Pictured: Puran Bhatt from the film “Tomorrow We Disappear.” Photo Credit: Josh Cogan.

“I want to have a video made of my house, so when it’s all gone, I’ll still remember it. So, in the future, we can watch it and say, ‘This is how we used to live.’”

Such are the opening words of Puran Bhatt in Tomorrow We Disappear, Jimmy Goldblum and Adam Weber’s new feature-length documentary, which recently premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Bhatt is a lifelong resident of the Kathputli artists’ colony, a 50-year-old slum in the heart of Delhi, India. The 84-minute film is at once a portrayal of resilience and joy, resignation and loss. With masterful eyes and the gift of storytelling, Goldblum and Weber weave a single tale that is, sadly, emblematic of traditional cultures across the globe.

Three million people live in Delhi slums and face periodic government removal. Kathputli is home to 1,500 artist families safeguarding the magical folk art traditions of a people and culture. And as a guardian of culture, it has always been safe from removal — until now. In 2011, the government announced that the first city skyscraper — filled with luxury apartments, restaurants, and shopping malls — would be built where Kathputli stands. The artists and their crafts, so closely connected to the place generations of artists have called home, face extinction. Goldblum and Weber, with a skillful team of translators, set out to capture the intergenerational struggles that arise as the Kathputli colony tries to save their homes and artistic traditions.

We meet Bhatt, a third-generation puppeteer, who in 2003 won India’s highest award for traditional arts. He leads the charge to stop the removal, writing letters to the government and rallying residents to join him in his efforts. Straddling the elder and youth generations is Rahman the magician, who performs street theatre with his son to survive. At middle age, he is too old to begin a new profession, and yet too young to continue an art form that the government has banned. Maya the acrobat has been in training since she was eight-months-old — but, like many of her generation, she has aspirations to enter the professional workforce and practice her art as a hobby.

Through Goldblum and Weber’s objective eyes, we observe daily life in Kathputli — the colony glows with brilliant colors, whimsical dance, aromatic foods simmering on stoves, children playing on rooftops, artists carving, and reminiscent conversations. So authentic, so alive are the scenes that at times, one feels, sitting in the darkened movie theatre, transported to the alleyways of Kathputli. The first 20 minutes of the film — a panoramic pictorial of life within the slum — can seem never-ending, but upon reflection, it exposes the clash of two cultures: the post-modern, fast-paced, two-minute sound bite and the contemplative, slow-paced ruminations of yesteryear.

GALO had the opportunity to sit down with Goldblum, Weber, and Bhatt at the film festival to talk about the project and the fate of the artists of Kathputli. Meeting on the 17th floor of a Chelsea hotel, with midtown Manhattan looming in the distance, it felt strange to discuss the fate of Kathputli with Bhatt, whose efforts to stop the demolition of his colony seemed to have reached their final end. The government has built track housing for some members of the colony. As Bhatt says in the film, “It’s like a cage where you put your chickens at night.” Goldblum and Weber were animated and playful without losing touch with the seriousness of their subject. There was a deep respect between the three men — for what they had shared over the course of several years and what lies ahead for the folk artists of Delhi’s Kathputli colony.

GALO: How did you learn about the struggles of the Kathputli artists’ colony?

Jimmy Goldblum: Adam and I were roommates in college. We were both English majors, and he had recommended Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. And very, very late into that book, the main character hides away in a ghetto of magicians. And I read this and thought, ‘what? How? How did he write this? How did he come up with this? Is it based on anything?’ So I Googled “India plus magicians’ ghetto,” and I found a tiny Times of India article about the destruction of the Kathputli colony and sent it over to Adam.

Adam Weber: Jimmy has one of these minds where if something is fascinating to him, his curiosity leads him as far as he can run with it. These were questions I’d never ask, but when he sent me the e-mail, I wasn’t surprised. He was totally shocked that I hadn’t discovered this before. Within two months we were there making our way through Delhi’s alleyways, not having any idea what we were going to find.

GALO: Had either of you ever been to India before?

AW: I had never been to India before. Jimmy had been on a family trip.

JG: It’s interesting, because India is one of those countries where it’s very easy to be separated as the tourist class from the living, breathing culture of the country. I grew up traveling with my family all over the place. India was the one country that I knew I hadn’t yet really seen. I remember the first time I went. It was 3 a.m. I was really jetlagged and couldn’t sleep. There was a little tea bar in my hotel, and this guy says, “Is this your first time in India?” as he served my tea. I said, “Yes.” “Get out of the city,” he said. “You need to go to the mountains. In the mountains I have seen a man who can jump off the mountain and fly. I’ve seen a man who can make fire out of his hands.” And here I am, super jetlagged and thinking to myself: ‘what the hell is going on?’ It’s not that I believed these things, but the fact that people believed these things. There was a spirituality — an essence — that I knew would be amazing.

AW: It’s like an exciting movie premiere where everybody is sharing in the energy of what you want to believe together. And when you go to India, it’s just like that, only on a different scale — especially, as you can imagine — when you have thousands of artists living together.

GALO: At what point did you decide to make a full-length feature?

AW: This shared energy and concept of themselves is so strong and unique that Jimmy and I were talking within the first week about how we were going to make this into a feature film.

GALO: It’s almost as if reality was suspended, and you entered a whole new world — allowing it to come to you and see where it’s going to take you.

JG: Yes. It was a lot like Alice in Wonderland. Kathputli colony is like the rings of an oak tree. People in other slums see Kathputli as a safe space. All the new slums that get knocked down in Delhi tend to move there because Kathputli has a media presence — they can’t move Kathputli in the same way they can move other slums. As you move through these labyrinthine alleyways, you are time traveling a bit. You are going right back to the center — the core — which is really what Kathputli is. It’s where the artists live. And when you get inside, you find this this guy [points to Puran, the puppeteer, sitting to his right] making 15-foot tall puppets on his roof.


AW: The film is structured the same way. The first 20 minutes of the film is what it’s like to live and breathe there. And then, obviously, it takes a different turn, because things like Kathputli can’t last in a modern world, I guess.

JG: Or people don’t want them to.

AW: Yes.

GALO: You said in your directors’ statement that you were looking for new audiences and new economic opportunities for the artists, but you weren’t necessarily saying Kathputli has to remain as is. In other words, saving Kathputli wasn’t the platform upon which you based the film. Can you talk a bit about that?

JG: A lot of people do want that to be our mantle, but I think it’s really important to say that Kathputli is a big place. And there are a lot of people who live there. There’s a hierarchy and a different economy for different artists. It was really important for us to represent the spectrum of the place. There are artists who will die before leaving there — literally die before leaving there. And there are others — maybe of the younger generation — who will live more comfortably with the way the world is moving. They’ve been exposed to different things at an earlier age. And it’s not our place, as directors, to preclude them from their voice and say, “No, we’re going to ignore your desires and go with this group’s voice.” For us, we really wanted to tell the story as honestly as possible and allow people to make up their own minds about the situation.

AW: Yes. It’s less about how things have to stay the way they are forever. It was more a question of whether anybody cares that this is happening. Does anybody know where these people belong? Does anybody have a right to land? And how can you incorporate their traditions into a modernized culture?