The Running Hawker (2017)
by Abhijnan Sarkar and Chandan Biswas
Runtime: 94 minutes
The Running Hawker can very quickly draw you in to the affective force of how it depicts the lives of its protagonists, the hawkers on the local trains and stations of Bengal. Over 94 minutes the film reveals a political consciousness with which it radically steps in to the world that hawkers navigate. If on the one hand, the hawker constitutes a population whose electoral worth is the economy against which it negotiates its survival and livelihood with the state, then on the other hand, it has emerged as a potential subject of the neoliberal jugaad discourse that Modi and his likes have been peddling to small-scale enterprises and informal economies. Somewhere in between hawkers remain entangled in civic anxieties about public hygiene and sanitation, movement and accessibility, and stubborn push-back from both local and big businesses. The history of hawkers, whether on the streets or on the trains, in Bengal is immanent to the state’s story of partition, refugee movements and deindustrialization and its long and contentious relationship with mainstream as well as radical communist politics. The unique precarity that defines hawker lives cannot really be abstracted from these complex realities. And yet that’s what Hawker does. Except a cursory nod at the world of big capital a few minutes in to the film, the almost deliberate absence of contexts tends to leave a nagging feeling throughout and after. Hawker is maybe where the meeting of ideologies and experience, activism and life takes place, about lives (that of the hawkers as well as the filmmakers) lived both because of and in spite of the collusion of state, social and neoliberal aspirations.
If the life and survival of running hawkers is contingent on everyday movement itself—the moving train, passengers, and their own ability to shift through spaces and around blockages—then Hawker is a depiction of a bitter paradox, that of ceaseless movement yet little or no mobility in the lives of its protagonists. The film shifts in and out of the lives of Swapan, Rekha, Tapas and others, each one a veritable character, made of their own sweat and hubris, love and loneliness. Although, a significant length of footage is devoted to the daily and yet immensely creative reproduction of hawker labour, one can’t really accuse the film of fetish because of its abiding awareness of how the men and women perceive their own vulnerability in the face of an unresponsive state, self-seeking unions or a middle-class moral disposition that almost fully dismisses the work or the value entailed in hawking. An inevitable contradiction of being seen and not seen afflicts them; to be visible as public nuisance, criminal elements and as perceived products of their own uselessness on the one hand, and as the spectacular presence around which an ephemeral and enthusiastic market is mobilised everyday. At the same time they remain invisible as unopened files of petition that pass from one bureaucratic table to another.
Each character appears as a unique figuration of the very world with which they negotiate the terms of their survival. “No one wants to be a hawker; no one is born a hawker”, says Basudev and yet all are caught in the machinic routine of railway life, time-tables at the tip of their tongue and every train remembered by its own sound. Unlike jobs in the corporate and government sectors, this routine assures no dignity and does little to take away from the legal and existential precarity of running hawkers. Swapan, an “inhabitant of Budge Budge railway station, who happens to be a backward SC landless educated unemployed youth” has been writing letters to the state for twenty years, for employment and for relief from the unpredictability of eviction. If not for Swapan’s resentment against “this poverty, negligence of the nation, torture of the state, unbearable unemployment” then these letters would just be relics of the impossibility of relief that he seeks both for the hawker community, and for himself as an individual. Perhaps one of the most affective of personalities in the film is Tapas. If he has quick clever verses, he also has an irreparable broken heart. Some alcohol and he lays out his heart heavy on the world
“I sell happiness”, declares Chandan to his traveling audience. Oscillating between the possibilities of hawkery and the indignities that pose as its limitations, Chandan is akin to a typical neoliberal subject. He has bought in to the neoliberal persuasions of success and the idea that eventually happiness is something that can be bought and sold, given people work hard, stay thrifty and change gears as and when necessary. Apart from the entire spectrum of individuals and their life, humour and music, in between Hawker expresses a lot more than it documents.
Made over a period of three years,The Running Hawker is Biswas and Sarkar’s debut work on a hand-held camera, limited budget, self-financed and one that emerges out of prolonged and consistent labour of political activism and the consequences it invariably has on the mobility of the filmmakers themselves.