“All foreigners say they are friends. You may be, but only when you are here.”
The film ‘My Barefoot Friend’ was screened at Toronto’s Hot Docs documentary film festival this past week. Directed by Seong-Gyou Lee, the film tells the story of Shallim – a rickshaw puller – trying to make it in the city of Kolkata (Calcutta). Shallim and his fellow rickshaw pullers target the tourist area of Sudden Street, negotiating with cars, buses, and motorcycles on a daily basis. Lee’s film comes in the shadow of a law passed in West Bengal banning rickshaw pulling in 2006. The law has yet to be imposed in Kolkata. In passing the legislation, arguments for human rights, dignity, and decency were used to justify banning rickshaws. Simply put, the image of one man pulling another on his back is too stark a depiction of desperate poverty and inequality, and certainly not one that lawmakers want to be iconic of Kolkata.
Lee’s film introduces us to some of these rickshaw pullers who would have their livelihoods taken away from them, were the law was to be imposed. Many are essentially economic refugees from the neighbouring state of Bihar, who come to Kolkata looking for money. Running barefoot in Kolkata, these men have a camaraderie that translates well onto the screen, caring for and counseling each other through bouts with illness and dejection on hostile city streets that at times seem to be closing in on them. Lee’s film captures the juxtaposition of cars against the old-world low-tech transportation of rickshaws. But even as the cars seem to be slowly squeezing out their older predecessors, Shallim vows, “We will never stop running.”
Lee’s film takes us into Shallim’s world, where we find a responsible husband and father trying to balance his family with his own dreams and aspirations. The film is in many ways a tribute to this family man as he struggles with medical costs for his ailing son and wife, while also trying to hold onto his dream of buying an auto rickshaw. The film also traces Shallim’s mentorship of Manoj, a young man who comes to Kolkata to support his family after his father is killed by their landlord in Bihar. But Manoj is visibly despondent and struggles to find and hold onto customers, as Shallim observes, “Kolkata was like a cloth that didn’t fit him.”
The film’s opening and closing scenes also point towards the decade long friendship between the director Lee, and Shallim. The film opens with Shallim rejecting the director, and in turn the audience by demanding that the cameras be turned off. Shallim complains that the crew films him doing everything; even drinking his chai and states “I don’t need foreign friends.” He tells Lee, as the filmmaker pleads with him in Hindi, “All foreigners say they are friends. You may be, but only when you are here.” Shallim’s retort is certainly an apt observation on the power dynamics of both tourism and documentary filmmaking. Shallim’s realistic expectations jar the viewer, making the film difficult to watch as one becomes conscious of intruding upon this family’s attempt to face their struggles with dignity. As we watch, the plastic bag full of the money Shallim has saved for his auto rickshaw dwindles. At the same time costs for hospital treatment and medications mount. Yet it is also through the process of documentation that Lee is able to widen his lens and offer his audience a broader view of how the experiences of his subjects relate to larger themes of modernization, family, sacrifice, and dreaming.
‘My Barefoot Friend’ is not only a moving film about a rickshaw puller trying to make it against the odds; the film also offers a pressing reflection on the ethics of documentary filmmaking. Lee manages to investigate several themes without sacrificing depth of inquiry, creating a rich tapestry that mimics the chaotic flow of the streets of Kolkata that his lens artfully captures. Rather than simply glorifying poverty and romanticizing the hardship of his subjects, Lee’s treatment carefully invokes respect for the dignity his subjects exhibit.
Hot Docs documentary film festival ran from April 28th to May 8th. The festival included several documentary films set in India, including; ‘The Bengali Detective,’ a look at Rajesh Ji a private detective, ‘Life in Loops,’ an exploration of megacities including Mumbai, and ‘Love Arranged,’ on arranged marriage in the internet age.
By Gillian Philipupillai