On the streets of Kathmandu, a group of street children take the filmmaker into their disturbing world. Living on scams, begging and petty crime, they ruthlessly protect their territory from intruders. They survive on the barest of necessities and their only companions are each other and stray dogs. Dismissed by the residents and considered a menace by the city, these children are a Lonely Pack.
Sonu, the eleven-year-old protagonist of Justin Peach’s documentary, Lonely Pack, is a complex and confrontational character. He propels the narrative forward with tense energy. The ethnographic-style documentary vividly observes the life-struggle of a group of adolescents surviving on the busy streets of Kathmandu.
The boys range from the ages of eight to fifteen and live in a loosely hierarchal setup where the oldest and the strongest protect the younger ones in return for a share of their earnings. The days are spent earning: begging, stealing, scamming, and the evenings are spent looking for a feed and a safe footpath to bed down on for the night. With its scruffy, underfed, boisterous, angry and ultimately tragic characters, the film is unique in its nuanced portrayal of the boys. At eleven, Sonu is one of the youngest but makes up for it with his bravado and street ‘front.’
The film inevitably encourages comparisons with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1998), a winner at the Cannes Film Festival. Nair’s fictional characters were played by social actors drawn from Mumbai’s population of street children with an adult cast of professional actors. While Salaam Bombay presented a gritty world of flawed characters with only the occasional moment of joy, Lonely Pack presents a wider canvas with equal moments of camaraderie, hope and warmth.
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The adults in Salaam Bombay overtly influenced the direction and quality of life of the street children while Peach almost removes adults from his narrative. Contrary to the characteristic discourse of homeless children, Peach does not lay blame on any particular social group for the situation. In fact, this approach resists traditional audience responses and enables deeper questions to be asked about economic systems and global disparities of wealth, development and living standards. At a certain level, the idea of ‘childhood’ prescribed by modern societies is systematically challenged by the opposing version of ‘childhood’ presented by Peach.
Sonu is in many respects a character that makes the audience feel deeply uncomfortable, far beyond the normal sympathetic response to his plight. Foulmouthed, vicious and angry, he is the antithesis of the ‘normal’ child. He does not bat an eyelid while scamming a Western tourist into buying him a tin of milk powder which he later sells to a restaurant owner. Stops on the tourist trail in the subcontinent often lead to encounters with this type of character, who uses a smattering of broken phrases from numerous languages, dramatic gestures and tragic tales to plead his case.
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