I first visited Bombay, Hyderabad, Madras and Bangalore in 1981 when they were all busy cities. A few years later I stayed in Delhi. I don’t remember any specific problems with pollution then but I did get heatstroke in Madras. That was my own fault and I learned to avoid the sun. But when I visited Kolkata (after the cities took their new names) in 2009, I suffered from an asthma attack during unseasonably hot November weather and I could almost taste the pollution. I fear things will have got much worse with the rise in vehicle ownership over the last ten years and I sat down to watch Invisible Demons with a sense of foreboding.
Invisible Demons is a documentary exploring both climate change and man-made pollution in Delhi (now considered the most polluted Indian metro). This film is part of a short MUBI season of films titled ‘A Window into New Indian Cinema’. In the space of less than 70 minutes, director Rahul Jain crams in shocking images and every conceivable issue associated with pollution – the ‘invisible demons’ are the tiny ‘particulates’ around which terrible smogs develop. There is so much in the film that I find it hard to summarise, so I’ll discuss mainly the overall approach to the subject and pick out one or two striking examples of specific issues.
Jain was the director of the marvellous Machines (India 2016) which offered a detailed presentation of working conditions in a textile factory. His approach here is similar but on a much greater scale. He relies largely on observational imagery with ‘witness statements’ and some minimal commentary by a voice that I assume to belong to either the director or an actor reading his words. In the main, the people who speak are ordinary dwellers in the city such as a boatman whose earnings have dropped as the polluted Yamuna river drives away pilgrims and tourists generally, some high school children, a rickshaw driver etc. A newsreader from NDTV reports on pollution both from the studio and on location on city streets during a pollution peak. A weatherman is one of the few official voices. Particularly shocking examples of the impact of pollution include the polluted river with great floating clumps of chemical foam. When I first saw these images I thought it was snow in the river – it can get very cold in the winter in Delhi, as I can attest. Most gruesome are the hospital lung tests and some footage of diseased lungs at work. Most surreal are the cows wandering across the huge mounds of rubbish on landfill sites on higher ground around the city.
The film does not bombard the viewer with statistics, but the few that are given are startling. Delhi has around a third of the most polluted localities in the world and most children in the city have some form of lung damage. The film’s message is simple – pollution kills. It kills more than terrorism or road casualties. There is some philosophical discussion by a pair of workers (managers?) in a foundry about economic development, prosperity and pollution but mainly the response is purely practical – how do we cope with this? A small part of the documentary is linked directly to global climate change. In recent years the regularity of the monsoon rains, traditionally fundamental to the country’s welfare, has been replaced with uncertainty as to when the rains will arrive and what their intensity will be. Will there be droughts or severe flooding. In Delhi, clean water supply appears to be unreliable and we see tankers taking water to local communities. But most of the problems are down to human activity and lack of regulation by governments. I can’t claim great knowledge of Indian economic history but I have gleaned impressions from trips to the country, literature and films.
When I visited in the 1980s the country was still being run as a form of ‘closed’ and planned state in many ways. There were no openings for foreign multinationals – few foreign cars, no Coca-Cola etc. The country was relatively poor but the system seemed to work and as I noted above, I was not aware of the pollution in the major cities – partly because there was little private ownership of motor vehicles. In 1991 the country suffered from the end of the Cold War (India was non-aligned but had trading relations with the Soviet Union) and the country was gradually opened to globalisation and ‘economic liberalism’. The economy began to grow, especially in the early 21st century, and the population grew as well. The major cities, ‘metros’ and now ‘mega cities’, grew rapidly. A proportion of the population became more affluent and even the so-called ‘middle classes’ (a term referring to a slightly different and lower stratum of society than in the West) were able to buy consumer goods like televisions. But as the Chinese have also discovered, when consumption rises in a large population, it becomes more difficult to regulate behaviour. The Chinese have the political will and the means to enforce it but it still isn’t straightforward. In India the will has not been there and de-regulation has allowed car ownership and new housing development to grow faster than the infrastructure needed to support it.
There is also the problem that traditional activities presented in the film such as fireworks and incense burning, funeral pyres and stubble-burning after harvest, which in themselves are not massively polluting are made so when the air is already full of vehicle exhausts. The final shots of the film are powerful when an unidentified man tells us that all the great civilisations started in forest regions. This comes after a sequence showing the extraordinary ‘valleys’ of high rise buildings spreading out from the city and into the hinterland. A relatively young man tells us that in his childhood the area was dark at night but now it is bright with artificial lights all the time. The scene fades to black and the final shot offers us a walk down a country path in clear daylight with grass either side of the path and trees not far away. By the side of the path in the distance, a cow quietly chews its cud. Is there any way to maintain this scene in the future or will the smog spread everywhere? India is a sub-continent with a huge pollution problem which contributes to global climate change. I doubt the current government has the wit or the will to tackle it. The country has the resources to change the way its economy works, but not the leadership. That’s my view. The film invites you to make up your own mind.