Jimmy Goldblum and Adam Weber’s “Tomorrow We Disappear” chronicles the razing of a colorful New Delhi colony called Kathputli, destroyed by upscale developers to construct a mall and luxury skyscraper. Though the spectacle of the very rich driving their poorer brethren out of long-established neighborhoods grows steadily more universal, the creative, vibrant nature of the community involved — home to some 3,000 street artists and their families — grants the documentary a particular resonance. Focusing on practitioners of ancient folk-art traditions threatened by the move, this entertaining mix of pathos and sword swallowing could sustain niche play before TV beckons.
The developers throw up endless rows of identical, jerrybuilt, barrack-like shacks in the middle of nowhere, with insufficient water and few amenities to serve as supposedly two-year housing for colony inhabitants before they can be assigned lodgings of some sort in the new luxury complex. Residents must accept the move in order to qualify for the temporary digs, and opinions on whether or not to sign differ vociferously: Some are eager to assure themselves of a place to stay, some explore all legal and artistic means of protest before bowing to the inevitable, and some simply refuse to grant legitimacy to the proceedings.
Although the colony, as it stands, is indubitably a slum, the temporary quarters already seem only a slight improvement. Over the decades, the artists have built colorful housing tailored to their needs, with open roofs conducive to lively exchanges, open-air workplaces, and shared play areas for the children. The developers’ regimented rows of steep-roofed, one-size-fits-all huts answer none of these people’s peculiar requirements.
Puran Bhatt, a renowned puppeteer whose work garnered India’s prestigious Akademi Award and appreciation in 25 countries, displays full consciousness of the irony of his situation. As he tours a museum exhibit of traditional Indian arts, rhapsodizing over the beauty of the artifacts on display, he bemoans the dual fate of the folk artist, revered as part of the country’s cultural history and reviled as a member of the “undeserving” poor. He is seen training his sons in the art of puppetry (their manipulations already quite expressive) and spearheading a jubilant parade of artists to call attention Kathputli’s plight and the heritage its destruction imperils. His 15-foot puppets are certainly attention-getters, but would take up more space than the proposed huts could furnish.
Bhatt’s friend Rahman Shah is likewise shown inculcating his youngsters in an age-old art, in his case magic. While the crowds (and the viewer) duly appreciate his skill, the police now suddenly prevent him from plying his craft, demanding huge bribes far surpassing his means. He seriously considers leaving Delhi, despite his deep roots in the city.
Maya Pawar, a pretty, fearless young acrobat who picks up needles with her eyelids and tightrope-walks while balancing various objects, is the only protagonist who regards the change with any hope. Like Bhatt, she sees the writing on the wall and the lack of any long-term future for folk artists. An accident having left her barren, she will have no children to pass her knowledge on to, and dreams instead of becoming a teacher once the colony is disbanded.
Helmers Goldblum and Weber make no secret of their advocacy, though they left out much of the scandal which has plagued the new development. Rather than exclaiming over all-too-familiar greed and corruption, though, the filmmakers mainly focus on simply recording this fascinating community as it struggles to cope with a world that will be poorer for its absence.