Street sellers in India: the sadness and drama of Javier Bardem’s Biutiful

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Cinema’s in India, especially the theatres in the upscale segment, are very popular. The state-of-the-art customer experience from purchasing a ticket with your mobile phone to leaving the often spotless cinema is unprecedented. However, there is one small issue: the actual line up is a bit challenging. More than 80% of the screenings are in the Bollywood segment. One of the latest Bollywood hit films is Gully Boy, a romantic crime drama about a boy from the slums who has a dream in to become a successful rapper. We went to see this film and enjoyed it a lot. Nevertheless, we are still in favor of watching western style films, especially independent or arthouse movies. Unfortunately, if a specific cinema decides to screen a western movie, more than often it’s usually a blockbuster movie; the market of independent films is very small here in India and almost nonexistent. In addition: western films that would be screened in the theatres are pulled out after a very short time. More than often I actually miss the opportunity to see good film because I assume it should continue to screen ‘in the following week’, which it does not.   

The chances would have been very slim to see Javier Bardem’s Biutiful in India. We hadn’t been in India during the time that this independent film was screening in theatres in Europe (2010), so I can’t tell you if it would have been possible to see this film on a big screen here. However, following the screenings from week to week, I think the chances would be very rare. Loving movies while living here, I have come up with a simple rule: when there is an interesting screening, don’t wait. As I stated earlier; I’ve missed a couple of great films because I thought I could have the opportunity watch it ‘the following week’.

Last week our car stopped at one of the large ‘chowks’ in Pune. A ‘chowk’ is a large crossing and one of the favorite landmarks for Indian drivers. When you ask a random stranger the directions for a specific shop or neighborhood, the chances are that he or she will come up with directions based on specific chowks. As my car waited for the traffic light to turn green, a very common routine started to happen in front of me: street sellers approach the vehicles tried to sell all kinds of goods: dustbin bags, auto window shades & mobile phone holders.

Street sellers are a common sight in India, and this reminded me of Javier Bardem’s film Biutiful. The Spanish actor, known for playing various roles, plays a Spanish street level gang boss, in charge of providing the street sellers of a southern Spanish town with the latest goods. He supplies his North-African street sellers with things that you didn’t know that you needed. Obviously, they are selling wooden elephants, but also Fake Gucci womens bags, all for pennies. The film is gritty, uncovering the darker sides of European cities. After watching the film, one would definitely have a different – more positive – opinion about the people trying to sell you stuff on the streets in Europe.

However, being a street seller in India, especially the ones who are operating around the traffic lights, is one of the worst things one could do. I couldn’t find a lot of data or background info about this, but based upon my regular encounters with these people, I started creating a picture about this and, it’s far from an ordinary job. What I’ve noticed up to know is the weird fact that they are all selling the same stuff at the same time. They have been selling dustbin bags for months now, but the variety will vary from time to time. They offer seasonal products, like umbrella’s during the monsoon or colorful balloons with an image of the latest Disney movie in theatres. The similarity in their products made me realized that this is all organized. I’m assuming that lots of these goods are being supplied by local gangs and that most of the profits will actual flow to the pockets of people behind these criminal organizations.

Like the local crime boss in the film Biutiful, goods are being sold by very vulnerable people on the streets with no power to negotiate financial situations. As a result, these people would pay a much higher price for their goods than in wholesale shops, leaving only a fraction to feed their families. The key reason for this is the lack of capital; all the money that these street sellers would earn, would be spend on food and on the same day.

I’ve been paying a bit more attention to the street sellers in the last weeks, especially during recent trips within India. Although there is nothing that I can do to help them – I don’t want or need the stuff which they are trying to sell– I actually want to do something else. But what? It’s not easy to break the chain, especially when the street sellers are being ‘kept hostage’ by gangs. Like in the movie, the bosses behind the street sellers’ scheme is not visible. They usually operate in disguise and avoid being too much on the surface. It’s a rough and challenging life for these people on the streets. Their ‘workplace’ is dangerous and polluted; inhaling car emissions 7 days a week is not good for anyone’s health and the children of the sellers are – in many cases – part of the street selling crew. They walk around the chowks, with a high risk of being hit by oncoming cars.

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