In the city that never sleeps, a documentary follows two men who stay up late into the night.
Mumbai's Midnight Gardeners, streaming as part of the New York Times' Op Docs section, is a 11-minute-long peek into the lives of Rajesh Jadhav and Pravin Bheke, whose job it is to water small municipal gardens on Mazgaon's road dividers. Rajesh, who perches atop the tanker and does most of the watering, is the younger and more talkative of the two. After a lifetime of odd jobs including carpentry, masonry, mutton packing, housekeeping and catering – he dropped out after Class 6 to work – he's looking for a break. "Kabhi kabhi aisa sochta hoon ki poora din so jaoon (Sometimes I think I should sleep the whole day)," he says, cheekily. Pravin, who drives Rajesh around, studied until Class 10. He talks of childhood dreams of becoming a cricketer until financial instability pushed him into this profession.
For director Divya Pathak, the idea for the documentary sprung from her desire to do a "Mumbai film with a twist". "The night becomes this metaphor for invisibility – I was working with people I would've otherwise not met, or ever seen in film," she says over the phone from London. The Mumbai in the documentary, filmed over four days in April last year, has none of its usual hustle and bustle. Twinkling streetlights illuminate near-deserted streets. Somewhere, a cab driver, head rested against the doorframe, is fast asleep.
Born in New York, Pathak returns to India every year to visit family. On one such trip in 2017, she shot her second short film, Contenders, about a school in Calcutta that trains young girls to box. It helped her get comfortable with the language barrier and decide to do another documentary about lesser-known communities in the country.
The second time around, an unlikely element factored into her choice of subject – the city's oppressive heat. "Time went by as my cinematographer, Deepak, and I were kicking ideas around. Around February or March last year, it started to get quite hot and I started thinking maybe it would be more comfortable to shoot at night. Which is how we came up with the idea of the night-shift workers." She discarded the idea of filming late-night cab drivers as keeping a camera steady during the bumpy drives would be harder and the confines of shooting primarily inside a car did not sound appealing.
The men's reflections get more personal and even painful as the drives progress. Pravin recalls 2010, a "bohot bura saal (very bad year)", when he lost both, his job and the woman he wanted to marry. Rajesh is matter-of-fact about his parents' death in the 1993 Jogeshwari riots and having to change his Muslim name to a Hindu one soon after. "They were both pretty forthcoming. We didn't know they had interesting personal stories that when we brought them on. Those came out in the interviews," says Pathak. To establish a rapport with the men, she first conducted audio interviews with each of them separately at a hotel in Mazgaon. "It's easier in general to get people to talk when it's just audio because there's no camera being stuck in their face," she says. Pravin, in a voiceover, reflects on his unhappy marriage and knowing that his wife was the wrong woman for him after just five days.
The long drives also helped them to open up. "When you're driving, you're less self-conscious because you're focused on doing that. You can't have a big crew with you during those scenes – you can fit just the DoP, and then a person doing sound. This creates a more intimate setting. So they would drive around and just talk," says Pathak.
Editing the film took six weeks, of which two went to subtitling the dialogue, a mix of Hindi and Marathi. In February this year, it screened in competition at the Oscar-qualifying Big Sky Documentary Festival in Montana. The film caught the attention of the New York Times, which bought it a few months later. This helped Pathak, who had self-funded the documentary, to recover some of its budget.
The end of the film makes it clear that Rajesh and Pravin are just two of the many 'invisible' people helping the city run at night. There are cab drivers, policemen, paint-splattered workers and more. "Documentaries give you the chance to meet people you wouldn't ordinarily see, from communities you wouldn't ordinarily meet. Meeting people, hearing their stories, finding the commonalities between them – it's changed my relationship with India," says Pathak.
You can watch the film here: