Director: Rahul Jain
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
One of the prime aims of Rahul Jain’s Invisible Demons, a 70-minute documentary that plays like a real-life horror film, is to shake people out of their stupor. That, however, isn’t all that the film does. The unflinching manner in which it blends the personal and the public makes it a trenchant, urgent, universally pertinent essay on the spectre of pollution in Delhi.
In Invisible Demons, Jain focuses on the state of siege that Delhi frequently finds itself under owing to its alarmingly poor air quality index and the impact of that reality on the city’s ordinary people who have to go about their lives no matter how bad things get. The film tells a chilling, disturbing story that we have been aware of for quite a while now, but given the way the filmmaker pieces together the details on the ground and the accounts of those that are worst affected make it consistently insightful, unwavering and gripping.
Invisible Demons world premiered in July in the special Cinema for the Climate section of the 2021 Cannes Film Festival and is competing for the Green Star Award at the ongoing 5th El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt.
The film has sprung from 30-year-old Jain’s own experience of growing up in Delhi as they have from the concerns of the larger populace dealing with noxious air, depleting and polluted water and erratic weather patterns. Even as the film probes the fallout of indiscriminate urban expansion on lives and livelihoods, it frequently hints at the apathy of the decision-makers charged with keeping the environment clean.
On a severely polluted day, Jain points his camera towards the particles hanging in the nighttime air and says, “I see them as poisonous darts piercing our lungs.” That precisely-worded expression speaks for every citizen of Delhi grappling with the health implications of the foul air they breathe. Upfront, Invisible Demons asserts that pollution isn’t merely what it is often cracked up to be by the mass media: a winter phenomenon that throws Delhi under a deadly smog cover.
The film takes a holistic view of the crisis. Scarcity of water, unbearable heat waves, chaos unleashed by rainfall (like most Indian metropolises, Delhi is ill-equipped to deal with the monsoon), burning of paddy stubble and the dumping of industrial and domestic effluents into the river that once was Delhi’s lifeline add up to push the city to the brink every so often.
Invisible Demons goes beyond the obvious warning signals – the city passed that stage long, long back and chose to ignore the writing on the wall – articulates despair and dread. We hear Jain’s own voice on the soundtrack painting a grim picture as well as the opinions of hapless common folk whose very existence is threatened as pollution worsens every year.
But much of the city’s collective dismay is also conveyed through the reportage on a news channel – NDTV’s Divya Wadhwa is a key character in the film, a carrier of intimations of clear and present danger – as the situation slips increasingly out of control year after year and the sprawling city hurtles down the path of self-destruction.
While driving home the repercussions of pollution caused by factories and the growing numbers of vehicles on arterial city roads, the film captures Delhi’s unhappy annual brushes with the rains. Once Nature’s means of regeneration, the monsoon brings more than its share of problems, including widespread waterlogging, traffic snarl-ups and disease. And less said the better about the deleterious consequences of growing incidence of heat waves.
Rahul Jain admits he was born in privilege in a home with air-conditioners and air purifiers. Shots of buildings pockmarked with hot air-spewing AC units identify one big cause of rising temperatures. The film’s focus is firmly on the less fortunate, people who have no access to ACs and spend their lives working, and even living, in the open, breathing the toxic air all year round and confronting its peak summer heat as well as contending with conditions precipitated in the winter months.
A boatman on the Yamuna asserts that we it is we humans who have to do something about the situation because it is beyond the control of the Gods now. A young man on the city’s outskirts – he obviously belongs to a farming family that has been driven off their land by construction projects — reminds us we have a heavy price to pay for our continuing mistreatment of ‘Mother Earth’.
The invisible demons that float in the air take a toll and Jain’s cinematic rendition of that phenomenon rings the alarm bells while recording exactly what has brought us all here. The Demon that Delhi destroys with pomp every Dussehra worsens the air quality – the film has an entire passage devoted to a Ravan effigy going up in flames and the resulting fumes billowing into the night sky. If there still are climate change deniers out there, Invisible Demons is recommended viewing for them. If this film does not disavow them of their notions, nothing ever will.
Invisible Demons isn’t a documentary that is designed to peddle information. Yes, the film does cite some statistics along the way. But it is crafted as a visually engaging cinematic tableau that packs into its limited runtime a portrait of a nightmare without end.
The film opens with a man spraying chemicals into the air ostensibly to eliminate mosquitoes. The act of fumigation recurs later in the film. The filmmaker underscores the dangers inherent in the exercise – to rid ourselves of one menace, we expose ourselves and all life around us to a cocktail of toxic chemicals.
Early in Invisible Demons, a bull – a beast of burden – heaves its load down a busy street, breathing heavily and with difficulty – a telling metaphor for an entire city and its people. Bovines appear in the film several times thereafter – in one scene, we see a herd of cows on a garbage dump, a couple of the four-legged creatures feeding on polythene bags.
That feels like a freeze-frame that lays bare the sorry state of a city groaning under its own weight, a cumulation of all the upshots of unplanned growth. Clogged streets represent only one. There is much worse: the rampancy of respiratory diseases for instance.
Invisible Demons, which presents a comprehensive and yet precise picture, pulls no punches and hits home with great force.