient to move quickly when such an opportunity arose. In the course of our shooting, Koshish did repatriate a few people and it was heart-rending, but we didn’t have the consent of their families and we had to respect that. So when this opportunity came, I had no clue whom we were going to meet, what we were going to shoot. We had to pack our equipment and leave in less than an hour’s notice. And of course, as you can see in the film, it’s an unbelievable magical moment.
Tell us about the Delhi segment where street performers are often treated as beggars.
The anti-beggary law implies that anyone without an ostensible means of livelihood can be arrested purely on the suspicion of beggary. The profession of playing dhols in marriages or street performers is not considered to be gainful employment as per the interpretation of the law, hence many of these people were arrested in the past in Delhi. However, the Delhi High Court has struck down the anti-beggary law and there are no arrests happening in the city. Also, Delhi has enough shelters for the homeless now, so there has been great progress. We are hoping that the rest of the country will follow suit and the 22-23 odd States where the anti-beggary law is being enforced will also show leniency.
You have used your skill in animation to augment the story but in a very limited way.
The animation has been used only in the section where we wanted to recreate the Muzaffarpur audit incident where 36 girls from 6-16 years old were being raped and tortured every single day. We had a choice – either treat this section as a docu-drama and shoot the sequence as a fiction or to find another device to recreate the audit. Not wanting to compromise on the authenticity of the film or sensationalise or melodramatically dramatise the sordid crime, I chose animation as a medium to convey.
At a time when OTT platforms have rekindled the documentary genre, how do you see its progress?
While the documentary genre has been around for long and the West has been making some outstanding impact, documentaries, unfortunately, a large part of our country is smitten by Bollywood and the usual TV fare, leaving very little space for nuanced, meaningful content. One was hoping that with the advent of OTTs it will change. It has, to some extent, but not enough, and most OTTs are clearly moving as an extended arm of Bollywood.