‘Cities of Sleep’: Anirban Gupta-Nigam

Guest post by ANIRBAN GUPTA-NIGAM – A Preview of SHAUNAK SEN’S film ‘Cities of Sleep

A few days ago, on its Facebook page, Business Insider India shared a series of images of Bollywood stars who had gone—plainly speaking—from “zeroes to heroes”[1]. The yardstick for what constitutes success is another matter (Mithun Chakraborty, for example, is celebrated because he progressed from being a ‘Naxalite’ to ‘India’s highest tax payer’), but accompanying the post were the following words: ‘Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world’. In another words, dare to dream and you shall become all you want to be.

This simple, inspiring message is possibly more complex than it first appears to be. It contains within it a contradiction that might well be worth attending to. Specifically, the images implicitly demand that we ask who (or what) is a ‘dreamer’ today.

The famous comedian George Carlin once said that ‘they call it the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it’. A problem of a similar order is posed by the images in question here. Taken at face value, the mantra ‘every great dream begins with a dreamer’ not only propagates an all too familiar narrative of entrepreneurial success. It also comes with a qualifier—every great dream begins with a dreamer. Which is to say, not all dreams qualify for this honor.

How, then, can we understand ‘great dreams’? Perhaps one clue is to be found in the secret precondition that is the premise of all dreaming—sleep. Dreams are precarious, unstable, and fragmentary precisely because when we are asleep, we lose a degree of self–control that we possess in waking life. But the weird combinations of images, objects, scenes and events that sleepy dreams can conjure don’t quite serve the purpose of the dreams Business Insider India would like us to have. ‘Great dreams’ must be measured; they must fit the coordinates of narratives about enterprising Indians who can, theoretically, achieve anything. (So that when they don’t, they have just dreamt incorrectly). Business Insider India wants dreams without sleep—dreams that are structured by the fantasy of individual heroism, unencumbered by any external constraints. The corporate ethos of “success” such a mantra feeds, seeks, ultimately, to eliminate sleep altogether in a fog of constant productivity, wakefulness and energy expenditure. “Dream”, in this scheme, is code for labor.

In response to this ethos of governing sleep, critical scholarship has recently posited sleep as the final frontier—a sort of excess that, despite attempts to capture it, still endures and escapes the rhythm of neoliberal capitalism[2]. Sleep, in such counter–narratives emerges as the potential site for the articulation of a different kind of politics, a politics that would disorient the “24/7” cycle that is increasingly colonizing the world. For such scholars, any dream could potentially be great because dreaming itself is the guarantor of a kind of “freedom”.

Caught between these opposing impulses however, are the lives of millions of people whose search for sleep—for a moment of rest in a world of restlessness—takes forms that neither of the moves gestured to above are able to fully account for. Shaunak Sen’s film, Cities of Sleep—the trailer [embedded above] to which has just been released and contains some of the most powerful dialogic elements from the work—makes an intervention in this exact, fragile space. The film cuts between Shakeel as he traverses Old Delhi looking for an adequate place to sleep, and Loha Pul—a colonial era two–tier bridge where informal arrangements for sleep have blossomed in makeshift film theaters. Made (at least to some extent) in the tradition of observational cinema, with little directorial intervention or narrative framing, Cities of Sleep lays bare the violence, potential and intensity inherent in these disparate geographies we seldom take note of in our daily lives in the city. Even as it shows us forms of life we don’t normally attend to, the film avoids the naïve politics of “making visible” by eschewing sociological or other explanatory devices to contextualize what we see. Anthropological trappings are harder to evade, but, at stark moments—as one when Shakeel confronts the camera about the nature of his relationship to those wielding it—the troubled nature of this encounter is there for all to see.

Sleep surfaces in the film (and the trailer) as escape, confinement, a source of dreams and nightmares. It is that which you must capture to totally control a person’s body, and that which you must observe to follow fault lines in society; it is that which allows one to re-energize and face another day, and that which overtakes a tired body in a manner that the person himself cannot fully control. Sleep surfaces in the film and in it, surfaces become sites for sleep—pavements, dividers, undersides of bridges, parking lots, subways, bus stations. The landscape of Delhi is transformed at night by bodies wrapped in shawls or lying half naked, hoping to either catch the breeze or be shielded from it. The entire city becomes a potential surface for the experience of sleep—but, like all surfaces, this one too is deceptive. In Cities of Sleep, bodies collide violently with regimes of calculation: how much money you have determines what you can afford (a cot, a blanket); every square inch is monetized by a ‘sleep mafia’ that admits to perceptively recognizing the economic power of slumber. A shopkeeper talks about people waking up in the morning and immediately beginning to calculate, to compute how much they would need to survive the day and find a decent surface to sleep. And that’s all that a surface ever is—adequate, decent. Comfort doesn’t enter the vocabulary of those the film tracks.

Still, within this daily, routinized grind, there is scope for exuberance, poetry, relief. It wouldn’t be wrong to read Cities of Sleep as a somber comment on class antagonism. But—like Shakeel’s sleep—such a reading would be inadequate. The film doesn’t concern itself with class or the blatant divide of rich and poor in Delhi in any obvious way. It immerses itself in the flesh of poverty without attempting, ever, to substitute one set of eyes for another. Delhi is defamiliarized not because we see spaces anew in a way we never did before but because, by expelling us from its frame of reference, the film forces us to confront the fact that what is on display is something we see every day. Like the almost static characters in Tsai Ming Liang’s Stray Dogs (2013), the people populating this film look for moments of stillness, for durations where the frame need not be agitated and one can simply hold on to something as the body recharges its batteries in preparation for another day. But contemplative environments are hard to come by, and all the poetic and philosophical gems about sleep strewn throughout the film arise from conditions of deprivation, hunger and some kind of constant movement. Visceral unsettlement becomes a condition for thinking—you think your situation because you don’t have the luxury to contemplate it.

And what kind of thoughts does this situation produce? Sleep is figured in the film in myriad, contradictory ways. Conjugated to deprivation, sleep at times affords a sense of freedom, while at others it destroys the possibility of living on. Strikingly, most of the ruminations on display have internalized the productivist discourse that scholars like Jonathan Crary believe is still held at bay by sleep. As remainder, excess and supplement, sleep, in such accounts, still offers the hope of an outside to the stringent demands of capital. But almost everyone who speaks in Cities of Sleep—no matter how much they valorize sleep as a condition of liberty—reproduces the idea that sleep is necessary for a properly productive and functioning life. It would be facetious and incorrect to suggest that, therefore, all the people on camera are saturated by the forces of global capitalism. Rather, through their words we might revisit formulations like Crary’s and ask whether sleep really is the frontier formation he would like it to be. Instead, we might consider Shakeel’s search for a night’s rest and Business Insider India’s call for dreamers who don’t sleep as part of the same narrative—a narrative wherein sleep is not something which troubles the boundaries of capital from the outside but infects the body of capital from within. In other words, capital doesn’t encroach on sleep so much as it seeks to expel it.

Towards the end of Roy Andersson’s remarkable film A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), a bland, characterless salesman has a dream—a nightmare—where the black foundations of  European enjoyment are revealed to him. The life of this seller of novelty entertainment items will never be the same. Sleep ruins his waking life by showing him how the latter is a dream built on repressed histories of violence. Perhaps this is why groups like Business Insider India want dreamers who stay awake. Entrepreneurs must adopt a Shakeel–like attitude to life (sans the actual desire for rest)[3]. Perhaps this is also why, even as masses of people around us wander endlessly in search of an adequate surface, we monitor, monetize, analyze, compute, calculate and “infographize” sleep.

[1] https://www.facebook.com/BusinessInsiderIndia/posts/774670812638671

[2] https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/sleeps-hidden-histories

[3] http://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/stay-hungry-stay-foolish-steve-jobs-speech-at-stanford/article1-754153.aspx

One thought on “‘Cities of Sleep’: Anirban Gupta-Nigam”

  1. “Neend to dard ke bistar pe bhi aasakti hai” (Sleep can come on matress of suffering too). Thus goes a lyrical line in a Jagjit Singh number. Actually, who sleeps? The corporates sleep dreaming of more and more money… The layman sleeps dreaming how to get out from penniless life..The artist sleeps dreaming of his art..The political Macbeth wakes up sleeping… The Lady Macbeth walks sleeping…When all things come to an end, everyone in the world sleeps to a slumber! Murmuring: “Sogaya yeh Zami/Sogaya Aasman/Sogayi saare Manzileen/ Sogaya hai Raastha) Roughly translated–The earth has slept/The sky hath slept/All the goals have slept/The path hath slept too.. John Lennon said “you may ssy I am a dreamer/ But I am not the only one/I hope one day you will join us/ ….wishing you good peaceful sleep


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