Whatever the police say, I can’t go against my own conscience.
Pockets. The first shot in Journals of a Wily School is filled with pockets, in motion, on a crowded sidewalk in Kolkata (Calcutta), and viewed through a circular iris frame. This limited perspective hints at who’s watching, namely, Azad Jalaluddin, a young pickpocket.
Azad’s is the primary view afforded in Sudeshna Bose’s film, airing this week as part of PBS’ Independent Lens. He’s quick and perceptive, and seems open to his interviewer, bringing along the camera crew as he describes his activities and how he came to be a pickpocket. “My father used to think I was going to school,” he smiles, even though he was already on the street. His first time he remembers, felt irresistible, like a calling. At the time, he had stolen a few potatoes, but he’d been functioning haphazardly, without a plan. When he spotted a “bunch of notes sticking out of someone’s pocket,” 22-year-old Azad recalls, he was tempted. “I thought, ‘I take this and I’d be able to watch movies all week.'” After he did the deed — landing some 70 rupees — he realized how easy this new life could be. “From then onwards,” he concludes, “I became greedy. I became involved with a local gang of pickpockets.”
Here the film cuts to potential consequences. In a police station, officers bring pickpockets into an office and lay their hands on a desk, whomping at them with a bat, the sound loud and echoing. Bidhan Saha is second officer on the city’s Watch Section, assigned essentially to catch pickpockets. The squad is busy: at any given time, the film reports, some 300 pickpockets are in jail or the station, their crimes recorded and their punishments allotted. But as Azad notes, the struggle seems endless: thieves are undeterred and cops are exhausted. No one sees options.
Azad is the eldest of five children, his father a worker in the fish trade, his younger brothers and sisters still in school. When he’s not stealing, Azad reports, he’s doing drugs or watching movies. The film doesn’t show this, however. Instead, it shows Azad with his friends, a coterie of fellow pickpockets who teach one another how best to do their work. And it is both work and an art form: they practice using razors to slice open suit pockets, reaching into buckets of water to retrieve single coins without disturbing the surface. Careful and attentive, they don’t think too much about what happens next. If he goes to jail for the maximum sentence, Azad says, it’s “nothing to be worried about… Jail is like a home to me, a place to rest in, two weeks of undiluted sleep. It’s a place befitting a holiday.”
The film’s quick looks inside Azad’s home suggest why he might feel this way. Crowded and dark, the place is shot from angles to indicate its limits: Azad and his sister are framed by windows and doors, their faces partly hidden, their smiles wide but also weary. Azad’s father regrets his son’s choices, but feels powerless to stop him. The camera shows a pot bubbling on the stove as his father describes his own efforts to employ or distract Azad. “He wants to be the big boss,” dad sighs. “Whatever he puts his heart into, he succeeds,” his father says. “Once we even thought of him getting married, thinking that talk of marriage might rectify him.” But by then the boy had developed a habit and a community. Immersed in poverty and informed by movies that show unattainable wealth, he appreciates the complexity and moral ambiguities of his work: “Please don’t call me a criminal,” he smiles, “One who gets caught is a thief, but one who escapes is an artist.”
More important, Azad feels part of a group as a pickpocket. “When we would play cops and robbers,” he remembers of his childhood, “I never wanted to be the police. I always gave that role to others.” He has something of a second chance when he meets Bidhan, who encourages Azad to become an informant. Following a scene that shows the cops at work — slamming into a suspect’s home and dragging him out to a waiting van in the dead of night, his wife and children wailing in the background — the film shows Bidhan trying to convince Azad that working with police is a better choice.
First, he offers money, small amounts for the names and whereabouts of smalltime criminals. Bidhan also promises more, larger sums of money and a kind of ongoing employment. Then, Bidhan offers another perspective, apart from the busy streets and dank interiors of Kolkata, when he takes Azad to the beach at Bakkhali, where the sky turns gorgeous yellow and aqua at twilight. As they walk along the shore, the camera perched far way, the picturesque scene is punctuated by Bidhan’s question: “When you help us catch a friend, will you not feel bad? Would you not think of the good times you had spent?” In fact, this is exactly what troubles Azad. When he learns that the police will not treat him consistently, that his payments depend on his delivery of information and worse, that he can stlll be punished for his own thefts, Azad reasons that his own “people” deserve his respect and loyalty before the cops.
While Azad’s story is familiar, his relationship with the filmmakers is striking, part conspiratorial and part instructional. This doesn’t so much raise questions concerning the filmmakers’ position as it does suggest that Azad knows at each step how he’s being used and how he’s using his short-term stardom. Tired one evening, he tells the cameraperson to follow him (“Let’s pack it up for the day”). Proud of his expertise, he boasts, “I can teach you the tricks faster than perhaps you can teach me acting.” Even if he doesn’t say it, Azad is already an accomplished performer. It’s clear that his view is not so limited, after all.