For the benign road runner

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Published: Sunday 15 August 2004

Pedal Soldier of india a film by Siksha directed by Kaukab and Raza VCD 28 minutes

At one point in the documentary under review, social scientist Yogendra Yadav comments, "Educating the middle class about rights of rickshaw-pullers and relating democracy with road rights is a critical need today." The statement sums up the agenda of Pedal Soldier of India. In a little less than half an hour we are given an insight into the economics of rickshaw pulling, shown how supercilious our civic authorities are towards these roadrunners and told what can be done to improve matters.

The film begins with little vignettes showing what draws people from villages to rickshaw pulling in towns and cities. For many teetering precariously on the edges of India's rural economy, the cycle rickshaw offers hope of eking out a semblance of sustenance. It is not surprising that there are more than 10 million rickshaw pullers in India, 0.6 million of them in the country's capital alone. Added to that are numerous mechanics who service the roadrunners. The film then proceeds to inform us that the rickshaw business requires little capital: one vehicle costs between Rs 3,500-5,000 and can be assembled in household industries. This naturally arouses one's curiosity about the relationship between rickshaw owners and the pullers. But the film disappoints us on this count.

Perhaps the film makers think it more important to highlight the shoddy treatment that our civic authorities mete out to rickshaw pullers. This is undoubtedly a very important concern and the documentary is at its cinematic best here. Images of policemen roughing up rickshaw pullers, visuals of impounded rickshaws and civic notices keeping certain areas of cities out of bounds for these vehicles combine to show official high handedness at its best. But it is not just civic authorities that trample upon rickshaw pullers' rights: many an urban Indian is equally guilty of regarding them with pompous disdain. Rickshaws are blamed for traffic jams and accidents; they are even said to add pressure on civic amenities by encouraging rural migrations. The film makes a note of all this, but without any powerful visuals or interviews. The voice over assumes complete superiority here and Pedal Soldier of India is sadly overtaken by that tired clich of documentary making: form should play second fiddle to function.

The makers then turn to scholars to repudiate popular urban notions about the rickshaw. But the only good suggestion that emerges here is creating seperate lanes for rickshaws. That apart, we are left with only the verbose sentimentality of a few well-meaning people.

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