King Of India

King Of India


Reviewed by: Sarah Artt

Filmed over a period of six years, King Of India takes in the lives of a family of street performers. Originally from a small village outside Kolkata, the family travel to and from the city in order to perform. The film focuses primarily on the children of Radha and Ratan. There are the girls: Janaki, Jyotsna and Chandni and the two boys: Raja Hindustani and Toofan. All the children are named after films that their parents saw close to the time of their birth. The whole family is illiterate - there is no fixed address, no regular income and no money for school fees. The family belong to a community known as Nats, performers who have a long history (they are mentioned in early Indian manuscripts) but who have since fallen into disrepute - as evidenced by the number of times we see their performances moved on by the police.

In the first section of the film we follow Raja and his sisters as they perform throughout the city. Janaki plays the drum and calls out the different tricks for Raja and Jyotna to perform. Chandni is very small, but she, too, contributes to the performance - wedging herself between her brother and sister as they crawl through a thin iron ring. In the world of the Nat, most of the children work as performers as soon as they can walk.

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Chandni is a winsome toddler - audience members often put notes into her hand and in one scene, as Jyotna, Chandni and Raja are heading back late, they are questioned by some young men. They seem disturbed that the children are out late without their elders. One of the men takes Chandni into his arms briefly, asking her name. Later, this is repeated with the equally adorable baby Kishore, who is held by an old woman who asks: “Shall I take him? I don't have any children and I only want one.” One wonders if these are attempts to reach out, or the actions of potential predators.

Janaki, the eldest girl, is married at 16 to a young man from her village. She begins going out and performing with her husband and her mother laments her loss “Janaki was out, Lakshmi” she says, referring to the goddess of wealth. Soon though, she and her husband return and begin performing with the other children once more.

As the children grow older, their performance make-up remains the same. All are painted with black kohl to emphasise their eyes. Raja wears an elaborate painted moustache. Later, the make-up is enhanced with gold glitter and red paint. It is always set with talcum powder, to keep it from running throughout the day. Toofan marries a girl named Julie from another Nat family and they soon have a son - Kishore Kumar - named after another film star. Kishore travels with the family group that includes Reshna and Raja, carried in a rope basket that hangs across his father's shoulders. While the others perform, Kishore rolls on his blanket, alternately tended by whoever is not tumbling or walking the tightrope. When their mother Radha leaves her family and returns to her parents' house, she takes Chandni with her. This leaves Ratan in charge of the remaining family group. The dance and tumbling performances that they have been performing since they were small have now been enhanced with a short, portable tightrope. Reshna shows great agility with this, making the rope sway with her movements while still balancing precariously.

This is a film about children who are comforted by strangers. When Reshna falls off the tightrope, an audience member says: "Let me buy her a piece of cake", while her siblings simply urge her not to cry. The film is punctuated by the occasional well-meaning voice-over from the director, who reinforces the fact that despite India's booming economy, only the wealthy are profiting from globalisation while communities such as the Nats continue to exist hand-to-mouth. Ratan and Radha even reveal that they are denied access to other programmes and benefits for the poor because they are considered as deriving a good income from performing. We follow the family through the years as their number diminishes. We see them through different festivals: Holi (the festival of colours) and the festival of Durga the mother goddess. At the end, there are only Raja and Reshna left with their father. Their father wishes to remarry but is wary of bringing children into the world “whose fates are sealed.”

While this is a remarkable record of a specific community where literacy is virtually unheard of, the film offers nothing in the way of solution to the ways in which the Nats are trapped in a cycle of poverty. Even though Toofan and Julie want to send Kishore to school, there is still the proviso that he will work as a performer for a certain period and it is unclear just how they will accumulate the money for education that their own parents could not. While it is not necessarily the task of documentary to do anything more than record and observe, commentary is unavoidable. When films like Black Gold and An Inconvenient Truth ask us to act practically in an attempt to mitigate the issues that have been raised, it is not unreasonable to tell an audience how they can help.

Reviewed on: 16 Jun 2009
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A glimpse into the world of the Nats - an ancient community of Indian street performers.
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Director: Arvind Sinha

Year: 2009

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: India


EIFF 2009

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